Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus

How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi,
How valiantly and well!

— Indian ballad

My opinion of steampunk is low. However, last week’s lovely Google doodle by Jennifer Hom reminded me that I like at least one steampunk work. After I wrote my Star Trek book, I was asked why I did so. My reply was The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. Here is its opening paragraph:

The first book that I clearly remember reading is the unexpurgated version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Had I been superstitious, I would have taken it for an omen, since the book contains just about everything that has shaped my life and personality since then. For me, the major wonder of the book was that Captain Nemo was both a scientist and an adventurer, a swashbuckler in a lab coat, a profile I imagined myself fulfilling one day.

I was five when I first read the novel. Unlike Anglophone readers, I was lucky enough to have the complete version rather than the bowdlerized thin gruel that resulted in Verne being consigned to the category of “children’s author”. Of course, 20,000 Leagues set me up for the inevitable fall. It prompted me to read most of Verne’s other works, in which he’s as guilty of infodumps, cardboard characters and tone-deaf dialogue as most “authors of ideas”. Too, his books are boys’ treehouses: I can recall two women in those I read, both as lively as wooden idols. Even so, Captain Nemo stands apart among Verne’s characters, both in his depth and in the messages he carries.

Verne has Aronnax describe Nemo at length when he first sees him. It takes up more than a page — but even now I remember my frustration when I reached the end and found out Verne says exactly nothing about Nemo’s build, hue, eye and hair color or shape. All he has told, in excruciating detail, is that Nemo looks extraordinarily intelligent and has a formidable presence.

However, my book copy contained several sepia-tinted plates from Disney’s film version of the book (in lieu of Édouard Riou’s engravings that accompanied the original editions). I had no idea who the actors were – I discovered that James Mason was British in my early twenties. On the other hand, several hints in the book, including the “liquid vowel-filled” language spoken by his multinational crew, coded the captain of the Nautilus as different. So in my mind Nemo was olive-skinned, black-haired. He looked like my father the engineer, like my father’s seacaptain father and brothers, like the andártes of the Greek resistance. He looked like me.

He acted like the andártes, as well. He sided with the downtrodden, from helping a Ceylonese pearl diver to giving guns to the Cretans risen against the Turks. And when he lost companions, he wept. Yet he was not merely a warrior; he was also a polymath. Besides being a crack engineer, a marine biology expert and an intrepid explorer, he spoke half a dozen languages, kept a huge library, and was a discerning art collector and a talented musician. The Nautilus is the precursor of Star Trek’s Enterprise: a ship of science and culture that can also wage war. Too, Nemo’s conversations bespoke someone from an old civilization tempered by melancholic wisdom – not an insouciant triumphalist.

Then there was the Lucifer strain that appealed to me just as much, coming as I did from a clan of resistance fighters. Nemo embodies the motto by which I have come to live my life: Never complain, never explain. He’s an evolved incarnation of the Byronic hero. His name is not only the Latin version of Outis (Noone) that Odysseus gave to Polyphemus; it is also a cognate of Nemesis (Vengeance). Today’s security agencies would call Nemo a terrorist, even though he fights in self-defense and retribution after invaders massacre his family and occupy his homeland.

Since victors write history, the losers’ freedom fighters become the winners’ murderers. Beyond that, there’s a fundamental difference between Nemo and fanatics like bin Laden: Nemo is not fighting to establish an Ummah, an Empire, a Utopia, not for power, riches, or glory. He’s not a fundamentalist secure in celestial approval of his actions. He is deeply conflicted and feels grief and guilt whenever he exacts revenge.

In this, Nemo shares his creator’s determined Enlightenment outlook. Verne was never apologetic about his heroes’ secularism or love of political freedom. However, Pierre-Julien Hetzel, Verne’s excessively hands-on editor, was acutely mindful of social and political conventions. As a result, Verne has Nemo go through a deathbed act of contrition in the vastly inferior Mysterious Island – something totally at odds with his character in 20,000 Leagues. Left to himself, Verne might have given a far darker ending to the first novel, as Disney did in his film version and as Verne later did with Robur, a coarsened power-obsessed Nemo clone.

Verne had originally conceived Nemo as a Polish scientist fighting against Russian oppressors. Hetzel did not want to alienate the lucrative Russian market. Also, neither Poland nor Russia are known for their naval prowess: a Russian-hating Nemo would put a serious crimp on the sea battle drama in 20,000 Leagues. So when Verne reveals Nemo’s provenance in The Mysterious Island, he makes him an Indian prince, son of the Rajah of Bundelkhand. Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi (a region of Bundelkhand), was one of the leaders of the Sepoy Uprising, the same uprising that cost Nemo his family and home. It makes me glad to think Captain Nemo, Prince Dakkar, may have been Lakshmi Bai’s cousin – that they grew up together, friends and like-minded companions. I’m equally glad Nemo is free of the poisonous concepts of caste purity.

Who could animate Captain Nemo’s complexities and dilemmas onscreen? Mason may have been ethnically incorrect, but he truly captured Nemo – both his torment and his charisma. The incarnations since Mason have been anemic and/or off-key. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Naseeruddin Shah did his best with the paper-thin material he was given, but the film was so unremittingly awful that I’ve wiped it from long-term memory. Besides him, I have a few other possibles in mind and I’m open to additional suggestions:

Jean Reno, real name Juan Moreno, the stoic ronin whose Andalusian parents had to leave Cadiz during Franco’s regime; Ghassan Massoud, who wiped the floor with the other actors (except Edward Norton as the uncredited Baldwin) as Saladin in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven; Ken Watanabe, who left Tom Cruise in the dust in The Last Samurai; Oded Fehr, who made the screen shimmer as the paladin Ardeth Bey in The Mummy; in a decade or so, Ioan Gruffudd, whom Guinevere should have taken as a co-husband in Antoine Fuqua’s Arthur; also in about a decade (provided he keeps lean), Naveen Andrews, the soulful Kip in The English Patient.

It goes without saying that I have an equally long list of candidates who could embody Captain Nemo as a woman – but I’ll keep these names for that never-never time when this becomes possible without the venomous ad feminem criticisms (some from prominent women) that greeted Helen Mirren as Prospero. Because gender essentialism aside, Captain Nemo was not someone I wanted to fall in love with, but someone I wanted to become: a warrior wizard, a creator, a firebringer.

Addendum 1: I received excellent additions to the Nemo candidate list. Calvin Johnson suggested Ben Kingsley, real name Krishna Pandit Bhanji, who needs no further introduction (Calvin and I also agreed that Laurence Fishburne in Morpheus mode would be great for the part). Anil Menon proposed the equally formidable Gabriel Byrne. Eloise Lanouette brought up Alexander (endless full name) Siddig who keeps getting better, like fine wine.

I also received a palpitation-inducing… er, tantalizing thought-experiment from Kay Holt; namely, a film in which each of my candidate Nemos inhabits a parallel reality. Ok, I’ll stop grinning widely now.

Addendum 2: I got e-mails expressing curiosity about my female Nemo candidates. So here’s the list.  Again, I welcome suggestions:

Julia Ormond, who radiates intelligence and made a tough-as-nails underdog hero in Smilla’s Sense of Snow; Karina Lombard, who brought tormented Bertha Mason to vivid life in The Wide Sargasso Sea; Salma Hayek, the firebrand of Frida; Michelle Yeoh, who bested everyone (including Chow Yun Fat) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Angela Bassett, who wore kickass Lornette “Mace” Mason like a second skin in Strange Days; last but decidedly not least, Anjelica Huston — enough said!

Great additional suggestions have come for this half as well: Lena Headey who made a terrific Sarah Connor, Indira Varma of Kama Sutra — both in about ten years’ time.  Sotiría Leonárdhou, who set the world on fire in Rembetiko. And, of course, Sigourney Weaver, the one and only Ellen Ripley.

Images: 1st, the Nautilus as envisioned by Tom Scherman; 2nd, Captain Nemo (original illustration by Édouard Riou; detail); 3rd, James Mason as Nemo; 4th and 5th, my Nemo candidates, left to right; 4th, the men — top, Jean Reno (France/Spain), Ghassan Massoud (Syria), Ken Watanabe (Japan); bottom, Oded Fehr (Israel), Ioan Gruffudd (Wales), Naveen Andrews (India/UK); 5th, the women — top, Julia Ormond (UK), Karina Lombard (Lakota/US), Salma Hayek (Mexico); bottom, Michelle Yeoh (Hong Kong), Angela Bassett (US), Anjelica Huston (US).

45 Responses to “The Multi-Chambered Nautilus”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    What a handsome assortment of Nemos! And what an intelligent reader you were to tackle and enjoy the story at age five.

    And, I strongly support swashbuckling scientists.

  2. Athena says:

    I really like to feast my eyes on handsome men. Whoever says women’s sexual responses don’t have a strong visual component clearly doesn’t know women well!

    The nuances in the novel came to me gradually, but my visceral reaction at five was “I want to be like that!” Also, I’m very happy you support swashbuckling scientists — we need all the help we can get!

  3. Sue Lange says:

    As a diehard Lost fan, I have to vote for Naveen Andrews, but I also like almost every movie that Jean Reno is in and think he definitely has the quiet but somehow turbulent temperament Nemo has.

    As for a female Nemo, it makes perfect sense for a female to play Nemo. He seems rather sexless, like Sherlock Holmes. Makes me wonder if all these super intelligent characters are sexless. Is there a connection between sexual appetite and intelligence?

  4. Athena says:

    I’m with you on Reno, precisely for the reason you listed. Andrews still has baby fat on him, hence my proviso.

    I think a lot of very intelligent people partly sublimate their appetite into intellect (solving puzzles, writing stories). Also, intelligence has many components and none are gender-specific, Larry Summers and his knuckle-dragging ilk notwithstanding.

  5. Caliban says:

    I like your suggestions, but here is another one: Ben Kingsley. He certainly can play intelligent and he can also play very dangerous. I admit to like the idea of the same actor who was Gandhi going around 180 (or maybe 360) and playing Nemo–many of the same ideals, with very different strategies.

  6. Athena says:

    Tremendous suggestion. I can’t fathom why I didn’t think of Kingsley — perhaps because he’s usually clean-shaven. I’ll wait to see if more names come up, then post an addendum to the entry with the list from commenters. I have since thought of at least one more candidate myself, Erol Sander whom I first noticed in Stone’s Alexander.

  7. Anil Menon says:

    Hi Athena,

    A fine piece, as usual. Gabriel Byrne would be my candidate, except that he’s as much as Indian as Gandhi’s a Viking. Of course, India didn’t exist in Verne’s time.

    English translators, for understandable but not forgivable reasons, did much violence to Verne’s Nemo novels. It’s fair to say most English readers haven’t read an accurate translation of Verne’s book(s). I blogged about it in nauseating detail some time back.

    Anil Menon

  8. Athena says:

    Thank you, Anil! Gabriel Byrne has been on my radar ever since I saw him in his career establishing role of Uther in Excalibur. I think I may have excluded him because he’s very rarely bearded — perhaps also because of the light eyes, but Nemo was from North India. So he may have been as fair as Aishwarya Rai! I think there will be an update of the candidates, given the terrific suggestions I’ve received.

    I just read your excellent entry about the elisions in the common English translations. You’re quite right, the bowdlerizations water down the narrative with nebulous generalities. All I can say is: I’m happy I read a full version that left Verne’s vision intact.

  9. Aleksandar says:

    This just shows how Verne had a talent to touch everyone with his words and imagination. I remember reading the book in primary school, in Macedonian, and I also had the luck of getting the un-edited version, albeit without any illustrations. I can remember that for some years afterwards, when I had an assignment in school to draw something, I usually depicted scenes from the book; the one with the giant shell was my favorite.

    As for Nemo, I can’t say I had a definite image of him; didn’t picture him according to freedom fighter – likeness, and not too sciency. But he definitely was a strong character.

  10. Athena says:

    It is widely accepted that 20,000 Leagues is Verne’s best book by far, by virtue of Nemo’s character. Many believe that Verne put a lot of himself in Nemo. His other characters, as Anil so well put it in his analysis, are placeholders for the reader’s attention.

  11. Aleksandar says:

    Athena, thanks for all this food for thought, and the links… Reading all which is present in this small universe will set back my thesis – writing schedule, but hey, I love it 🙂

  12. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    I strongly encourage this line of thinking.

  13. Athena says:

    You’re most welcome, Aleksandar.

    Kathryn, I thought you might! *smile*

  14. Caliban says:

    By the way, I always liked the 1950’s Disney version (aside from the part where Kurt Douglas sings). While not a perfect translation, it does provide a coherent plot and, somewhat amazingly for Disney, allow Nemo to be a complex antihero. There were two TV movie versions around 1997 that were unwatchable.

    There have been rumors of a new movie, perhaps a prequel to the novel. One rumored Nemo was to be Will Smith. Will Smith is actually a charismatic and capable actor, who could conceivably pull it off if he were given a decent script and director–but likely the studios would turn it into the kind of dreck that Wild Wild West and I, Robot were, with incoherent scripts and too much special effects mayhem. Fortunately, these rumors are dying away….

  15. Athena says:

    Agreed, on all counts. I saw parts of the one with Ben Cross — simply awful. I think the film with Will Smith has been shelved. He’s wrong for Nemo: too sunny and self-confident. On the other hand, Laurence Fishburne in full Morpheus mode would fill the part very well.

    I added the suggestions, yours and Anil’s, at the end of the entry.

  16. Caliban says:

    Agree about Laurence Fishburne.

    At which point, why not consider The Voice himself: James Earl Jones? As long as he didn’t get a self-satirizing script that didn’t call to mind Darth Vader… Jones is a hell of an actor when he isn’t playing an Archetype.

  17. Athena says:

    Jones definitely has The Vox — but he’s not not craggy enough.

  18. eilidh says:

    “his books are boys’ treehouses: I can count two women in his entire opus, both as lively as wooden idols. ”

    Hey, Helen Campbell in The Green Ray wasn’t that bad. 😉
    (Although, I was a kid when I read it; I was a little oblivious to how characters were presented then.)

    Funnily, one thing I love about books (and that slightly distresses me when books I love are made movies) is that the characters’ looks are never too defined. I can ascribe a physical vagueness to them that adds to whatever allure they may have.

  19. Athena says:

    I actually never read that one. I counted Aouda in Around the World in 80 Days and the girl in The Children of Captain Grant.

    You make a good point about vagueness in books allowing us to define characters for ourselves. But there’s an interesting — and distressing — corollary to this: most readers assume that characters are the default (which in Anglophone books is white Anglosaxon, erasing the rest).

  20. eilidh says:

    Oh, I see why you’ve formed this impression. Helen Campbell is not at all like that; in the book, she drags her two uncles all over the Scottish west coast, hunting sunsets in order to see a green flash, after reading about it in a science article. She’s a kind, but very willful girl. 🙂

    You’re right about the default being ‘white Anglosaxon’! When I first read Le Guin’s first Earthsea book, I immediately assumed the people were, well, white. When I realised that they weren’t, it was quite a revelation. I’m really grateful to Le Guin for breaking that cliché.

  21. Athena says:

    Helen Campbell sounds interesting, though she most likely falls into the category of “tomboy to be normalized when she finds the right guy.” The “white Anglosaxon” default mindset unfortunately persists, despite the steady influx of non-default Others in speculative fiction as both authors and characters. I wrote about it relatively recently: Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages.

  22. Eloise says:

    Another suggestion for Captain Nemo: Alexander Siddig (whose real name – what a mouthful! – is actually Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi), also a Kingdom of Heaven alumnus, and the general go-to actor for portrayals of somewhat ambiguous Middle-Eastern princes, as his work in Syriana can tell.

    As for Jules Verne, I have to say that my all-time favourite book of his is actually the one where there are the least scientific descriptions, titled Michel Strogoff. Though sometimes it does tend to gross generalization of peoples characters (including the French and English with journalists Harry Blount and Alcide Jolivet), it is a rather fun ride through what was then the Russian Empire. And I have to say that the women of the tale, the young and stoic Nadia Fedor, daughter of an exiled political prisoner, and the hero’s proud mother, Marfa Strogoff, make for some of the most poignant moments of the tale. Michel’s unashamed emotional demonstration of devotion for his mother is a turning point in the narrative and also the origin of the story’s most spectacular coup de théâtre. It has been adapted many times in series or films, but they somehow managed to always fall quite short of the mark.


    Eloise 🙂

  23. Athena says:

    Eloise, Alexander Siddig had also occurred to me; I added your suggestion to Edit 1 (there is now an Edit 2, listing the women).

    I have fond memories of Michel Strogoff, though the ethnic/national stereotypes already pinged at me despite my young age at reading. And although the women were present, they were Angel in the House stereotypes (to say nothing of the arrant sentimentality of the plot device you so subtly outline).

  24. eilidh says:

    Heh, you were right again. I was trying to remember how The Green Ray ended, and you just reminded me: They manage to catch sight of the green flash, only Helen doesn’t see it, because she’s tangled gazes with a young man who helped them in their last stage of their journey. It was a disappointment to me even at that young age. I guess I always identified with the male heroes, too; always so much more freedom of choice.

    You like games, if I remember well: I’m sure you’d love playing Mass Effect as a female Commander Shepard. 🙂

  25. Athena says:

    What!! That ending alone would have put the book on my black list. You are right, too, about why it’s easier to identify with the men, especially in older writings.

    I haven’t played Mass Effect — I should take a look (uh oh…)

  26. Hi, Mrs. Andreadis!

    Excellent essay ! I’m representing the Romanian Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of SF&Fantasy in Romania:
    I’m kindly asking you to allow me to translate your article and to post it on our site, giving you full credit and inserting a link to the original.
    Thank you.
    Kind regards,
    Cristian Tamas

  27. Athena says:

    Hello, Cristian! I’m delighted you liked my article enough to want to showcase it at your site. Go ahead, and please send me the link when it appears on the SRSFF page. Thank you for undertaking the labor of translation!

  28. intrigued_scribe says:

    Fantastic entry! This is a great line of thinking. 🙂 Oded Fehr and Salma Hayek–who I often envision in strong roles, among others–get my vote for the respective versions of Nemo. And this:

    I also received a palpitation-inducing… er, tantalizing thought-experiment from Kay Holt; namely, a film in which each of my candidate Nemos inhabits a parallel reality.

    Definitely the kind of film I’d like to see.

  29. Athena says:

    I’m so pleased you enjoyed it, Heather! You and I know I’ve been thinking about visual representations of fictional characters for a loooong time. I think now that I have a bit of time I’ll add the women’s images to the entry.

  30. Walden2 says:

    Another excellent article, Athena, with your usual different from the standard approach and view on things. Makes me want to dig out my annotated copy of 20,000 Leagues.

    Speaking of the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I have to admit I found their version of the Nautilus to be absolutely beautiful, but I always end up thinking of the version from the Disney film as my default for that submarine. Now I want to see that film again too!

    By the way, the main character in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was non-Caucasian in the novel, but they made him to be about as Aryan as you can get in the 1997 film version – which I think was part of the filmmaker’s numerous jabs at American society anyway.

  31. Athena says:

    Glad you liked it, Larry! I don’t remember what the League of Gentlemen’s Nautilus looked — as I said, I wiped that film out of my memory. Among other things, it was boring. Talk of turning gold into lead…

    I detest Heinlein, to whom I gave many opportunities to redeem himself (aka — I read a lot of his dross). The film version of Starship Troopers could be taken as tongue-in-cheek, if you could stomach the splatter of internal organs hitting the screen every five seconds.

  32. Walden2 says:

    That version of the Nautilus reminded me of a finely crafted sword cutting through the oceans, but it also looked and felt more like a super ocean liner than the more confining and gritty Disney version, which was more realistic anyway.

    If you can get past the grossness of Starship Troopers (and I am no fan of such stuff), the swipes at American imperialism actually precede what happened with 9/11 in some cases, such as the Bugs taking out a human city on Earth and the resulting response (War!) and propaganda (“The only good Bug is a dead Bug!”). Along with little touches like the design of the officer’s uniforms being just this side of Nazi outfits.

  33. Athena says:

    I Googled it. I guess they tried to make it resemble an art deco cuttlefish. But you’re right — it looks like a luxury liner, way too big and comfortable. Certainly not gritty enough, even if you assume bottomless private pockets.

    Beyond the grossness, the aliens Starship Troopers made no sense biologically either individually (insects cannot achieve such a size) or collectively (they look like a random assortment of radically different species). As an allegory it’s too broad and primitive.

  34. Walden2 says:

    Of course the Bugs weren’t really Earth insects, they just looked like that to the humans who naturally tried to put them down with a slang term. The novel as usual did a better job in this regard. But we’re getting way off Nemo here. :^)

    By the way, I have always been a fan of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. The novel has a lot of subtle humor, along with digs at the British (which were removed in earlier editions), and you have to admire how much Verne came close to what the Apollo 8 mission would be like just over one century later – giant cannon aside.

  35. Eloise says:

    If we are thinking of a woman as Captain Nemo, may I suggest Connie Nielsen for the role? As she is fluent in Danish, English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish, she could certainly have that broad, international appeal. And this bit from Gladiator (in which she played Lucilla) also gives us a great reflection about leadership and women:

    Marcus: If only you had been born a man… what a Caesar you would have made. […] You would have been strong. I wonder, would you have been just?
    Lucilla: I would have been what you taught me to be.
    Marcus: Enough of politics. Let us pretend that you are a loving daughter and I am a good father.
    Lucilla: This is a pleasant fiction, isn’t it?


    Eloise 🙂

  36. Athena says:

    Larry, I think Verne was like all prophetic authors: fifty-fifty hits to misses. We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses.

    Eloise, I didn’t propose Connie Nielsen because she’s very light-colored and also she has played mostly conventional female roles. Lena Headey is another matter, of course, as is Sigourney Weaver. But the former is too young, and the latter will always be Ellen Ripley to me (also, the women’s list is far more US/Anglosaxon-centered than the men’s).

  37. Walden2 says:

    I think Verne did better regarding the real Apollo than did a lot of others who tried to envision manned lunar missions. Though the kind many thought would happen were aimed at setting up lunar bases, not a few shots to pick up some rocks and best the Soviets. Apollo always was a disappointment in that sense, though the fault lies with those who controlled the budget.

    The launched site was in Florida, three men in a capsule type craft, circled the Moon, used retrorockets, splash down in the ocean. Verne even had them do a test launch with some animals first. Just sayin’. :^)

  38. Athena says:

    Except there were also launches from Baikonur… many of which did not splash down into the ocean upon return. Animal launches are an obvious preliminary, with an established precedence in medicine since Sumer.

  39. Caliban says:

    I, too, thought of Lena Hedley as a female Nemo, although I also had the same objections as you.

    I keep thinking, surely somewhere in Bollywood there must be some tough actresses who could easily pull this off. Alas, I am too ignorant to think of any.

  40. Athena says:

    As with Naveen Andrews, Headey will do very well in a decade or so. Bollywood, like Hollywood, likes it actresses young and on the bland lacquered side of the spectrum. Our best bet in that direction is Mira Nair, who showcases strong women in her films (Sarita Choudhury and Indira Varma come to mind).

  41. Walden2 says:

    Yeah but the Soviet ones don’t count. :^) Nemo would not have supported them anyway.

  42. Athena says:

    Nemo didn’t approve of any imperialists, and that would have included the Manifest Destiny US.

  43. […] by worldsf on February 21, 2011 by Athena Andreadis; originally posted at Starship […]

  44. […] scientist, SF writer, and blogger Athena Andreadis alerted me today that she has written a post on steampunk, Captain Nemo, and Jules Verne’s important SF work, “Ten Thousand Le… which has been picked up by the World SF […]

  45. Walden2 says:

    Own your very own Nautilus – model. Based on the novel description, not the Disney version or any other: