★★★★☆ four out of five stars
A literary science fiction novel by a professor of literature, Under the Sea will appeal to fans of literary SF, Jules Verne and Adam Roberts. Roberts has (mostly) refrained from his trademark puns although I kicked myself on page ___ when I realised I should have seen that pun looming large on the horizon for many chapters.
It’s post-World War 2; the French launch a prototype submarine into the Atlantic for a test run. A skeleton crew with a few additional extras – scientists to maintain the nuclear reactor and an observer – create unease as the normal chain of command rules are violated from the outset.
Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea describes a magical underwater world; Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea focuses far more on the internal world, the world inside the submarine. Roberts’s world – both the dynamics inside the submarine and outside – is interesting, cross-referencing numerous literary works in this extension of a classic science fiction novel.
Some points jarred, like how the captain defiantly – and without apparent justification – took the submarine 500 feet below the intended test depth on its first deep-sea dive. A lot of the crew developed cabin fever or some form of mental instability quite quickly although I would have thought an experienced crew used to working together would have held up better. Having said that, Under the Sea has sufficient conflict to keep the reader engaged. (If you think that comment seems pointed but you don’t know why, I suggest you read yesterday’s review.)
Adam Roberts’s novels are valuable sources for learning literary techniques and style. Roberts explores a range of sub-genres, anything from spoofs to serious science fiction writing, drawing on a wealth of classic and contemporary literature for his references; Under the Sea is another excellent example of his work. I confess I’m not a fan of the original Under the Sea by Jules Verne (I’m not generally a fan of capital ‘L’ Literature – where was Verne’s plot?!) but I read Roberts’s novel as a form of professional development, a masterclass in writing. I highly recommend Under the Sea for Literature readers, Jules Verne fans and writers developing their craft.
Note: Under the Sea is available in sexy hardcover; this doesn’t happen often enough in Oz.