The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumours which agitated the maritime population and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several states on two continents, were deeply interested in the manner.

– from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

If you’re like me, you think you know what this book is about. Probably just through general knowledge, allusions and the occasional Disney movie. Captain Nemo and his submarine – right? In general, yes.

The story begins with tales of a fearsome beast roaming the oceans and ramming boats. Many believe it to be a strange kind of whale. When the narrator, Monsieur Aronnax, decides to join the party who plans on hunting this monster, he doesn’t know what he’s in for. They search all over the Atlantic Ocean for it, without any luck, until it runs into them and a fierce battle ensues. Monsieur Arronax and several of the men on board the boat are thrown overboard during the battle.

Monsieur Arronax, his faithful companion Conseil, and the Canadian harpooner Ned Land, are all saved/taken captive by the great beast, which is – as you probably guessed – the Nautilus and its captain, Captain Nemo. The men are treated well, but from the first are told they will never be able to leave the submarine for the rest of their lives. The Nautilus is well-fitted, with many great works of art and books, modern technologies, and entertainment enough for Conseil and Aronnax. Nemo takes them around the world – from Indonesian islands to the ice packs of Antarctica. The captives are privy to many aspects of Earth that none of their friends from the mainland would dream of. Underwater volcanoes and forests, pearl beds, ruins of long-forgotten civilizations, and more animals than they could have thought existed.

Unfortunately, Ned Land is not content to live out the rest of his life on board a submarine without hope. He concocts a plan to escape and persuades his fellow captives to accompany him.

This book does more than spout off fanciful stories about the life on a secret submarine under the sea. It examines a man who has become so disgusted and wounded by civilized society that he has retreated and declared himself to be his own law – and is forcing others to live under his law. It postulates what amazing things might lie under the waters on our planet (and J. Verne is known for predicting the future of science). And it strikes a good balance between the science of the story and the fiction of the story.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1870 by Jules Verne.