Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea: New Excerpt

In Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts revisits Jules Verne's classic story, adding a sci-fi twist complete with illustrations (available January 13, 2015).

It is 1958 and France's first nuclear submarine, Plongeur, leaves port for the first of its sea trials. On board, gathered together for the first time, are one of the Navy's most experienced captains and a tiny skeleton crew of sailors, engineers, and scientists. The Plongeur makes her first dive and goes down, and down and down. Out of control, the submarine plummets to a depth where the pressure will crush her hull, killing everyone on board, and beyond. The pressure builds, the hull protests, the crew prepare for death, the boat reaches the bottom of the sea and finds nothing. Her final dive continues, the pressure begins to relent, but the depth guage is useless. They have gone miles down. Hundreds of miles, thousands, and so it goes on. Onboard the crew succumb to madness, betrayal, religious mania, and murder. Has the Plongeur left the limits of our world and gone elsewhere?

Crew of The Plounger

Capitaine Adam Cloche

Lieutenant de vaisseau Pierre Boucher

Enseigne de vaisseau (de première classe) Jean Billiard-Fanon

Second-Maître Annick Le Petomain 'Le Banquier'

Matelot Alain de Chante

Matelot Denis Avocat

Matelot Jean Capot

Cook Herluin Pannier

Chief engineer: Eric Castor

Observer: Alain Lebret. Reporting to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle.

The scientists: Mr Amanpreet Jhutti, Mr Dilraj Ghatwala


The Sinking of The Plounger

On the 29th June, 1958, the submarine vessel Plongeur left the French port of Saint-Nazaire under the command of Capitaine de vaisseau Adam Cloche. The following day the Plongeur sank to the bottom of the ocean.

The submarine had travelled westward beyond the limit formed by the Atlantic continental shelf, and the depth of water at this place is considerably greater than three thousand metres. This can only mean that the submarine was lost with all hands. It is true, as some have pointed out, that the Plongeur’s design parameters – combining a plated-steel inner hull and a state-of-the-art ‘atomic’ propulsion system – enabled it to descend to unusual depths. But ‘deep’ in this context means only a maximum of one thousand metres or so. At three thousand metres the vessel would have been crushed to a mangled twist of metal. Even if the vessel had somehow managed to endure the unspeakable pressures of the profound deep, the sinking craft would, by this stage, have been dropping with such speed that the forward hull would have been cracked and shattered by collision with the rocky seafloor. And what else? Assume, if you choose, that they somehow, miraculously, survived the collision, and the Plongeur had settled onto the floor without shattering, and without being crushed by the abyssal pressures. What then? The melancholy truth is that the crew lacked the wherewithal to repair whatever malfunction in the main ballast tanks had brought about the disaster in the first place, and reascend. They would be condemned to a slow, coffined extinction. Better, perhaps, to be snuffed out in a single mighty crunch!

The Plongeur was an experimental vessel, powered by a new design of atomic pile, and boasting a number of innovative design features. Its very existence was a national top secret. Accordingly, its melancholy fate went entirely unreported in the French media. As far as the world was concerned, its captain was no-one; its crew nameless.

In these unlucky circumstances, perhaps it was a blessing that, despite its unusual size – for the Plongeur was one hundred and sixty feet long, and displaced two thousand four hundred tonnes – the vessel was carrying only a small crew. The more the glory for them, the less the loss for France. Captain Adam Cloche was a veteran of the Free French Navy during the Second World War, and a man so much at home in the salt, estranging medium of the sea that even his friends wondered if he had any kind of life at all on land – where else would he die, if not beneath the waves? It was his proper place. Directly under Cloche’s command was Lieutenant Pierre Boucher, younger than his captain by a decade and a half, but an experienced sailor nonetheless. When he had been approached by the French Government to command this experimental submersible boat, Cloche had been permitted to choose any six officers and sailors. He personally approached Jean Billiard-Fanon to serve as Enseigne de vaisseau; and for Second Mate he recruited Annick Le Petomain, known to his friends as ‘Le Banquier’ for his skill at games of chance. Four Ordinary Seamen – Alain de Chante, Denis Avocat, Jean Capot and Herluin Pannier – were in turn recommended by Billiard-Fanon. But his request for a particular chief engineer – a certain Stefan Nevin of Calais, a veteran of the old war – was overruled by the powers that be. The new propulsion mechanism was top secret: for at its heart was an atomic pile, at that time a novelty in submarine power. An engineer with knowledge of such technologies, one Eric Castor, was assigned to the craft. More unusually still, two scientists from the team who had been developing the craft’s new technologies were also to accompany the Plongeur on its maiden voyage. These were: Messieurs Amanpreet Jhutti and Dilraj Ghatwala, Indian nationals both. Cloche did not pretend to be happy about this. Even if (he argued) there were some potential advantage in having the inventors of the experimental technologies on board during the maiden voyage, the benefit was surely offset by the disadvantage of cluttering up the craft with landlubbers – and foreigners to boot. Worst of all, from the captain’s point of view, was the fact the presence on the Plongeur of an official ‘Observer’: Alain Lebret, reporting directly to the Ministry for National Defence. Cloche objected to the presence of these supernumeraries aboard his vessel; but his objections were overruled.

A crew of only nine was small for so large a craft, but the two-week voyage was expected to do no more than test the vessel’s new technological capacities. And despite the skeleton crew, space was tight aboard the submarine. Although it was large, its engines took up a disproportionate amount of the vessel’s central rear portions. Everything throughout was painted thickly with light blue paint, except for the engine itself which was painted red – it was strange, Cloche thought to himself, that there was no bare metal in the vessel anywhere to be seen. Still, it was certainly a well-appointed craft. Crew all had individual cabins, and a ‘scientific room’ was located fore, in which facilities for experimentation were laid out: a variety of technical accoutrements adorned this space. Most remarkable of all, a broad oval observation window was inset into the hull, and an observation chamber located below and fore of the bridge. When Captain Cloche was first shown round his new command, docked at Saint-Nazaire, he was – however much his imperturbable manner and large beard implied otherwise – especially dismayed to find this feature. ‘It must,’ he pointed out to the team who escorted him, ‘represent a weak spot in the pressure-robustness of the hull! How can it not?’ He was assured that steel plates, specially designed to lock together in an absolute seal, covered the six-foot-wide porthole when it was not being used for scientific observation. ‘I have served in a dozen submarines,’ Cloche said, shaking his head, ‘and commanded three, and I have never seen anything like it. Is this a warship of the French navy – or is it a lakeside pleasure skiff?’

‘May a warship not also have the capacity for observation and scientific enquiry?’ returned the official.

‘But – so large a porthole! The structure must be weaker at this place.’

‘The tolerances of the Plongeur are far in advance of comparable vessels,’ said the ministerial aide

‘In point of fact, the shipyards of—’ began a junior ministerial staffman.

The ministerial aide coughed loudly, and glowered at his subordinate. ‘There is no need,’ he said, brusquely, ‘to trespass upon the official secrets of the Republic by speaking of specific locations.’

‘Was the Plongeur not built here in the shipyards of Saint-Nazaire?’ asked Cloche, amazed.

That the ministerial aide would not be drawn further on this matter suggested to the captain that the answer to his question was that Saint-Nazaire was not the site of construction. But if not here – then where?

Of course the Plongeur was top secret. Although two years had passed since the US Navy had included nuclear submarines in its fleet, and despite the fact that, of course, France was a nuclear power, the existence of this advanced prototype of a radically new sort of submarine was closely guarded. It sailed without fanfare or notice, and it vanished into the great deep in the same manner. Nobody save a few senior officials and technicians knew of the Plongeur’s existence; and few amongst that select group mourned its loss.

It sailed from Saint-Nazaire before dawn. Midmorning, it essayed submerging for the first time. For most of the day of the 29th it performed a set of pre-arranged manoeuvres; testing the underwater and surface fitnesses of the craft. Through the night of the 29th and through the early hours of the 30th June it sailed west-northwest, leaving behind it the coast of northern Spain. Its last transmission was received before dawn on the morning of the 30th: Captain Cloche reported that he was about to take the craft down to its maximum dive depth. In the event the Plongeur passed far below that supposed ‘maximum’. No further transmissions were received.





















The Captain's Last Supper

Almost as soon as the Plongeur was underway, Captain Cloche requested the presence of both Indian scientists in his cabin. The men entered a little awkwardly, unused to negotiating the confined spaces of the craft.

‘Messieurs,’ said Cloche, without further preliminary. ‘There are few situations in which a robust chain-of-command matters as much as it does upon a submarine. We are not presently at war, but nevertheless. At one thousand metres below the surface of the sea, the slightest mistake is death. I trust I need not labour this point.’

‘Indeed not, Captain,’ said Amanpreet Jhutti.

‘I have studied, as far as my capacity permits me, the operation of the engine that powers this craft. I do not pretend to understand it entirely. I do not need to. As captain, my study must in the first instance be people. I have confidence in my crew. But I will say frankly to you, messieurs, that I do not know you; and I do not know your Monsieur Lebret either. I appreciate that he has been posted here by the direct authority of the minister of National Defence; and I understand that he has been supervising your work…’

‘Say, rather, liaising,’ said Jhutti. He spoke French fluently, although with a slight accent.

The captain was not used to being interrupted. He cleared his throat, thunderously. ‘So he is not, in effect, your superior officer?’

‘Not at all,’ said Ghatwala.

‘I have no disobliging impulses as far as Monsieur Lebret is concerned,’ said the captain. ‘But I do not know him, and cannot pretend to be happy that he has been parachuted into my crew at the last moment. I am prepared to tolerate the presence of you two, messieurs, since this experimental “atomic” drive is clearly beyond the technical capacity of ordinary naval engineers. But I must insist that you operate under my authority at all times. I request an assurance from you, in short, that there shall be no conflict between my orders and those of Monsieur Lebret.’

‘We understand, Captain,’ said Jhutti, gravely.

‘Good. At any rate, I invite you all to join me for supper, this evening at seven. My lieutenant de vaisseau Monsieur Boucher will also be there. I suppose our Government “observer”, Monsieur Lebret, will also attend.’

‘You have no excess of love for your present Government I think, Captain,’ said Jhutti.

‘I avoid all political complications,’ said Cloche, with a severe expression. ‘Of whatever stripe. I only wish that political complications would similarly avoid me, and my work. But the presence of Monsieur Lebret suggests that this will not come to pass.’

‘If it settles your mind at all, Captain,’ said Jhutti, glancing briefly at his countryman, ‘I do not believe that Lebret is here in a political capacity.’

‘You know who his uncle is?’

‘I do not.’

‘Pierre Lebret, the very same. Through this relative, our “observer” has a personal relationship with the Minister of National Defence, de Gaulle.’

‘I do not see—’

But the captain put up his hand, and shook his heavy head. ‘Until this evening, messieurs.’

As the scientists turned to leave the cramped cabin, the captain spoke again. ‘Since we have broached the subject of politics,’ he said, ‘you might gratify my curiosity on one subject.’ Messieurs Jhutti and Ghatwala turned back to face him. ‘You are Indian nationals. I commend the advances your nation has made – certain advances in atomic technology. I can see why you might wish to develop these advances aboard a craft of a more advanced Western nation, rather than one of the as-yet rudimentary Indian navy. But I am curious why you brought your technological expertise to my nation? Would not the British Royal Navy have welcomed you enthusiastically?’

‘Perhaps they would,’ said Jhutti, drily.


‘Captain,’ said Jhutti, again giving his compatriot a brief, queer look. ‘You are, perhaps, aware of the reputation of Pierre Loti?’

‘Loti? The sailor? Of course!’

‘He was a celebrated naval officer,’ agreed Jhutti. ‘But also a writer of genius. Fifty years ago he published a book called L’Inde sans les Anglais – India without the English. Reading that book as a young man had – shall we say, a profound influence upon me.’

‘Fifty years ago!’ said the captain. He sniffed. ‘Very well. I do not wish to initiate a political discussion. I care only for loyalty.’

‘Loyalty,’ said Jhutti, ‘is a political word.’

But Cloche had turned his face away, pretending to busy himself with his log book. The men left the cabin.

*   *   *

The day was spent in simple manoeuvres; dives to a hundred feet or so, and resurfacings. Surfacing is more of a problem for submarines than many people realise; or to be precise, the problem is in surfacing too rapidly, for too eager a buoyancy can propel a submarine salmon-like into the air, to crash back down again. In such a circumstance the blow places unhealthy strains upon the superstructure, and can disarrange the pattern of hull plates, which in turn can provoke catastrophe when the vessel resubmerges. Indeed, after the loss of the Plongeur, the official enquiry specifically considered whether initial manoeuvres had caused any such flaw to appear in the skin or ballast tanks of the craft. But there was no evidence of anything out of the ordinary; and the last two messages received from Captain Cloche reported his perfect satisfaction with both the ongoing exercises and the health of his vessel.

Eventually the day’s exercises were completed. Since the seas were calm – and since it is difficult for even the most sophisticated submarine to maintain horizontal trim whilst underwater – the Plongeur surfaced for the night. Tables were laid for the evening meal. The captain’s nook, compact as a wall-set table in an underground café, was crowded. Cloche himself was there, of course; as well as Boucher, and the taciturn engineer Castor, and the two scientists Jhutti and Ghatwala. In addition, the government ‘officer’ Lebret was present. Matelot Pannier served the food.

‘Eat as much as you can,’ said Pannier, stacking empty soup bowls along his left arm whilst distributing the plates for the next course with his right. ‘The torpedo racks are stuffed with grub.’

‘With what, Monsieur Pannier?’ asked the captain.

‘Food, sir.’

‘I gave no such order! Are you sure?’

‘As eggs,’ confirmed the cook.

‘And you signed off on this?’ gloomed Cloche, bunching his brows. ‘Without my authority?’

The cook opened his eyes very wide, and wiped his chin with his white apron. But before he could answer, Monsieur Lebret spoke up.

‘The space would otherwise be empty,’ he said. ‘Since we had no brief to carry weapons on a test mission, I authorised the arsenal spaces to be filled with extra supplies.’

The captain’s face drew upon itself in contained fury. ‘We will be at sea a mere two weeks, Monsieur,’ he observed. ‘Our complement of supplies will be more than sufficient.’

‘It seemed to me, Captain,’ said Lebret, affably, ‘that useful ballast – such as tins and bottles – must be preferable to useless lumber.’

All eyes were on the captain. Everybody knew that this was a matter not of commissioning extra supplies, but rather of circumventing the authority of the captain. Perhaps Lebret hoped to sell this surplus requisitioned food through the black market upon the return to port.

‘I am entitled,’ Cloche said, in a soft voice, ‘to know what is happening on my boat, M’sieur.’

Lebret met the captain’s gaze without flinching. He was a man in his early forties, with a round, almost childlike face and a wispy beard like the hairs of a coconut sprouting from his chin and cheeks. But there was something olive-pit-hard about his eyes. ‘Naturally,’ he replied.

‘It may be the case,’ the captain said, his ire increasing incrementally with each word. ‘That you are unfamiliar with the way things are ordered upon a vessel of the French navy. Permit me to inform you: the captain’s authority is absolute, and must be consulted in every question, no matter how trivial. Do you understand this principle? More importantly do you accept it?’

‘Like you,’ said Lebret, ‘I am accustomed to the exercise of authority, and have grown used to others deferring to me. Nevertheless, I am confident we will be able to maintain a détente during the short period we must spend together.’

This evasive answer, of course, caused the captain’s ferocity to focus. ‘No, M’sieur!’ he said forcefully. ‘No. Not like me. You may be accustomed to ordering others about, but your experience is not like mine. You did not fight for the Free French, risking death every day in the black waters of the winter Atlantic. You were not shipwrecked three times, clinging to wreckage in a sea of spilled oil amongst the corpses of your comrades!’

Lebret’s eyebrows rose, but his expression settled almost at once back into its serenely insolent mask. ‘Perhaps I understand your animosity, Captain Cloche. You have, I suppose, heard of my work for the Vichy administration?’

‘I have heard the rumours,’ said the captain, directing his attention to the food on his plate.

‘Ah, but rumours,’ said Lebret easily, ‘may not be trusted. Appearances, you see, can trump reality. And since you claim familiarity with my past, captain, let me say: I know a great many things about your career, too. I may even be better placed to assess which of us has more truly served France.’

‘You dare not compare our experiences!’

‘I report directly to the chief of National Defence, de Gaulle himself. You think he would be happy having me working under him if he were not satisfied with my war record?’

‘The ministry of National Defence,’ Cloche returned, ‘is under the joint command of Messieurs de Gaulle and Guillaumat. How do I know which of the two is your true master?’

Lebret pushed his plate away. ‘My true master is France,’ he replied, complacently.

‘I insist,’ the captain retorted instantly, ‘that you agree to submit to my authority during this voyage!’

‘I concede you are the captain of this vessel.’

Cloche glowered at the shoreman, his broad beard trembling as he chewed. But he said no more.

A gloomy mood settled over the table. Boucher, a red-faced, jolly-mouthed fellow whose small eyes were overroofed by a great white dome of bald forehead, tried to lighten the mood.

‘So,’ he said, perkily. ‘Can anyone explain the why this atomic pile must be so large and heavy? It seems counterintuitive, since atoms themselves are the smallest of things!’

‘Our pile is one of the smallest yet made,’ replied Ghatwala. Then, looking at the ceiling, he added: ‘I appreciate that you spoke in jest, Monsieur.’

‘Top secret,’ grumbled Castor. ‘And more than half of what I knew about engines thrown in the incinerator!’

‘That,’ said Lebret, is one reason why we have the pleasure of Messieurs Jhutti and Ghatawala’s company.’

Castor, the engineer, had a snouty, swarthy face; and a tendency to snuffle into his own sinuses. He glanced at the scientists, sitting awkwardly about the captain’s narrow table, and scowled. ‘There’s some will hate a man for a black face,’ he announced, to nobody in particular. ‘But not I.’ Something about the way he said this did not inspire confidence.

For several long seconds nobody spoke.

‘Come!’ said Lebret, suddenly, lifting his wine glass. ‘We are sailing in open sea in the most advanced submarine France has yet seen! We have stolen a march on the USSR, on the British, even on the US Navy! Let us not sour the mood.’

Everyone at the table raised their glasses.

‘Tomorrow,’ said the captain. ‘We shall take her down to a thousand metres, and see how well she stands the force of deep water.’

‘I am confident,’ said Amanpreet Jhutti, ‘that she will surpass your expectations.’

‘Speaking of rumours,’ said Castor, although nobody had been. ‘The chatter below decks is that this technology has been, shall we say, appropriated from the Russians.’

Jhutti shook his head, rapidly. ‘Is this what the crew believe? Why would they think so?’

‘Come, come,’ said Castor. ‘With any respect due to you, M’sieur, and so on, and so forth. But whoever heard of an Indian designing a submarine?’

‘The inventor and captain of the Nautilus, Jules Verne’s celebrated submarine, was an Indian,’ observed Ghatwala.

Castor jerked in his seat and sat up straighter. ‘By no means,’ he snapped. ‘A Pole.’

‘I assure you, Monsieur,’ Ghatwala began to say; but Castor spoke across him. ‘Captain Nemo, the hero of a novel I know very well – written by a countryman of mine after all, and not yours – Captain Nemo was a Polish aristocrat.’

The Indians exchanged glances, and returned quietly to their meal.

‘At any rate,’ said Lebret, ‘whilst the design of the atomic pile does owe a great deal to the input of these two talented Punjabis, the design of the submarine itself…’ He broke off, and looked around. ‘Well, shall we say – blueprints were discovered in Abdallabad. Despite their age, they specified a number of remarkable innovations in submarine design.’ He lifted his glass of wine.

Lieutenant Boucher swallowed his mouthful. ‘You don’t say?’ he said, perkily. ‘Lucky for us that the Indian navy didn’t seize those plans!’

‘Lucky for us?’ echoed Jhutti.

‘For France, I mean.’ He grinned. ‘Now, don’t get testy, M’sieur. I was born in Algeria. I have no problem thinking of a man with a black face as French – it doesn’t disqualify him in myeyes.’

‘I shall assume you intend no offensiveness in speaking this way,’ said Jhutti, coolly.

‘France is shattered,’ declared Lebret, grandly. ‘It has endured its greatest catastrophe, invasion and submission – and it has survived. Nevertheless we are barely piecing together our nation again. How many governments have we had in the last five years? Nine, is it? And the war is thirteen full years behind us now! Still we suffer.’ He shook his head, took a slurp of wine and picked a cigarette case from his jacket pocket. ‘The money for this project is not French, messieurs – the captain knows this already. The funding is, mostly, Swiss. This may in part explain his hostility.’

Cloche made a noise, halfway between a bark and a syllable of speech. He glowered at Lebret, who did not flinch.

‘But,’ said Boucher, startled, ‘we do sail under the French flag!’

‘Switzerland lacking seaports,’ suggested Ghatwala, ‘finds itself at a disadvantage, perhaps?’

‘I talk of private money, not governmental funding,’ said Lebret. ‘May I smoke, captain?’ he asked, pulling a cigarette case from his jacket pocket. ‘My understanding of the technology involved in this manner of boat – incomplete though it is – leads me to believe that you can conjure air magically from the seawater itself, using the paring knife of atomic power. So perhaps you do not mind if we contaminate the breathable with a little fragrant tobacco?’

Captain Cloche was glowering at the official observer. ‘Perhaps a cigarette,’ he said eventually, ‘will be a cork, to stop up your babbling mouth?’

Lebret laughed a gurgly laugh, clicking his lighter and dabbing a painterly touch of orange flame to the end of his cigarette. ‘But discretion is my saint’s day name, Captain! It is my very stock-in-trade! Of course, if you think I have said too much, I will happily hold my peace.’

The others continued eating, in silence, whilst Lebret sat back (as far as the confined space permitted him) and extruded limbs and tentacles of smoke from his mouth, as if a smoke-octopus lurked in his torso. Eventually the captain wiped his mouth with a napkin and spoke again.

‘Messieurs,’ he declared. ‘Since our official observer has permitted the feline secret egress from its sac, I ought perhaps to say a little more. I am a Frenchman, first and last. I am a sailor, first and last. I do not concern myself with the doings of politicians and financiers, of businessmen and Jews and communists and capitalists. How the government of France were able to finance this splendid machine is not my business. Say the money is Swiss! Money is not our concern. Our concern is the sea. The sea is not persuaded by bankers’ drafts and stocks of bullion; the sea respects nothing but the grit and willpower of dedicated seamen. And with that, messieurs, good night.’

The captain got creakily to his feet and withdrew to his cabin.

* * *

The Plongeur rode the tranquil sea that night, beneath the infinite spread of constellations; each star its own intricate world, gleaming white in the black ether. Waves caressed the flanks of the floating submarine with the tenderness violent beings sometimes bestow on a whim. Inside some men slept, and some served their turn on the night watch.

The dawn rose swiftly, as it does at sea. Captain Cloche took a last turn upon the deck of his conning tower. The wind was growing brisker, and myriad wavelets covered the surface of the water with dragon scales. The sky a pale blue. A few submarine-shaped white clouds clustered together near the western horizon.

‘Prepare to dive!’ Cloche announced, fitting his burly form through the small hatch and trotting down the metal ladder. Matelot Avocat followed him, drawing the hatch closed after him; shutting away – in fact – the last view of the wide sky any of that crew would ever see again.



Copyright © 2015 Adam Roberts.

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Adam Roberts is a writer of sci-fi novels and stories, as well as Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature in English at Royal Holloway, University of London. Salt, Gradisil, and Yellow Blue Tibia were nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. By Light Alone has been shortlisted for the 2012 BSFA Award.


  1. superhersh2002

    Nice spin on an old timeless story..

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