Review: 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea / Author Adam Roberts / Publisher: Gollancz / Release Date: Out Now
One of the few things that you can be certain of when picking up a book by Adam Roberts is that it will be clever, quirky and more than a little strange. 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea does not disappoint in any of these regards. As you might expect from the title, it’s a tribute of sorts to Jules Verne’s classic tale, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but it takes a rapid and unexpected turn pretty early on.
The tale is set in a post-World War 2 France. Captain Adam Cloche and his hand-picked crew are tasked with testing out an brand new nuclear-powered submarine. Along for the ride is a chap called Lebret, who may or may not be some sort of shadowy secret agent, and two Indian scientists who have been added to the roster in order to keep an eye on the nuclear engine. Early on, we’re given the first of many twists; a government report tells the reader that the ship vanished, all hands lost. As the story unfolds, we discover that the submarine is rapidly sinking and has (quite improbably) sunk further than it is physically possible to do.
The way the crew deals with this bizarre catastrophe sets the narrative up nicely for a sequence of disasters and survival stories. The claustrophobic atmosphere, the rampant paranoia and the inevitable madness are all part of a cleverly woven tale of how someone might cope when matters get truly bizarre. 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is stuffed full of impossible things from improbable wonders to chthonic horrors that would give many nightmare creatures reason to pause.
Though the characters are interesting and the whole thing enjoyable, Roberts' tale does suffer from trying to be a bit sharper and smarter than it needs to be. From the subtle hints at the start that the world is not quite what it should be to the very strange sequences toward the end, 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea often crosses the line between wonder and confusing nonsense, but in the end it balances out. Adam Roberts shines when he is telling impossible tales in a way that even the greatest of sceptics will believe, and this is one that will have you pondering and debating for weeks after you have completed the book.