For the past few days I have been busy reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (first published in 1870), and I am not done with it yet. Over all I have to say that I am enjoying it more than I thought I would, but one thing that has become clear is that, even though the S part of SF comes across as being more than a little dated, the approach itself is as hard as can be. In fact at times it is a little too hard, as thousands of words are devoted to a careful analysis of the classification of marine life. Seeing how I am no marine biologist, I can’t really vouch for the book’s accuracy (or lack thereof). As is the case with a lot of nineteenth century literature, however, there are times in which I find it hard to leave my twenty-first century sensibilities behind. The book is not politically correct, nowhere near it, and there is no reason it should be… but in this particular instance it isn’t so much the characters’ attitudes towards their fellow man as their attitudes towards the natural world that I am having a hard time trying to come to terms with.
In Verne’s mind the seas are not just inexhaustible, but also undoubtedly there for us to do with as we please… and there is also something about the timing of my reading of this book that has probably added to how disturbed I am by that particular perspective.
It was a couple of hours after I read of the death of Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, that I came across the following passage referring to a dugong:
“Yes, Mr. Land. Its flesh is actual red meat, highly prized, and set aside throughout Malaysia for the tables of aristocrats. Accordingly, this excellent animal has been hunted so bloodthirstily that, like its manatee relatives, it has become more and more scarce.”
“In that case, Captain,” Conseil said in all seriousness, “on the off-chance that this creature might be the last of its line, wouldn’t it be advisable to spare its life, in the interests of science?”
“Maybe,” the Canadian answered, “it would be better to hunt it down, in the interests of mealtime.”
“Then proceed, Mr. Land,” Captain Nemo replied.
and this was not the only time I was left with the feeling that what I was reading was ‘a tour of the world seas through our stomachs’, as through out the book animals are not just defined in terms of their genus and species, but also of their flavor and usefulness… and I can’t help but to feel that maybe, if only the attitudes of the author and his contemporaries had been a little different, Lonesome George –who was probably born only a couple of decades after Verne wrote his tale– wouldn’t have been the last of his kind.