Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

Date originally posted on Facebook: January 28, 2011
Source of book: I own this.

I am slowly republishing my early Facebook reviews on my blog. Here is one from early 2011. 

Photograph by FĂ©lix Nadar, c. 1878

Although Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered the first Science Fiction novel, the author to truly popularize the genre was Jules Verne. Whereas Shelley approached modern technology with anxiety, Verne largely celebrated it. Verne’s scientists are larger than life, work mostly for the good of others, and have few reservations about technology. One might almost say that the scientist takes the role once accorded to the gods of mythology.

Verne was unusually prescient when it came to the scientific aspects of his books. Verne accurately predicted numerous technologies before they were realized, such as submarines, rockets, and even scuba diving. What is striking is not so much the imagination (which is impressive in itself) but the accuracy of detail when it came to the actual functions and challenges of the technology. The realism is startling when considered in light of the limited scientific knowledge of the time.

The Mysterious Island may be described as a Robinson Crusoe for a later age. Five persons steal a balloon to escape from besieged Richmond, Virginia, during the American Civil War; are caught by a massive storm, and are finally deposited on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Cyrus the engineer; Gideon the journalist; Pencroft the sailor; Neb, the engineer’s servant; and Herbert, the sailor’s young assistant; must find a way to survive with their wits and a minimum of possessions. In Crusoe’s case, he has the wreck and all it contains to start his civilization. For the protagonists of this story, all they have is their clothes, a watch, a grain of wheat, a dog, eventually the remains of the balloon fabric, and the extraordinary knowledge of Cyrus the engineer. The others each have their own areas of knowledge which will contribute to their survival.

An additional contrast with Defoe’s book is that Crusoe considers himself to be saved and sustained by Divine intervention. Indeed, Crusoe’s devotion is a central part of the narrative. Despite this, Crusoe largely survives by his wits and hard work. His survival of the wreck and eventual deliverance from the island, though, are the only clear miracles. The rest is accomplished by Crusoe’s hard work and ingenuity.

In Verne’s tale, this is partially inverted. There are a few token references to the divine, but the characters seem to feel as if they are truly alone and cast upon their own wits. Oddly enough, key turns of the plot depend on the mysterious intervention of an unknown benefactor. The deux ex machina, if you will. Who is helping them at key moments? This mystery is not revealed until the end, but the answer involves a character from another of Verne’s novels.

Verne’s books are generally more plot driven than character driven. Despite this emphasis, two of his characters have become among the most famous in all of literature. Phineas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days, and Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are familiar to many of us, whether from the movies or abridged editions for children. These two characters contain the elements common to all of Verne’s heroes. The archetype of the confident, brilliant, forceful, and above all, scientific hero is truly Verne’s invention. Nemo is perhaps best loved because he is flawed: many of Verne’s creations appear too good to be true at times.

In this book, Cyrus the engineer takes on this role. He truly is what most of us would desire in a leader. He is brilliant but not arrogant, strong but not domineering, and confident but not reckless. This is also why Pencroft the sailor seems more human and endearing. Similarly, Ned and Passepartout are the best characters in their respective books.

Another interesting facet of Verne’s writing is that he, more than any writer, has no need or interest for female characters. The Mysterious Island has exactly zero, as does 20,000 Leagues. I was particularly struck by the fact that these five men, all alone on an island for three years, never seem to miss female company. “The island supplies all our needs,” each says in his turn. This isn’t completely abnormal for the time and genre, but was a bit odd.

Verne can tell a compelling tale. He balances scientific discussion with plot pacing in a way that keeps the reader from feeling either bogged down in details or rushed through important developments. This story, like all science fiction, is best enjoyed by a reader willing to immerse him or herself in the world the author has created. Verne in this book creates a world that is a microcosm of the science of its era. Its strongest point is the joy of the creation of a society, even a civilization, out of the raw materials of the island. Its pleasure is therefore what we feel when we labor to bring order out of chaos, to bring comfort out of our efforts: in a word, to Create.

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