I was really looking forward to this — Adam Roberts is undeniably a talented writer, and even though I personally struggle to get on with a lot of his stuff, I still maintain huge respect for him as an author. My previous reviews (and opinions) of his work can be found here: Adam Robots and By Light Alone.
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea is unashamedly a tribute to the original Jules Verne classic, and in the main Roberts has done a great job of paying respect to that — his characters are a mixed bunch, but all have their foibles, and they’re all written and characterised with tongue firmly in cheek a lot of the time. Indeed, the majority of the book is immensely readable and very pacey, but descends into crazy-talk and outlandishly grand theory by the end which, to be honest, kind of turned me off. Let’s backtrack a little, though…
I should mention here that I was hugely impressed with the full-page illustrations by Mahendra Singh that are littered throughout at each Chapter break (approx. 30 in all, some of which are two-page spreads) — as well as doing a great job of evoking the look and feel of classic literature of old, they are quite excellent in their own right, and illustrations in general are something I would like to see featured a lot more of in modern material, but anyway…
Twenty Trillion tells a fantastical tale of the Plonguer, a nuclear submarine developed by the French that made its final launch on 29th June, 1958 with veteran Captain Adam Cloche at the helm. Among the mostly French twelve-strong crew, we have Alain Lebret along as an official ‘observer’ for the Ministry of National Defence (and probably the closest thing to a protagonist this story has), and a couple of Indian nationals who are the resident nuclear specialists for this fateful journey. In a similar vein to Roberts’ Jack Glass, we are told in the very first chapter that the submarine was lost just one day after launch. The rest of the book attempts to go some way to explaining the fate of individual crew members on this final journey, and generally does a great job of recapturing the look and feel of the Verne original with enviable pastiche and some brilliant wordplay.
The crux of the story is that the Plonguer starts descending and simply doesn’t stop, plummeting thousands of miles and exceeding the physical pressure limits of the submarine itself. Indeed, it plunges deeper and deeper, way beyond what should be the limits of the ocean depths and potentially the world itself… and then it just starts to get crazy, with multi-dimensional universes and planes of weirdness introduced that extend into pure fantasy La-La Land. And this I’m afraid is where I started to get a little lost and came away with a wishy-washy feeling (sorry!) that soured the whole experience. A genuine shame, as I was really enjoying it up to that point (around page 250-ish).
That all said, the writing is excellent and the breakdown of the crew’s mental state and the actual physicality and overall ‘feel’ of a submarine that pitches wildly left and right (and even upside down at some points in the narrative), is all dealt with in brilliant detail — something an author of lesser merit would probably struggle to capture quite so effortlessly as Roberts seems to do here.
I would still recommend this as a great read, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do so, but just be prepared to park your brain elsewhere for the last 50 pages or so, and then you’ll be fine.