Friday, March 24, 2017

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

OutMacGyvering Robinson Crusoe
What I liked best about reading Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island is that I came to the book with absolutely no idea what made the island so mysterious. Given the breadth and depth of Verne’s literary output, all manner of scientific oddities could have been possible. The less known about the book ahead of time, the more fun the reading experience. In some editions, however, the chapters have titles that act as spoilers to the story. When I was about halfway through the book, an inadvertent glance at one of these chapter headings let the cat out of the bag, ruining the surprise ending.

The Mysterious Island was originally published in French in 1874, with the English-language version, translated by William Henry Giles Kingston, coming out the following year. The story begins in 1865, during the American Civil War. Five northerners are being held as prisoners in the Confederate capital of Richmond. They make a daring escape by stealing a hot air balloon, and then end up getting caught in a hurricane. Carried thousands of miles from their native soil, the five castaways crash on an uncharted island somewhere in the temperate latitudes of the South Pacific. The group consists of Cyrus Harding, a captain in the Union Army, frequently referred to as “the engineer;” his former slave, now servant, Neb; Gideon Spilett, a reporter for the New York Herald; a sailor named Pencroft, and his teenaged ward Herbert.

For most of its length, the book is a Robinson Crusoe-style survival adventure, though survival may be an overstatement since few castaways have ever had it so easy as these five. Ever since Daniel Defoe published the original Robinson Crusoe novel back in 1719, countless imitators have tried to outdo the godfather of castaways with ever more ingenious feats of invention in the face of isolation. The Mysterious Island resembles James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater in that it gives its marooned heroes an almost unlimited ability to construct anything from coconut shells and dirt. With “the engineer” as their leader, these five can MacGyver their way out of any problem. In fact, what the book sorely needs is some adversity. Everything that Verne proposes is within the realm of scientific possibility, but there’s never any false starts, failed experiments, or tests of patience, no mistakes made, nor any conflict or disagreement between the five companions. If it’s realism you want, you won’t find it on this island, but the book does succeed as utopian fantasy. The characters are simplistic and one-dimensional, but the reader really does get to like them over time and delight vicariously in their technological successes.

I’m not a unilateral fan of Verne’s work. I enjoyed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but didn’t care much for Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Mysterious Island is more along the lines of the former example, and is likely one of Verne’s better novels. Like Twenty Thousand Leagues, the joy of scientific discovery is contagious, and the adventure is sufficiently thrilling, especially for those who appreciate the slowly building suspense of 19th-century storytelling rather than the nonstop action of a 21st-century potboiler. Another fun aspect of Verne’s work is the way he draws connections between his various books, creating a precursor to something like the Marvel Universe. Call it the Verniverse. It’s a fascinating world, and great fun to visit.
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