Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014) by Adam Roberts – Pincher Verne
Everyone who pays attention to science fiction should by now have received the cheat codes for Adam Roberts: An academic critic and satirist as well as a more traditional (albeit rarely conventional) author, Roberts writes novels that interrogate literary history by pulling apart classic works of science fiction and reassembling them in ways that highlight themes and connections that have heretofore been overlooked. Most evident in novels such as Swiftly and Splinter, Roberts’ methods have grown increasingly subtle and sophisticated with each passing book allowing him to explore the links between the Singularity and Renaissance ideas about collectivism (New Model Army) as well as the bourgeois cosiness shared by works from the Golden Ages of both Science and Detective Fiction (Jack Glass).
While all of Adam Roberts’ novels are perfectly accessible to people who are not familiar with the history of science fiction, there is no denying that you need to ‘get the joke’ in order to get the most out of his work. These accessibility issues might explain why it took until Jack Glass for the science fiction community to recognise Roberts’ talent with both a BSFA and a Campbell Award: These days not many genre people bother to read Swift, Verne and Rabelais but most of them will be at least passingly familiar with cosy crime fiction and golden age SF. The field’s lack of familiarity with the work of Jules Verne also accounts for Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea receiving considerably less attention than is normal for an Adam Roberts novel. This is a real shame as while Roberts’ latest does see him returning to Jules Verne for the first time since Splinter, Roberts is a very different writer to the one he was in 2007 and he is now looking at a very different Jules Verne.
The novel concerns itself with the maiden voyage of the French submarine Plongeur. Captained by a French war hero but built by a team of Indian scientists funded by a shadowy banking cartel, Plongeur comes equipped with a miniature nuclear pile and a revolutionary hull design that should, in principle, allow it to dive considerably deeper than your typical military submarine. The plot of the novel emerges from the fact that once Plongeur disappears beneath the cold dark waves of the Atlantic ocean, it never stops descending: Deeper than its designers predicted; deeper than the laws of physics can explain; deeper than reason and sanity could possibly countenance.
The early chapters of the novel function as something of a huis clos thriller with the submarine’s imminent destruction serving to expose the various tensions existing both between the different crewmembers and within individual characters. However, the deeper the submarine goes and the more surreal the reality of the crew’s situation becomes, the less these motivations and secrets seem to matter. Plongeur sinks into an aquatic world where neither politics nor engineering can save you. Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea begins with the assumption that the characters are all dead and then gets progressively weirder and more personal from there on in but while the characters’ ceaseless attempts to make sense of this strange new world is quite obviously science-fictional, the contours of the world they are trying to bring to epistemological heel is not… or at least not fashionably so.
Most observers of genre literature agree that contemporary science fiction is sorely lacking in diversity. Though these kinds of critique seldom delve any deeper than the demographics of awards shortlists and anthologies, the underlying principle is that a more diverse community of professional authors means that that genre literature would be inspired by a broader range of life experiences and this greater diversity of viewpoints should then translate into a wider variety of books getting published. Setting aside the question of whether this principle has any basis in reality, there is no denying that certain approaches to the stuff of science fiction are a good deal more common than others. One of the most enduringly popular approaches to science fiction is that of so-called Hard SF and its heavily politicised assumption that the universe is a vast and terrible place in which the joy and suffering of human beings matter no more and no less than the fate of an individual grain of sand. Great works undoubtedly flow from this simple assumption but the rugged materialism of the scientific worldview has never been the only game in town. Even if we consider science fiction to be the sole product of middle-class white men, there is still diversity of viewpoint and that diversity was present even at the birth of science fiction, which is one of many reasons why Adam Roberts’ frequent returns to source have so much value.
Jules Verne is one of several people who can credibly be described as the inventor of science fiction. However, despite having written over sixty novels and helped lay the foundations of the commercial genre that science fiction would eventually become, Verne is now remembered chiefly through the cinematic adaptations of his work: Georges Melies shooting the Man-in-the-Moon with a cannon, James Mason electrocuting a rubber squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the same James Mason grinding his teeth through the musical numbers that were shoe-horned into Journey to the Center of the Earth for the sake of his co-star Pat Boone. Aside from reducing a long and varied literary career down to a series of (admittedly memorable) images, these films have also made it easy to present Verne as a 19th century scientific materialist who happened to have been born in the wrong century. In truth, Jules Gabriel Verne was a complex individual whose work shows the scars of trying to reconcile an interest in physical science with the Catholic worldview he inherited as a 19th Century French bourgeois.
Having been raised Catholic, Verne did not immediately take to scientific ideas about humanity’s place in the cosmos. In fact, despite the novel’s geological focus, early editions of Voyage to the Centre of the Earth completely ignored the question of human origins and later editions of the book only acknowledged the human fossil record and the discovery of primitive tools as an excuse for Verne to raise the possibility that they might have been the remains of some heretofore undiscovered species whose fate ran parallel to the story of humanity’s creation as outlined in the book of Genesis. Though critics agree that Verne’s Catholicism faded as he got older, even later novels such as The Begum’s Millions and Master of the World feature a benign providence that intercedes at just the right moment to block the ascent of a tyrannical scientific materialist. This is not to say that Verne was in any way anti-science but rather that his opinions were formed by a collision between scientific materialism and modes of thought that are more common in explicitly religious worldviews. Verne makes this dichotomy quite explicit in Voyage to the Centre of the Earth where the scientific discourse of Professor Lidenbrock sits comfortably on the page alongside the poetic fantasias of his nephew Axel.
Roberts addresses these two approaches to science fiction in his aptly named critical history The History of Science Fiction:
This anxiety – that the new cosmology undermines traditional Christian revelation – has never entirely left SF. In various ways, […] the tension between ‘humanist’ or ‘Protestant’ perspectives (which veer towards materialism and the unmediated individual exploration of the cosmos) and ‘sacramental’ or ‘Catholic’ perspectives (which stress a spiritual, transcendental, divinely mediated and fundamentally magical universe) intimately shapes the development of the genre.
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is all about the tension between these two approaches to science fiction and how science fiction’s transcendental instincts can be reconciled with its insistence that the universe surrender its secrets to every scientifically-minded Competent Man who happens to cross its path. The difference between this work and many of Roberts recent novels is that while he uses a literary mash-up to grapple with secular notions of transcendence, one of the novels he draws upon is not what you would think of as genre.
Though named and marketed for its relation to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Roberts’ novel feels as much like a response to William Golding’s Pincher Martin as it does to the work of Jules Verne. Like all of Golding’s best known works, Pincher Martin features an individual struggling to survive in the face of an implacable and savage nature; Everything the main character does makes matters worse and for every inch that bestial nature gains, something about the protagonist is forever lost. The character in question is a deeply selfish man who survived the destruction of his battleship only to wind up marooned on a tiny rocky island. After desperately calling for help and realising that he is the only one of his crewmates to survive the attack, Martin begins a battle against nature that gets more and more surreal as the novel progresses. The novel reaches its climax when, having walked round and round the island and found it strangely familiar, Martin realises that the coastline of the island is identical to the outline of his tooth as he passes his tongue over and around it. Thus, rather than a simple story of man’s struggle to survive in an inhospitable and savage world, Pincher Martin is actually a novel about the extent to which a savage inner nature is likely to create a savage outer world. Humans are not passive creatures who experience the world on its own terms; they are creatures that project their internal concerns and neuroses out onto the world in an effort to bring it to epistemological heel. This act of projection colours our experience of the world, shapes our reactions and thereby has a tangible impact upon the reality of the world as we experience it; Live by the sword, die by the sword. Assume that everyone is a ruthless bastard waiting to screw you over and see how long it is before your own cynicism and selfishness force people to turn against you.
The world of Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea draws on the same psychic stage dressing as Pincher Martin. Just as Golding infuses a rocky islet with the language of redemption and damnation, Roberts transforms a stricken submarine and a vast inhuman ocean into a psychic theatre in which strange figures weigh the merits of individual lives using codes and frameworks that are both intensely alien and strangely familiar. Roberts addresses the link between inner mind and outer reality in the book’s magnificently opaque and poetic epilogue:
That the mind is in the world at the same time as the world is inside the mind. This is the nature of infinite geometries, and these are the geometries with which we must deal. […] Thought and matter are each inside each other, and each flows without and within, and the principle of flow is the ocean.
Strip the decades of rationalisation away from any religion and what you are left with is a fundamental belief that the universe runs on human values and that the things that matter to us must also matter to the world. Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea forges a link between transcendental ‘catholic’ SF and crypto-fantastical psychodramas like Pincher Martin on the grounds that both forms of writing are attempts to brew a spiritual understanding of the world using nothing but secular and materialistic ingredients: For Golding, the afterlife was a strangely personal hallucination that emerged naturally from out own minds whereas transcendental science fiction writers like Jules Verne, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke and even Connie Willis present transcendence and even benign providence as simple laws of nature. The ambiguity that Roberts creates surrounding whether the events of the novel are taking place in the world or inside someone’s head suggests that these two ostensibly different and historically separate approaches to the transcendent are in fact one and the same.
Unfortunately, for all of Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea’s vaulting ambition and intellectual nuance, it is a novel with two noticeable flaws:
The first problem regards the book’s pacing. Usually, when critics talk about pacing they are talking about the speed at which the narrative is presented to the audience. A briskly paced work will move from beat to beat with as little extraneous information as possible whereas a more contemplative piece might cover virtually no ground at all as the emphasis is not on the plot but on characters and themes that require a little more breathing room for audiences to catch on. Given that Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is a novel more interested in theme than narrative, talk of its ‘pacing’ shouldn’t refer to the procession of the plot but to the rate at which the book introduces new ideas before moving on to the next one. It is at this thematic level that the novel runs into trouble.
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is a meditation on the theme of transcendence and how secular and materialistic understandings of the universe might in fact be compatible with a more transcendent sensibility. In order to pursue this theme, Roberts draws a veil of ambiguity over what it is that the novel is actually describing: Are we reading about a literal journey through space? Are we reading the last thoughts of a dying man? Are we reading about the crew of an experimental submarine passing into the afterlife? Is it all of these things at once? Is it none of them? The novel provides no answers and therein lies its point, its power and the source of its primary problem.
The novel begins by using a mystery-style narrative to draw the reader in and move them from one set of ideas to another as various crewmembers try in vain to make sense of what is happening to their submarine. Initially, this narrative structure works quite nicely as Roberts teases the reader with plausible solutions before dancing back out of reach and promising to deliver the goods in the next chapter. This is how mysteries are supposed to work: the readers’ need to make sense of what is happening on the page holds their attention and drags them onwards through the book.
Rather than allowing the level of weirdness and ambiguity to creep slowly upwards towards a surreal and discomforting climax, Roberts introduces so much weirdness in the opening half of the novel that it completely overwhelms the narrative engine. Swamped by possibility, the reader abandons all thought of a plausible solution and adopts a more passive relationship to the novel in which the book’s dream-like logic drags them from one elegantly baffling set-piece to another. With no narrative engine to provide a sense of urgency or purpose, the book’s second half feels rather like a psychedelic version of The Generation Game in which the reader is positioned before a conveyor belt of transcendental weirdness and invited to shout out ‘Grim Spectre of Death’, ‘Alien Deity’, or ‘Cuddly Toy’ with a vague sense of metaphysical unease as their only prize. This is not to say that the alien deities and cuddly toys are anything less than brilliantly rendered but keeping the mystery alive or finding something to replace it would have given the second half of Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea a good deal more focus, energy and impact.
The second problem lies with the decision to include illustrations. Though almost unheard of in contemporary genre publishing, illustrations were central to the popularity of Verne’s work. Indeed, all of Verne’s books were accompanied by illustrations designed to help readers to visualise the oddities described in the text. While the tradition of accompanying artwork may live on in today’s book covers and maps, contemporary readers are used to using their own imaginations to visualise whatever it is that the text happens to be describing. In truth, this is something of a win-win situation as publishers no longer need to pay for internal artwork and readers are left free to visualise the contents of the book without the limitations imposed by canonical representation.
The problem is not with Mahendra Singh’s (attractive and appropriate) artwork per se but with the decision to include it in the first place. Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is a book about how people visualise the transcendent in different ways that may or may not originate in the same set of phenomena. Singh’s interpretations of Roberts’ text guide the readers’ imaginations in the same way as the likes of Jules Ferat and Edouard Riou guided the imaginations of anyone who happened to read Jules Verne. The difficulty lies in the fact that whereas Verne wanted to imbue his speculations with a hint of scientific authority, Roberts’ work relies upon a far more nuanced relationship with the material world, a relationship that is undermined by the presence of illustrations ‘helping’ us to make sense of things that are supposed to be ambiguous and mysterious.
These caveats aside, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea remains an ambitious and powerful piece of writing that tries to rekindle science fiction’s long-atrophied relationship with what might be referred to as the divine. Neither explicitly transcendent nor conventionally materialistic, the book navigates the ambiguous by-ways of literary spirituality and dares to suggest that literary attempts to ground the transcendent in human psychology might be similar to science fiction’s attempts to account for the spiritual in physical terms. Rarely have the roots and mechanics of Sensawunda been more thoroughly explored.