Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea by Adam Roberts

Although titled as an obvious reference to Jules Verne, in reality the genes of this book are pure Lovecraft (specifically: At the Mountains of Madness). Mysticism, religion, aliens(?), horror, madness – it’s all here within a really bizarre setting: France, post World War II, inside a nuclear submarine with a bunch of Frenchman and 2 Indians. A more suitable title would have been “Under The Oceans of Madness” and clearly referenced Lovecraft. Because the ‘homage’ here is more about making fun of Verne than in taking the spirit of the Tweenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea story and creating a new interpretation. It was frustrating to read; by the end it felt like the author was trying too hard to create a classic 1950s horror sci fi with big Ideas (with a capitol “I”). I guess, in a word, it felt pretentious.
16281371Story: The Plonguer is a submarine on a test run; the first ‘nuclear-pile’ driven engine developed by the French, financed by the Swiss, and engineered by the Indians. When three systems fail simultaneously, the skeleton test crew find themselves in a free-fall to the ocean’s bottom, somewhere off the continental shelf outside of France. But the vessel doesn’t implode – and as they continue to inexplicably drop, the uncertainty resulting from an endless wait for death will take its toll on the crew, each acting out the stress in unpredictable ways. Cue dimensional beings, metaphysical meanderings, and yeah, a lot of madness.There were many problems with this book for me. Most especially, is why Verne was used when there is no Verne in here other than using a submarine (would you label Das Boot as a Verne homage because it is in a Uboat?). The lack of understanding of Verne is most evident in the title: leagues are a *distance* not a depth and this story is about falling/sinking. Verne recounted a voyage across the ocean, not how far the Nautilus went down under the ocean. An accurate title here then would be 20 Leagues Under The Sea because that’s how far the Plongeur travels before sinking fast and forever. It begs the question: how can a book that is supposed to be so big on ideas, labeled so clearly as an homage to Verne, miss something as obvious as leagues referring only to how far the Nautilus traveled across the ocean – not how far under it went? But that should also give you an idea of what this book isn’t: it’s not an exploration story with fantastical settings as with Verne. It doesn’t even use Verne’s tale as a base. It’s just a story of a long boring drop that drives the crew insane and completely misses the Victorian adventure point of Verne’s story. Adding to the author’s mystifying choices was the setting of a nuclear submarine in the 1950s but have the crew look and talk like Victorians. Again, where is the homage and what is the point?

But then there is the writing – it was enough to make my eyes bleed. Take this painful sentence from the book as an example:

“The sun is part of a galaxy that surrounds a central black hole; and that black hole has broke the hymen of space-time itself and folded out, a point that is an infinite space in which the galaxy itself is nested. Thought and matter are each inside each other, and each flows without and within, and the principle of flow is the ocean.”

Hymen:??? Really?? And what comes after that? A transition from metaphysical prattle to religious metaphors, of course:

“You are dipped in this water, and it is with this water that you are baptized. Streaming, your head surfaces, like the head of somebody breaking the surface of an ocean of words.”

In case you didn’t get the reference enough, there is an accompanying ‘wood block’ type of image where a phallic shaped human ‘breaks’ the hymen of the ocean into a metaphysical space. The mind boggles (ok, no, not really, rather, the mind gives a virtual groan without breaking any hymens).

Jules Verne wrote wonderful arm-chair adventures, not mind numbing observations on the frailty of the human condition when it encounters the unknown. As well, the ‘steampunk’ joie de vivre of Verne’s Victorian world is summarily jettisoned for late 1950s post war racim and stiffness. For a book so earnestly attempting the exploration of humanity, there is not one real person in the whole book. You’ll find the most unrealistic dialogue (perhaps meant to sound clever but instead hitting false note after false note) coupled with even more unrealistic situations. In this, we again see the Lovecraftian influence and I am at a loss to see why we need a hybrid of At the Mountains of Madness with Jules Verne’s Nautilus.

Another odd choice are the dig at society and the source material (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Even in the first few pages, the characters are commenting on the stupidity of having a large viewing window in a submarine and how it would make the vessel susceptible to implosion (yes, Verne, you were an idiot for not knowing that, you backwards Victorian!). I have to wonder if the author thought he was being clever with the digs and puns? They felt out of place in a book purported to be an homage, with big Ideas, and a lot of mystical nothings. It also felt indulgent – needing and editor to reel the ego back in.

There are illustrations of a ‘wood block cutting’ type of nature. Black and white and both sparse yet detailed. They were as cold and stiff as the story, further ruthlessly removing all romance and fantastical and again steering more toward the horror/thriller aspects. I didn’t feel they added anything to the story at all.

So yes, this was a disappointment and I spent most of my reading time trying *really* hard to stop rolling my eyes. I’ll pass this along to my neighbor, who has a tween son with a Cthulu poster in his room. Maybe he’ll get it.

Reviewed from a copy provided by the publisher.

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