Steampunk Factsheet: Captain Nemo

Fun Facts and Context

۞ Nemo means “Nobody” in Latin, but is also the root of the word “nemesis” in Greek.

۞ In the original manuscript for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo was a Polish noble whose family was killed in the January Uprising (1863-1865). Fearing a blow to sales (as well as insulting France’s ally, Russia), Verne’s editor asked him to change the character and keep the details shadowy. As a result, no details of his past are revealed in 20,000 Leagues beyond the guesses made by the narrator.

۞ Nemo spent most of his formative years in Europe, so despite being an Indian prince, he speaks with a British accent. He admits to speaking French, Latin, and German as well.

۞ And though he hates the imperialist nature of European nations, the Nautilus is full of treasures from around Europe. This includes an organ which Nemo plays masterfully. There is also a substantial library on board to feed his scientific pursuits.

۞ He also makes a brief appearance in a play called “Journey Through the Impossible.” It was not published until 1981 after a handwritten copy was discovered in 1978. 2003 brought us the very first English translation.

۞ There was a real submarine called the Nautilus, which was designed by an American inventor living in France named Richard Fulton. It was developed in the late 1700s and was powered by a hand crank.

Mistakes and Mistranslations

۞ To avoid passive voice and badly translated dialog, look for modern translations. Here are some recommendations.

۞ “20,000 Leagues under the sea” is often interpreted as the vertical distance into the depth of the ocean. But this is based on a slight mistranslation of the French title Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. “Mers,” meaning “seas,” was translated as “sea” singular. It is meant to indicate the horizontal distance traveled under the water, not the depth. A league is 4 kilometers, making 20,000 leagues 6 times larger than the diameter of the planet.

۞ The chronology gets a little iffy when you consider Nemo’s appearance in both of Verne’s novels. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea begins with events in 1866, and Nemo is described as a around 40 years old when the Nautilus supposedly sank in 1868. But in The Mysterious Island (1874), which takes place at some point during the American Civil War (1861-1865) Nemo is already an old man. The latter work also says the supposed sinking of the Nautilus occurred in 1867. To make things even more confusing, Nemo also specifically mentions having met the narrator of 20,000 Leagues 16 years prior to the events of The Mysterious Island. This makes for a very twisted timeline that just doesn’t add up.

What do the Experts Say?

Modern Verne scholars attribute these inconsistencies to editors who took liberty with the original story and never consulted Verne. This was common in the steam era, and would explain why an author who was otherwise meticulous with details could make such an obvious mistake. If we take Nemo and 20,000 Leagues at their word, The Mysterious Island actually takes place in 1882. This puts it slightly in the future from its release date. On the other hand, if the American Civil War era is correct for The Mysterious Island and it has been 16 years, the first book took place sometime in the late 1840s. Of course, neither scenarios jibes with the events in the first Nemo origin story, which took place in the 1860s. The second origin with events in 1857 doesn’t fare any better. So your guess is as good as mine.

Where Else can you Find Captain Nemo?

Captain Nemo made one more appearance in Verne’s source material. In 1978, researchers unearthed an unpublished play that features a cameo. It was published for the first time in English in 1981.

Captain Nemo has of course appeared in various adaptations of Verne’s novels. But few of these belong in the Steampunk canon. For instance, the 1954 film adaptation is heavily influenced by the style and politics of that era. Some important details are changed, such as the Nautilus running on nuclear power rather than electricity. You can find a full list of Captain Nemo’s appearances here, but for the sake of this post I am focusing on the versions of Nemo that fit firmly into Steampunk.

For instance, Alan Moore’s graphic novels (and the film adaptation) feature Nemo as a major player in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In this series, Nemo is much more callous, even bloodthirsty, than the original character. Verne’s Nemo saved whales, Moore’s Nemo mows down people with machine guns in Volume 1.

Captain Nemo also appears in The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. This is a crossover homage to Victoriana takes place in the world of Around the World in 80 Days, but co-opts characters from other novels like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. In Farmer’s account, Captain Nemo is better known in some circles at Professor Moriarty.

Kevin J. Anderson rewrites Captain Nemo’s history (and brings a childhood spent with Jules Verne into the mix) in his novel, Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius (2002).

I also know there are several games based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I have yet to play any myself. I’d love some recommendations, or perhaps someone would like to send in a guest review?

Do you know of more places to find a Steampunk Captain Nemo? Share in the comments!


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