Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

twenty trillion leagues under the seaMostly brilliant…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine’s design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

twenty trillion leagues 2

This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I’ve read in a long time, it’s a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I’m sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it’s something more than a pastiche.

twenty trillion leagues 1

And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other’s throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there’s a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur’s new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There’s much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter – not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts

I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn’t feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia’s pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne’s world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the ’50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn’t as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to trying some of Roberts’ other books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

56 thoughts on “Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

  1. Oh, this does sound fabulous, FictionFan! I really like the post-war subtext too; it adds tension to the novel, and I think it’s pretty realistic. And interesting that Roberts pays homage to Verne, among other things. A nice twist on the story!


    • There was lots in there about the cold war and communism as well as all the science and philosphy stuff – it was clever without taking itself too seriously – good fun!


  2. I really feel disappointed when a great book ends with a whimper. I’m editing a book like that. It is top notch and shortly before the end it sounded a sour note. Hoping we can rectify that in the editing.


    • Yes, I’m never sure why these things don’t get picked up in the editing process. But it didn’t spoil this one – just that the ending was slightly less good than the rest.


  3. This does sound rather marvellous and your review is most enticing… but I simply can’t add another one to my pile! Edgar Wallace must come first, oh yes. But I have made a note in my little book and it will go on my birthday list (yes, I still make birthday lists, despite my advancing years…)


    • I hadn’t either – I just picked it on the basis of the title and the cover, so sometimes the random choices work out better than the ones I’ve researched before reading!


    • I’m not sure in this case. I think he thought he was being very clever – and maybe he was, maybe it was all a reference to something that went over my head – but the tone changed from all action to kind of slow, and then ended ambiguously, which seems to be an increasing trend at the moment, and one I’m not sure works very well…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, the ambiguous ending. They can feel very unsatisfying. Some say this is done to allow the reader to finish the story for themselves. Sometimes, I think it’s done because the author can’t quite decide how to end the story.


        • It works occasionally, but in general I don’t want to make up my own ending – it reminds me it’s not real. It’s one of the reasons I have a problem with Great Expectations – knowing that Dickens wrote two endings means I don’t believe either of them. I want to be told definitively what happened…usually.

          Liked by 1 person

          • There’s a picture book written and illustrated by Jon Klassen, called This Is Not My Hat. In the story, the reader sees a little fish swimming along, wearing a tiny hat. We find out that the little fish has stolen it from a big fish while the big fish was asleep. The little fish goes through a series of rationalizations about why it’s OK for him to steal the hat and how he’s not going to get caught. His last words are “And no one will ever find me.” He hides in a bed of tall seaweed so dense the reader can’t see into it. The big fish is hot on the trail of the little one and disappears into the seaweed forest. Then there’s a two-page spread where all we see is seaweed. The next two spreads first show the tail of the big fish leaving the seaweed forest, the second shows him wearing his tiny hat. That’s it. My son asked me if the big fish ate the little one. I told him it was a mystery. How do you interpret what happened? 😀


            • Haha! Oh dear! That would traumatise me as much as Stormy’s mother being taken away! (I did tell you about that one, didn’t I?) Poor little fish – I fear my interpreattion would be the same as your son’s. Sometimes I reckon these picture books are a plot by psychiatrists to ensure a constant supply of patients in later years…

              Liked by 1 person

            • I’m sure that any child who’s stolen anything—a cookie, for example—and then reads that book will start to look over his/her shoulder. Now about Stormy….it sounds like you’ve never fully recovered.


            • Yes, well, I know you Americans take a harder line on crime and punishment than we do – but you don’t think that beign eaten for petty theft might be taking things a little far?!? And as for Stormy – *breaks down and sobs* – I don’t think I’ll ever really get over it…

              Liked by 1 person

  4. So…do they actually descend twenty trillion leagues or is that just the distance covered on the journey? (Jules–the old brute–confused me with that in his book, I fear.)

    Well, see, it’s an interest: all the different sorts of life they would run into. I’m kinda bummed, though, that you thought it ended weakly. Do they all die? Don’t worry, spoilers are fine.

    I think he’s at a party, and had a bit much to drink.


    • Well, that’s one of the references he makes – that the title of the original doesn’t mean what everybody thinks it means. And I got that one because I’d read your rip! You should be very proud!

      I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about this one, because I’ve decided you’re going to read it. Will you just agree or shall I have to use my womanly wiles on you? *gets out the mascara and false eyelashes*

      *laughs (but not in a chuckly way)* I suspect he may have written some parts of the book when he’d just got home from a party…


      • *laughs and fist thingy* Awesome! Yeah, that had me fooled for so long, it did. That rip was centuries ago…

        I was just going to ask if you were going to put it on my list! *sigh of relief* Glad you’re a woman again, too, I must admit. Umm…I’ll wait for your womanly wiles!

        Haha! Now that was a very subtle rip, I noted.


        • Yeah, but your book rips seem to stick in my mind! *phones therapist*

          I’m glad you’re glad! *sits at the Professor’s feet and looks up admiringly* You see, I don’t have anyone to talk about this book to – well, not anyone whose opinion I respect… *flutters eyelashes*

          Oh dear! You know what happened next, don’t you…? *dies*


          • Even the P&P one?

            At my feet? *joins FEF on the floor* I always liked the floor better anyway. *laughing* Why is that so close to working? This is alarming. And I pride myself on being tough.

            Not at all. What?


            • That one most of all! *growls*

              Only close? Hmm! Well…but… if you read it, I shall promise not to get cranky for a whole week… and I won’t post a single picture of Darby the whole time you’re reading! (So long as it doesn’t take as long as BH…)

              He came in and tweeted the review. I called the last one yummy and this one drunk… please shoot me! It’s all your fault too!!


            • And to think I forget what I said! I must go and reread it! *laughs happily* Maybe I’ll rip BH!

              Oh yes. See, I’m quite protected against all that sort of thing. I learned that at Troy. I learned a lot at Troy, now that I think on it. No Darby! That’s tempting…well, how long is it? Yes, that’s a good question.

              *laughing lots and lots and lots* You’re too much fun, FEF. It’s really just hilarious.


            • Yes! Do!!! ‘Cos that would mean you’d have to read it first! *chuckles wickedly but girlishly*

              I’m sorry but I don’t believe you’re heartless – I reckon underneath that scarily warriorlike exterior you’re a big soppy softie… *listens to Chopin again and nods* The only way to prove you’re still like Hector would be to read a real adventure story. I know! You could read Twenty Trillion Leagues… it’s about the same length as Dune Messiah…

              It’s NOT FUNNY!!!! *goes off and hides down a wormhole*


            • Would you read my rip? *questioning professorish eye*

              Yes, but I must have MPD, then. I don’t know that chap who plays Chopin. *holds ears* *laughing* Well, you’d have to read something in return, you know. New TBR: 140!

              Can’t you just blame me?


            • I certainly would! Then I might poke you in your questioning professorish eye, of course, but you wouldn’t mind a little thing like that…

              I think you must! But in your case(s) it seems to be working out quite well – except for the philandering one of you! Well… that doesn’t seem altogether fair, you know, you know – I think you’re still ahead! And it would be 141 – DD added one yesterday… *sobs tragically but knows the Professor is laughing*

              I do!!! Because it is all your fault!!! But it’s always me who gets caught…


            • *laughing* I might have to rip Dune Messiah, I fear. Would that be okay? No poking!

              I just killed the philandering one. *laughs* 141…I know it’s not your record, but still…it’s impressive. Well…my list is huge too, the sudden.

              That why it’s so hilarious! Tell you what…just tweet them back and tell them I made you do it.


            • Oooh, yes, you definitely should! I reckon it’d be brilliantly rippable!

              Aww! I’d kinda miss him! What will you do with his beautiful pants now? How many are on your list? *suspects it’s two*

              I might do that!! *flounces off*


            • So glad you agree! Well, then. Time to get the proverbial katana out, you know.

              Well…you miss him?! I think you just want to create controversy, madam! Well…the sudden, maybe just one?


            • You better not chop poor Irulan to pieces… *look of dread*

              But it’s so fun to watch the poor Professor trying to deal with girls… *chuckles wickedly*

              One?!? ONE!!! Oh dear, we’ll have to do something about that! Let’s see – the next John Carter, the next Dune, Twenty Trillion Leagues (I’ve put it back on despite your nefarious attempt to get out of it) A Tale of Two Cities… that should get you started while I compile the rest of the list…


            • Oh, she’ll have to get it. See, she’s guilty of having something happen that she didn’t really want to happen. That’s rippable.

              Is it?! They just try and torture me. I’m not sure why.

              *laughing* Well, that’s three. But I should watch, otherwise, you’ll have my list up to 141!


            • Huh! She’s not as guilty as Paul! Rip away then – I am sharpening my peashooter in readiness to respond!!

              *laughs* Probably ‘cos it’s so much fun…

              *nods* That’s the plan! (4, by the way.) I’ll be reading another one soon that I’m hoping will be good enough to go on your list…


            • I agree! Paul made me very cranky. Do you suppose she would’ve been nice if he’d agreed to…trying to give her an heir? (Not to mention she poisoned Chani! And caused her death–now that I’m thinking on it!!!!!!!!!)

              I just growl at them sometimes.

              Oh dear. I do have a lot of nonfiction on my list, you should know!


            • I do! I think at the end of Dune she genuinely wanted to marry him and… er… mix their bloodlines. It was his cruelty that made her turn to the conspiracy. (She didn’t mean to! Chani was kind of mean to her too. They all were, poor girl!)

              Ahh… the bad news is they probably find that irresistiby fluffy… *hopes the Professor growls*

              On your list of one? *raises quizzical eyebrow*


            • Well, remember, though, Chani at one point told Paul to have a child with Irulan. I think Paul should’ve never married her. Now you have me wondering what happens to Irulan…

              No…I’m holding my ears the sudden. Look! The sun!

              *laughing* Well…I suppose I have four on my fiction list so far…’cause of you!


            • And Chani was right! I really can’t remember at all… I’m beginning to think I maybe only read the first one, ‘cos even Messiah seemd completely unfamiliar to me. I hope she turns out to be a goodie though…

              I looked – but I couldn’t see through the rain… *growls*

              I’m glad you said ‘so far’…


            • You better hope so, since you likened her to you! Chani was not right neither! They’re all wrong. That’s my final assessment.

              *laughing* It’s been cloudy here too! No complaining.

              *sticks tongue out*


  5. I love a book with illustrations, especially an adventure book. Congrats to Adam for a mostly brilliant book. But how sad about the ending. Perhaps the ending is to usher in a sequel?


    • So do I, and I’m really glad it seems to have come back into fashion! It really enhances the story when done well, and seeing an illustration years later can bring a story rushing back. There could be a sequel but if there is, it’d have to be a different kind of story I think (she said mysteriously, trying to avoid spoilers… 😉 ) But I wouldn’t be put off by the ending – it was only weak in comparison to the strength of the rest.


  6. Will undoubtedly resist this, probably my loss, but I think I did try a previous book by him some years ago, pushed by a Marxist reviewer who was firmly into SF, and if it’s the same person I found it a bit indigestible. However your review seems to suggest, if it is, he’s had a sense of humour implant! I love those illustrations though, especially the first one.


    • Unless of course he wasn’t trying to be funny… 😉

      I got the impression from the few other reviews of this on Amazon that it might be a bit different from his previous books. The humour really came in the references to other stuff – it was fun seeing how he used them but changed them enough so that it didn’t feel unoriginal. But I wouldn’t think this one would really be your cuppa…


  7. Great review. I’ll add this to my long list – I love Verne and good pastiches, so I’ll probably enjoy this.


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