Jules Verne is known as the one of the first writers of science fiction, penning imaginative tales before Wells, before Conan Doyle, and certainly before Edgar Rice Burroughs, and in one sense or another all of these latter three owe him a certain debt (as do those who follow later still). Verne’s concern with technology and the improvements it might bring, as well as the discoveries yet to be made by science, mark him out as distinct from many other writers of his day. However, that primacy comes at a price: it can also leave a writer open to the ravages of time, as what was scientifically au fait in 1870 might fall well short of the fences a century later. And this is where we find Verne’s The Mysterious Island.
Published after 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island (subtitled The Modern Robinson Crusoe) begins during the last weeks of the American Civil War (the last Confederate units were to surrender on May 26, 1865, our story begins on March 25), and its five protagonists are Americans fighting on the Union side but held captive in Richmond, Virginia. They seize a tethered observation balloon in the dead of night, intending to drift beyond Confederate influence and make good their escape. Instead, they are caught up in a tremendous storm, which Verne has raging from the 18th to the 25th of March of that year, between the 35th parallel north to the 40th parallel south (this storm, from the best that I can tell, is otherwise unknown to history). Against all prevailing norms (here one must, I suppose, forgive Verne’s contradiction of facts about North American weather as yet unknown at the time of composition), the balloon is blown from Richmond, Virginia, to the southwest. The five escapees (and “Top,” the loyal dog) are hurled for many days by a gale which carries them improbably far across the equator and over the Pacific Ocean, where the now-damaged balloon falls, within convenient swimming distance of an unknown island.
Four members of the party, Pencroft the sailor, Gideon Spillet the reporter, Neb (short for Nebuchednezzar) the freed slave and servant of Captain Cyrus Harding, and Herbert Brown, a boy who had befriended the rough and tumble seaman, are washed ashore. Captain Harding and the dog Top were both flung from the balloon in the tempest, and are feared lost. The survivors are quickly reunited, however, and set about attempting to explore and tame their new island home. Cast ashore with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the contents of their pockets (having discarded everything in the balloon, including the basket, in order to remain aloft during the storm), readers would be reasonable if they expected a fair number of stone tools and rude huts to soon dot the landscape. Not so, for readers of Jules Verne. Determined to show the primacy of 19th century science and technology over something so trivial as the complete absence of industrialization, Verne has given his readers Cyrus Harding, and a geologically improbable island.
This is the first point where the book really bothered me. Lincoln Island, as our patriotic travelers have christened it (not to know that Lincoln was assassinated shortly after their flight), is a volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific, roughly equidistant from South America and New Zealand. Yet, upon this island, not only is there are highly developed forest ecosystem, with a number of plants and trees that young Herbert happens to recognize (I would need days of research and study to determine just if those species in fact exist in the southern hemisphere), there are a variety of animals, including wild pigs, jaguars, “quadrumma,” anthropoid apes which are eventually identified as orangutans, a host of birds, kangaroos (!), and “koalas” (!!), by which Verne sometimes appears to mean “sloths” (!!!), and more. Unfortunately, this is frankly ridiculous. The mix of species (apart from the birds), some of which are only known from one location (i.e.; kangaroos in Australia, sloths in South America), make this conceit a bit far-fetched. But in 1870? I think even then this is too much to believe: Charles Darwin, for example, visited the region in the 1830s, and published a popular book on the subject (now known as The Voyage of the Beagle, a cracking good read in its own right) long before he annoyed biblical literalists with On the Origin of Species. But the variety of fauna with which Verne populates the island is frankly ridiculous.
And even if we are to allow the wildly exaggerated number of animal species, what about the geology? Verne’s mysterious island (basically a volcanic cinder cone island, remember) sports an astonishingly diverse supply of ore and raw materials. Harding recognizes, in no particular order, clay for brick making, two different kinds of iron ore (one being magnetite, from its description, the other hematite), potash, and a host of other natural materials. With these, he manufactures, in no particular order, bricks, iron tools, cables and wires, nails, magnets, explosives (!) in the form of nitrocellulose or gun cotton, fuming nitric acid, batteries for a telegraph… the list carries on to the point of absurdity. And when Herbert luckily finds a few grains of wheat in his pocket, this is miraculously cultivated into a full crop of all the wheat that the castaways could desire.
Here’s the thing. I grant that a 19th century chemist would have to know — and remember — far more basic chemistry than his 21st century counterpart (or even me). But the knowledge and memories of Harding and his team simply beggar believe. The sailor happens to be a skilled carpenter and shipwright? Okay. Neb happens to be a gifted cook? Fine. Herbert knows seemingly every plant that he encounters, even though he has only seen similar things in books? Whatever. But Harding can manufacture nitric acid (or rather, in which I charmingly learned a new term for it, azotic acid) from memory, under primitive conditions, without even blowing his own glassware? No. And then there’s the manufacture of sufficiently pure and explosive material to hollow out the “Granite House” and open it up for habitation by the castaways? Never mind the “hydraulic lift” used by them to reach their new home? And where’d the granite come from anyway? Granite doesn’t form by vulcanism… aaargh.
So if you’re reading this book with a modern science background, you just end up shaking your head. It’s not merely deus ex machina, it’s a whole damned Olympus-worth of deities sauntering onto the scene.
Then there’s the tale itself. If you’ve recently read Robinson Crusoe, then yes, it’s a bit like that, only with more castaways. There are the standard concerns for shelter, defense from wild beasts, food, clothing, and the rest of it. The five survivors are industrious almost to a fault, and their conversations are undeniably wholesome. Granted, The Mysterious Island was published in 1870, but I can’t think of a single incident that would make the vicar’s wife blush (not that she wasn’t always a saucy little minx) in the whole of this book, and that’s after the survivors take on one of the local orangutans as a sort of servant.
Until the final third of the book, the action is limited to one boat voyage (oh yes, did I mention that they build a bloody boat, complete with rigging?) with mysterious castaway brought back to the island. However, the final third features a gang of bloodthirsty pirates who try to overthrow our heroes, the appearance of more vital medicines seemingly from nowhere, the mysterious electrocution deaths of the pirates, and, finally, the revelation of the mysterious benefactor who has been observing and aiding the five (then six) castaways at key points in the narrative, but who never thinks to rescue them or even send a message on their behalf.
Verne’s tale carries on until the final chapters, when the secret of the island is finally and fully revealed. I don’t think that it’s a spoiler to say that the surprise guest at the feast is none other than the legendary Captain Nemo, now old and dying aboard his fabulous submarine Nautilus. Here, some of Verne’s prescience is impressive; his description of what is essentially an arc light used to light the submarine’s lair predates the proliferation of arc lights by more than a decade, and the Nautilus is, as described, a fantastic and wonderful craft, sadly wasted by our heroes and allowed to sink into the depths without a trace. Shortly after this loss, with their efforts to build a full-sized boat of their own and make good their escape only somewhat frustrated by the near complete destruction of Lincoln Island in a volcanic eruption (eerily presaging that of Krakatoa by about a dozen years), our heroes are at last rescued and finally returned home.
And I haven’t even mentioned their orangutan butler. I really wanted to, but I honestly didn’t think anyone would believe me.
If you can sufficiently disengage from reality and fact, The Mysterious Island can be an interesting, and even enjoyable read. There’s a lot of old-fashioned, formal language (in this 1960s-vintage translation, anyway), even more unbelievable science, and still more general silliness, but it is a solid tale of some incredibly clever castaways. These are the sorts of people with whom you’d want to be trapped on a remote island, at least from a sheer survival point-of-view. I think that if I’d had the patience for it when I was twelve, I might have been very fond of it even today. But as it stands, I found the book just a little too much an unsuccessful synthesis of Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Boy’s Life magazine or The Boy’s Own Paper. It was, in essence, just a bridge too far, even for Verne’s miraculous castaways to have built with seemingly zero effort. Three stars.
Reviewed 14 June 2016.