Memo for Nemo

William Firebrace


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The MIT Press
4 October 2022
ISBN: 9780262544085
272 pages

From the publisher

A cultural history of living in the undersea, both fictional and real, from Jules Verne's Captain Nemo to NASA's ECC02 project.

In Memo for Nemo, William Firebrace investigates human inhabitation of the undersea, both fictional and real. Beginning with Jules Verne's Captain Nemo—an undersea Renaissance man with a library of 12,000 volumes on his submarine—and proceeding through aquariums, undersea photography, artificial seas on land, nuclear-powered submarines, undersea film epics, giant squid, and NASA satellites, Firebrace examines the undersea as a zone created by exploration and invention. Throughout, the history of undersea life is accompanied by an imagined undersea, envisioned by cultural figures ranging from Verne and Herman Melville to Orson Welles and Jimi Hendrix.

Firebrace takes readers though the enormous sequence of rooms (impossible in real life) in Nemo's submarine, recounts the competition among nineteenth-century cities to build the most spectacular aquatic world, and explains the workings of the bathysphere—an early underwater vessel modeled on a hot-air balloon. He considers the aquarium's function in films as a sort of viewing lens, describes the chlorine-proof artificial sea life seen by passengers on the submarine ride at Disneyland, and reports that Jacques Cousteau's famous underwater documentaries were in fact highly staged.

The oceans of today are not those imagined by Verne; they are changing from both natural processes and human influence. Memo for Nemo documents the power of the undersea in both art and life.