Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson

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A Tuesday Morning "Just Waking Up" Review: Captain Nemo

Philip Jose Farmer is the master of the SF fictional biography. His lives of Tarzan and Doc Savage mix secret history and the fantastic, inserting the greats of pulp literature into our world, while The Other Log Of Philieas Fogg reveals the true story behind Verne's Around The World In 80 Days. And now, unafraid to walk in genre footsteps, Kevin J. Anderson enters the world of the fictional biography with his Captain Nemo.

Anderson takes a leaf from Farmer's book, and mixes his fictional history with France's dramatic 19th century history. Andre Nemo is a boyhood friend of Jules Verne, who ends up living the adventurous life Verne can only dream of. Nemo's life as adventurer and engineer is linked to Verne's success as a writer after years of failure. Mixed with the heady cocktail of two men's love for one woman, there's all the ingredients for a successful novel: love, loss, adventure. Mix in dinosaurs, volcanoes, submarines and balloons, and the hint of an illicit love affair, and you've got everything you need for a sure fire airport bestseller.

So why does Anderson's Captain Nemo feel so flat? It's certainly a quick read for a fat book, but there's no engagement with the characters, no sense of life. Verne's story comes across as a rehash of standard biographical details, while Nemo's is a string of dramas designed to give Anderson a "factual basis" for Verne's fictions. It's almost as if Anderson wants to trivialise the life of one of the early SF writers, a man who lived through so much change and drama, using his imagination to give us dramatic stories that put so much of his world into sharp focus, turning him into just a drab provincial lawyer's son who could never fulfil his dreams of adventure, and so had to suck the life out of his friend's stories. This isn't the real Verne, instead it's a cardboard cutout, pinned to a wall and used for target practice.

Captain Nemo is at best an adequately written book, and at worst one that does Verne a great disservice. The one thing that saddens me is that there will be people out there who'll read this and will take Anderson's Verne to be the real thing. It's doubly sad because Anderson has done so much better in the past, with excellent SF in the shape of novels like Blindfold and Climbing Olympus.

If you want adventure, just go get yourself some Verne (most of which is available as free ebook downloads) or some Farmer instead.
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