Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius, by Kevin J. Anderson
Published by Titan Books, September 2011 (Originally in the US, 2002)
Review by Mark Yon
Titan Books are re-releasing this book, which takes both Jules Verne, the writer, and his fictional character Andre Nemo (of 20 000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, amongst others) and mixes them up.
In this novel Andre Nemo, friend of the young Jules, is a real person, although one which Jules used in his writing. The key conceit here is that the adventures that Nemo has forms the basis for Jules’ prodigious writing later in life.
We begin the tale with both boys attempting to stowaway to sea. Unfortunately Jules is caught by his father and made to return home. Andre does escape and before long he is doing all the things that have become famous in Verne’s writing. He is set upon by pirates, shipwrecked, takes revenge, has to face dinosaurs, travels into the Earth, balloons across Africa, discovers Timbuktu, and ends up in the British cavalry fighting the Russians. Whilst doing this, Nemo also encounters a number of key historical people and is involved in a number of key events (such as the Charge of the Light Brigade) before returning home to France. Jules, still in France and pining after Caroline Arronax, eventually turns these real life tales of his friend into his popular novels.
This is a solidly written piece of entertainment. At times the info-dump exposition can be a little unsubtle, along the lines of ‘Character X thought of how the plants had adapted, based on Darwin’s Theory of The Origin of Species, written in 1838 as Darwin was sailing in the Galapagos Islands on the good ship SS Beagle with its crew of ….’, though this is not as bad as it could be. The characterisation is as you would expect, the prose determinedly straightforward, the tale told with barely a pause for breath before diving into the next exciting exploit. This, of course, gives the reader little time to think about the implausibility of one man appearing, Zelig-like, at all of these key historical events.
Part of the fun is of course spotting all the references to Verne’s work and others. There’s a great version of Verne’s ‘Centre of the Earth’, for example, as Nemo travels into it, with giant mushrooms, fluorescent plants and crystals. The chapter titles are often Verne titles, too: The Mysterious Island, Five Weeks in a Balloon, Master of the World, 20,000 Leagues, for example. There’s also a sprinkling of other Verne characters throughout, such as Ned Land and Professor Liedenbrock.
However, above all, this book celebrates what Verne’s tales did at their time of publication – the joy of discovery and exploration and the miracles performed by technology. It is gloriously steampunk, with Kevin using all the technological marvels of 1840: steamboat, locomotive, balloon, telegraph, submarine – as did Verne. As one of the characters puts it, “It is wonderful to see impossible dreams come to fruition.”
It is quite interesting to read Verne portrayed as a home-body, whilst Nemo is the more exciting and darker alter-ego, managing to do all the things Jules would like to do, but sadly does not. The novel has the break-neck pace of the old pulps, with the metafictional idea of using real-life people and fictional characters together. This is something of a trend at the moment from Titan: see also Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula for something similar.
I enjoyed this a lot more than I was expecting to. Anyone who enjoys old action adventure tales of the Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle type, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which, incidentally, Kevin wrote the film novelisation for) or, as mentioned above, Anno Dracula, would enjoy this one.
And if it means that some readers will then read Verne’s own tales, then so much the better. Great fun.
Mark Yon, September 2011