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Personal Canons: Jules Verne

A Guest Feature by Anna Martino

In addition to my own reflections and guest posts from brilliant folks in the writing community, the Personal Canons series will also feature essays purchased from among the many dazzling submissions I received in response to my open call. Last time, Ty Schalter wrote about Ender’s Game. Today, I’m thrilled to feature Anna Martino.

Anna Martino is a writer and editor born in São Paulo (Brazil) in 1981. She runs Dame Blanche, a small press focused on Brazilian science fiction and fantasy. She has had works performed on Radio BBC World and published in SFF magazines in English and Portuguese. You can find her work at annamartino.com. She's also on Twitter as @annadixit.

Photo credit Giovanni Bello.

My 10th birthday, in January of 1991, was a special occasion for two very different reasons. There was a war going on in Iraq, and the adults at the party talked of little else. And my maternal grandmother — a Brazilian-Italian lady who had never been the warmest of women — gave me a collection of Jules Verne’s books as a present.

Those eleven hardcover books had once belonged to my mother. They were first published in Brazil in the early 1960s, with proper names translated into Portuguese (Conseil became Conselho and the Times of London became O Tempo) — but, other than that, they were completely unabridged.

These two facts moulded my life. I was curious about that strange, televised war — even moreso when my father explained there were rules to the battle. This led me, many years later, to a Master’s Degree in International Relations, focusing on conflict and news reception (namely, how do you know what you think you know about other countries?)

And then there was Captain Nemo.

Whenever someone talks about “The Great Canon of SFF”, I notice more of what’s not being said than what is. I’m Brazilian: my canon isn’t your canon. There’s the language barrier and the cultural perspective to consider. More’s the pity if you can’t read in Portuguese: you are missing out on fantastic stuff (but that’s a topic for another moment.)

Even when we’re talking about books published in English, there’s always that one name that somehow slips through the cracks. I understand Lois McMaster Bujold might not be to everyone’s tastes. But if we really need to talk about dead white writers in the canon, then where is Jules Verne on that list? Why aren’t we talking about Captain Nemo anymore?

At ten years old, I was more surprised with the fact the Nautilus had its own library than with the other aspects of the story. I knew what a submarine looked like, and that thing doesn’t have much room to spare for books. Verne didn’t have submarines in his day — lucky him, in a way: he could put a full-furnished library and a pearl collection in there and no one would be the wiser.

“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” has all the makings of a madcap adventure, and when you read the book as a child, you get mesmerised by the details: they can smoke on board! They make the paper and ink with sea-foraged materials! The giant squids! The underwater funeral!

Then you grow old, and you catch up with the actual storyline. Yes, there are giant squids and tropical islands, but there’s also Captain Nemo’s war against humankind, and humankind’s war against the Nautilus.

The appeal of Science Fiction to me wasn’t so much about the gadgets and the battles, but about the exploration of the limits between the known and the unknown, the possible and the improbable. Nemo and his crew are right in the middle of this frontier, exploring the oceans as one would explore a planet, and with the mother of all hidden agendas.

How many Nemos exist the world right now — the children and grandchildren of dispossessed kingdoms, looking for science and the seas not only as solace but revenge on the cruel world?

How many of them would you consider a friend or, perhaps, someone you’d admire?

It would be easy to paint Nemo as a villain or as a madman. He is obsessed enough to be both. But here’s what makes “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” so special to me: Pierre Aronnax, Nemo’s antagonist, and our guide in this underwater planet, doesn’t mock or belittles Nemo’s pain. They understand each other — and while they don’t see eye to eye on almost everything, they are both in awe with the world beneath the waves.

The sea has no tyrants, Nemo tells Aronnax — it belongs to all and to none. In a world like ours, where sea levels rise to alarming levels and pollution corrodes coral reefs and obliterate countless species, we’d do well to recall these characters’ passion for the oceans. It’s as important in 2020 as it was when I first read the book in 1991, and even more important than it was back in 1870, when Verne first published the story in France.

And if this doesn’t convince you to read it, nothing else will — not even the library, the pearl collection or the giant squid.

Strangely enough, I always associate Nemo with a character from a dystopia.

I read George Orwell’s Nineteen-Hundred Eighty-Four” on my last year at secondary school (in Brazil, that’s when you’re 16-17 years old), and it left a huge impression in me. Somehow, Captain Nemo and Winston Smith are the same in my mind — the “nowhere men”; the unseen, bitter product of the world around them, looking for solace in the unexplored corners of their worlds.

The object that unified these two characters for me is a piece of coral — encapsulated in glass in Winston’s case, a memory of times gone by. In Nemo’s case, the coral forest is his crew’s cemetery, the hope of eternal peace under the waves.

But while Winston learned to love Big Brother, Nemo had no love to spare but to the sea. Both their endings were inevitable, their coral dreams shattered by forces stronger than they could bear. But for a moment, there had been peace: there had been Julia for Winston, and there had been the silence of the living waters for Nemo.

It’s this moment of peace between/before the battle that I try to put into words when I write. This is what I look for when I read SFF. This I owe to Jules Verne — writer, poet, playwright, keen yachter, and a man that deserves more respect from the English-speaking world.

Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans.

Imagine a world that can be better than this one. Do everything you can. Go to protests and stand up for change. Sign petitions, as many as you can. Text, call, and email demanding justice — there are templates at that link. Donate money, and if you don’t have money, click here to donate just by watching a video playlist, or click here to donate by playing a game. Subscribe to Fiyah, a brilliant speculative fiction magazine that features stories by and about Black people of the African diaspora. Register to vote (double-check to be sure you haven’t been purged from any voter rolls) (seriously, check again).

Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.