Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts is first and foremost an obvious nod to the Jules Verne classic of a similar name. While this book presents itself as homage to Verne and his classic tale, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea comes across as a book that cannot stop agonising about various existential crises. I've loved other books by Adam Roberts but, aside from a few moments of brilliance, this book is just not for me.
The story follows the crew of the French submarine Plongeur, whose lives become imperiled after the submarine dives past the Continental Shelf and continues beyond depths that any submarine has reached before. They keep on diving, and diving, beyond the limits of the ocean floor, to depths greater than the diameter of the Earth. What the crew finds in the depths of this multidimensional ocean will push them to their breaking point.
I am not a student of the classics. I have read many classics, including Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, but I have not studied the text, and have not poured over every line and pondered about every theme. Adam Roberts has, and his story is imbued by his understanding of the fundamental aspects that make up Verne's classic tale. At least that is what I have been told. My superficial understanding of Verne was that his books were adventure stories designed primarily to entertain but with many layers and themes exploring the nature of existence should you want to complete a deeper study. Roberts' story is primarily a book about the nature of existence, of trying to know the true nature of things; with some exploration should you want to have some entertainment along the way. And boy did I need some entertainment, because some of the philosophising that takes place in this book is rather dense, or at least made me feel dense for not picking up on what Roberts was trying to say.
After making my way through the first half of this book, it started to become apparent that Roberts was establishing a horror story very akin to Lovecraft. Strange beasties populate a strange viscous ocean. As the Plongeur descends further into the depths, the crew descend further into madness. Large burning underwater stars suddenly move as if they are the eyes of a colossal beast. This made for the best storytelling in the book, but unfortunately, it was all for nothing, unraveled as Roberts started to explain it all away as only a hard sci-fi writer can do. It's a shame, because while I've always admired Roberts for his "big-idea" approach to sci-fi, he demonstrated for at least a quarter of this book that he can really pack a punch in the horror space.
There's not much else for me to say in reviewing this story. It was well written, had some great moments, and it is clearly a book designed to be studied in detail. The problem for me is that I don't have the prerequisite knowledge to properly study this book. It requires an appreciation of Verne, politics, and existentialism that I just don’t have nor care to acquire. I think the audience for this book is small, it was written for a select group of people, and while I can appreciate what Roberts was trying to do, I just don't know what he was trying to say.
Review by Ryan Lawler
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