Though Jules Verne was best known as the father of science fiction—his most famous works, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Journey to the Center of the Earth, but largely excluding Around the World in Eighty Days, all share this genre—but not even he could resist the hot topic of desert islands. Daniel Defoe arguably started the phenomenon with Robinson Crusoe in the early 18th century, and was imitated by everything from The Swiss Family Robinson (Wyss, 1812) to Gilligan’s Island (1964).
The only reason I so eagerly rushed out to read The Mysterious Island as a young boy was because I heard—the source is lost to me now—that the book contained an appearance by the hero (villain?) of 20,000 Leagues…, Captain Nemo. Moreover, I was promised, this later book would explain Nemo’s origins, heretofore shrouded in mystery. I was vaguely familiar with the genre at that point (I was probably about 10), having watched the requisite television like Gilligan’s Island and even, I suppose, Lost in Space, in addition to having read some pathetic children’s abridgment of Robinson Crusoe. Still, The Mysterious Island appealed to me for a number of different reasons which still hold true today.
In the throes of the American Civil War, five Yankee prisoners of war (and a dog) in Richmond, VA, escape from that besieged city in a hot air balloon, but a terrible storm hurls them to a far-flung island in the Pacific, with little but their timepieces and the clothes on their back. At their lead is Cyrus Smith, an engineer; Pencroft, a sailor and former whaler; Herbert, a teenage boy and budding naturalist1; Neb, a freed slave and “servant” of Harding; Gideon Spilett, an intrepid reporter; and finally Top, the engineer’s faithful Anglo-Norman.
The edition of The Mysterious Island I used to own contained an afterword by Isaac Asimov, who, in addition to mentioning the somewhat derivative nature of Verne’s plot by the time he wrote it, also noted that, in contrast to the more complicated characters of a book like 20,000 Leagues, this book contains a lot of Mary Sues: characters so talented and honorable and likeable as to be completely unbelievable.
It should come as little surprise, then, that from the intelligence of Smith and the strong-backed perseverance of his comrades, this little group of castaways managed the transformation from storm-tossed flotsam to a thriving little colony, replete with a sheltered carved from solid granite (thanks to a little nitroglycerin), tools, utensils, and a well-stocked larder. This is relatively standard fare, except for the care which Verne dedicated to the scientific aspects of the story: identifying the floræ and faunæ, describing mechanical and chemical operations undertaken by Harding (including his manufacture of explosives), and plotting the approximate location of the castaways’ new home, dubbed Lincoln Island in honor of the president whom they still assumed to be alive.
The book is another example of my love for engineering novels, in the tradition of Frankowski’s Cross-Time Engineer (or parts of it). There’s something about watching a band of wretches dig in and build up infrastructure that gets my literary juices flowing, and The Mysterious Island is a great example of it, even if their success does seem telegraphed from the very beginning: it is clear this time around who the good guys are, and we as readers have little doubt that they will succeed in their endeavors.
Hanging over everything these soi-disant colonists do, however, is a string of mysterious occurrences—all benevolent—which they are at odds to explain, but which arouses Harding’s largely unvoiced suspicion. This benefactor was responsible for everything from Harding’s rescue from the aforementioned storm to Pencroft and Herbert’s successful return voyage from a neighboring island. Just who this benefactor is, and how he will play into the story, may be spoiled somewhat by my initial recognition that Captain Nemo makes an appearance in the book, but much of the fun is learning the submariner’s backstory, for which you will simply have to read the novel (or the Wikipedia entry, I suppose).
In fact, for much of the novel’s long history, it was unavailable in English in its full, unabridged form. Early editions had changed names (Cyrus Smith became Cyrus Harding) and stripped some of the more technical details; Verne expends no little energy telling his readers how a sawmill works, for instance. It was only as recently as 2001, therefore, that English-speaking readers got the chance to read The Mysterious Island asymptotically approaching how Verne intended us to. I have a history of remarking upon the vagaries of translation; here, though one doesn’t think of Verne as being foreign or inscrutable, this book didn’t even contain the correct character names until more than a century after its first English publication.
Verne is best known for other books—for which see above—and I think it is downright criminal that The Mysterious Island has languished in relative obscurity. One can understand that the tales of a mad scientist-cum-submariner, or a gripping geological descent into the very center of the earth, or even a whirlwind race around the globe manage to capture the fascination more than another book of the “deserted island” mould, but though Verne keeps good company with the likes of Defoe, labeling The Mysterious Island as merely another Robinsonade does it a great injustice.
- No pun intended[↩]