I ran out of reading material last week when facing a 8+ hours on the plane — LHR->DAA, DAA->JFK — so I ended up looking through the used book display in front of the British Film Institute on the South Bank. Ended up with a couple of sci-fi oldies. Arthur C. Clarke’s Dolphin Island was a fun & fast read laying out the ancient boys & dolphins love story. Some improbably Cold War allegory about dolphins & orcas agreeing to live in separate parts of the oceans. But the fun part for me was the scientist’s dream of a “History of the Sea” that dolphins would have handed down over generations orally. An old story of a UFO was at the heart of it — sci fi in the 60s, after all — but also a glimpse of something we’re still working on, “historicizing the ocean,” some people call it. Important stuff.
The other plane read was Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the title of which (I hadn’t remembered) refers to 20,000 leagues around the globe, measuring distance, not depth.
Very odd to remember that this book appeared less than two decades after Moby-Dick, to which Verne alludes early on, though Verne’s colorless harpooneers Ned Land makes a pale Queequeg indeed. Verne, too, wants Nemo’s device to help his professor write “the true book of the sea” & he gestures hopefully toward the oceanographic work of “the learned Maury” as a model. Nemo’s world-ocean is a fantasy about human potential, in which “the sea supplies all my wants” and oceanic life creates visionary possibilities. “The earth,” says Nemo, “does not want new continents, but new men.”
The end of chapter 17, “Four thousand leagues under the Pacific,” contains a gorgeous description of an underwater shipwreck that the Nautilus finds —
The keel seemed to be in good order, and it had been wrecked at most some few hours. Three stumps of masts, broken off about two feet above the bridge, showed that the vessel had had to sacrifice its masts. But, lying on its side, it had filled, and it was heeling over to port. The skeleton of what it had once been, was a sad spectacle as it lay lost under the waves, but sadder still was the sight of the bridge, where some corpses, bound with ropes, were still lying. I counted five: — four men, one of whom was standing at the helm, and a woman standing at the poop, holding an infant in her arms. She was quite young. I could distinguish her features, which the water had not decomposed, by the brilliant light from the Nautilus. In one despairing effort, she had raised her infant above her head, poor little thing! whose arms encircled its mother’s neck. The attitude of the four sailors was frightful, distorted as they were by their convulsive movements, whilst making a last effort to free themselves from the cords that bound them to the vessel. The steersman along, calm, with a grave, clear face, his grey hair glued to his forehead, and his hand clutching the wheel of the helm, seemed even then to be guiding the three broken masts through the depths of the ocean.
Good 19c sentimentality.