Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea (book, Adam Roberts, 2013)


Four and a half stars

Author: Adam Roberts

Publisher: Gollancz


Un voyage extraordinaire

This is not the first time Adam Roberts has referenced Verne in his novels – one of his earlier books, Splinter, was inspired by Verne’s Off On A Comet.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea follows Verne’s… we’re sure you don’t need us to supply you with the title, and is a similarly sous marine adventure. As Verne, Roberts has his characters experience a series of adventures in a strange place, which prove demonstrative of the nature of said place. But whereas Verne was his era’s “hard SF” writer (and the very first!), extrapolating from the cutting edge of mid-19th century knowledge, Roberts’ homage, although employing the language of science, is wildly speculative stuff. More “voyage fantastique” than “voyage extraordinaire”.

The story goes thusly: the submarine Plongeur sets sail from France in 1958 to test a revolutionary atomic engine (at least, so the crew believe). Something goes amiss, and Plongeur plunges deep under the ocean. The vessel is about to be crushed, but the water’s pressure suddenly abates. The ship, however, continues to sink. Unnerved, the crew succumbs to mayhem, while the journey gets weirder. The sailors discover they are making their way through a universe where the cosmic medium is water…

Roberts has a sideline in humorous writing. Even in his most “serious” SFnal work this comes through, but this novel in particular wears a big grin on its face, being packed with sly jokes, puns and farcical moments. For example, the captain of the Plongeur is called Cloche. Cloche means (among other things) bell. As in English, this word is included in “diving bell” (cloche de plongée). Clocher also roughly means “to be wrong”, and he is Captain Wrong – a splenetic blend of Captain Haddock and Captain Bligh.

The Plongeur is another good example of the book’s playfulness. The real Plongeur was the world’s first mechanically motivated submarine, built in France in 1863, and the inspiration for the Nautilus. The original Plongeur was powered by compressed air. Air is a theme in the book – how it behaves in the strange realm the sailors find themselves in offers clues to what is occurring. In a neat reversal, Roberts’ Plongeur’s atomic engine does not require air, but creates it. Likewise Roberts’ description of the “waterverse” is engrossing. Trillion has a lot of entertainingly weird physics, another Robertsian speciality.

Philosophically, for we get that too, 20 Trillion Leagues is concerned with the ontological argument of imagination as a physically creative force. Or one reflective of unseen creations. Or both simultaneously.

All this goes together rather well, with Trillion successfully negotiating humour, speculative SF and suspense. The story peters out at the end somewhat unsatisfactorily, but we’ve been thoroughly entertained when it does. In an unusual move, the book is illustrated with black and white, lithograph-style pictures by Mahendra Singh. These don’t add a great deal to the novel, but are a nice touch, their heavy black lines rich with a sort of Lovecraftian menace entirely appropriate to the story.

Several of Roberts’ books focus overly much on unworthiness – in matters of love and, more fundamentally, as a human being. A lot of the characters here are bastards, but none of them agonise about it. In some respects, it makes for a more engrossing read, while as usual the facility Roberts has with English is astonishing. He blends the best of modern and older styles. His prose is never less than a delight, and one of the principle pleasures of a Roberts’ novel.

There’s been a lot of comparison here of Roberts with Roberts, and in truth that’s because there is no one else writing material quite like this. He’s unique. Surely that’s recommendation enough. Guy Haley

Did you know?

This was Roberts’ 14th Novel in 14 years. That’s productive before you factor in his parodies, works of criticism and shorter fiction.