Good premise but bad writing, with lots of grammatical and word errors and bad metaphors. It takes a lot of talent and arrogance to take a classic well-constructed story and then make fun of it in a condescending manner. Jules Verne is turning over and died another death in this taking of his novel and abilities and subverting it to provide such an appallingly written piece of bad science fiction!
I had actually ordered this when I was drunk and I completely forgot about it until it arrived. I would recommend shopping like that. It's like Christmas, except I'm not crying from relief when it's over.
I applaud the interest in writing a science fiction novel with some actual philosophy behind it, but it is so poorly executed that it is almost unreadable. It ends abruptly, when the author has apparently run out of ideas ... or realized that the ideas he has been toying with do not, in fact, hold any water. I have thoroughly enjoyed Roberts' other work but this should be avoided at all cost.
Roberts is one of the most knowledgeable and most clever SF writers around. This appears to be a period piece set in 1958 France but also written as if it were written by a French SF author in 1958. It starts as if it is a "modern" (i.e., 1958) retelling of Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES but it is also a sequel. I don't have the history of Verne's many books (SF history is where Roberts excels) but this story is different enough that I haven't spoiled anything. (Honestly, revealing a few spoilers would probably encourage more readers to finish it.)
The problem with this one is the first half is a long account of the descent of the submarine named "Plunger" ("Plongeur" in French, meaning "diver" rather than "device to unplug your toilet") and the various small dramas amongst the French and Indian crew. If that could've been trimmed in half the story would've moved along a lot better than it does. The last half is unique enough to be interesting, even if it doesn't leave every reader satisfied.
I want to give this four stars for effort and three for execution. Three stars means "average" to me but four is too many. I think this is for Verne and Roberts fans only.
Adam Roberts is a big-ideas guy and this book keeps up that tradition. I won't give too much away, but think Jules Verne, submarines, science fiction and bizarre and twisted cosmology. Also a great adventure story with well-realized characters and one unexpected cameo. In a word - excellent. You will NOT be bored.
It's June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine's design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine's capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on... past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure... and on... and on...
This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I've read in a long time, it's a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I'm sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it's something more than a pastiche.
And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other's throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there's a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur's new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There's much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter – not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.
I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn't feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia's pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne's world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the '50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn't as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to trying some of Roberts' other books. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin's Griffin.