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Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

France’s first nuclear submarine, Plongeur, is on her first sea trail. On board, one of the Navy’s most experienced captains and a tiny skeleton crew of sailors, engineers and scientists.

The Plongeur makes her first dive and goes down, and down and down…

Out of control, the submarine plummets to depth where the pressure will crush her hull, killing everyone on board. And beyond. The pressure builds, the hull protests, the crew prepare for death. The boat reaches down and finds…nothing.

Her final dive continues, the pressure begins to relent, but the depth gauge is useless. They have gone miles down. Hundreds of miles, thousands…

And so it goes on.

And on board the crew succumb to mania and murder. Has the Plongeur left the limits of our world and gone elsewhere? 

This book can I think best be described as odd. Things start off in a reasonably conventional manner; a French submarine crew take a new automatic submersible on its maiden voyage. However, the further away they get from dry land the more surreal events become. As they travel deeper and deeper, way beyond all possible depths, they start to encounter stranger and stranger phenomena. 

Led by the formidable Capitaine Adam Cloche, the crew of the Plongeur are an eclectic bunch of characters. Also along for the ride are a couple of Indian nuclear scientists and a government observer called Alain Lebret.  Monsieur Lebret is particularly interesting; he’s got his own secret agenda that he’ll stop at nothing to accomplish.

The claustrophobic close quarters of the submarine, and their seemingly endless voyage into the abyss, begins to take its toll on everyone. They start to suffer all manner of differing traumas, some physical, others mental. Extreme paranoia and violent outbursts for some, while for others its religious mania and delusions.

Things end on a slightly ambiguous note but I rather suspect that’s the author’s intention. If you got a dozen people in a room and they all read this book there would more than likely be a dozen different interpretations of events. Roberts manages to touch upon everything from politics and religion to the quest for ultimate knowledge and multi-verse theory. I like that idea, that different readers will each take something different away from this book.

Dotted throughout the narrative there are a series of illustrations from the artist Mahendra Singh. Almost like medieval woodcuttings their style complements the text well and gives things the air of dark Cthulhu-esque fairytale. The images vividly capture some of the plots key moments; they’re a nice inclusion.

Unsurprisingly there are also a few cheeky references to the Jules Verne novel that Twenty Trillion Leagues pays dutiful homage too. No Kirk Douglas with a sea lion and an accordion from the Disney adaptation sadly, but I suppose you can’t have everything can you?

To sum up then – Adam Roberts writing is wonderfully odd, Mahendra Singh’s art is evocatively odd, and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is entirely odd. The good news is that I’m a big fan of odd and I think I rather enjoyed reading it. I say think because there is always the distinct possibility that I am in fact still reading it. As I said things do get epically surreal. I may in fact never finish the book and if I do how will any of us ever really know? Lao-tzu is often quoted as having once said that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step“. To paraphrase this insightful bon mot I can only conclude that a journey of twenty trillion leagues begins with a nuclear submarine…and a sentient mind-controlling beard apparently.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is published by Gollancz and is available now. If you’re looking for some slightly trippy, thought provoking science fiction with a classic heritage I suggest that you could do a lot worse than giving this a go. Adam Roberts has successfully messed with my head I suggest you let him mess with your head too. A whale of a tale indeed.

* Told you it was surreal

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea


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