If you were to try to predict what you would find in a 19th century novel called the Mysterious Island I expect you would include dinosaurs/extinct creatures, long lost explorers rediscovered living surprisingly well, gold/lost treasure, and volcanoes that destroy the island seconds after the last-minute rescue. (Or was that the plot of Alvin and the Chipmunks’ recent film ?) Some of these conventions are honoured here, but not at all in the way I expected.
The mysterious island is set in the uncharted waters of the Pacific, and the explorers are escapees from the American Civil War (which at the time of publication (1860’s) was just ending), blown off course in their escape balloon. Well it might happen. They go about mastering their environment with an extraordinary efficiency, helped by a particular genius with engineering and a sufficiency of natural materials wherever they look, such that by the end of their second year of captivity they are enjoying virtually every luxury afforded by modern life. Nothing seems too complex or technical to be beyond their grasp. This is the age when man was master of his environment, and where Robinson Crusoe made himself comfortable on his island, these guys turn it into a virtual metropolis, so much so that they don’t particularly want to leave.
So apart from the unnatural biodiversity of the island, what is the mystery? At first this is very lightly done – this is no Prospero’s Island, haunted by voices. But there are hints that there is more to this island than the castaways think, and these hints steadily accumulate so that by the time of the final “reveal” – and I won’t spoil it for you – the resolution is worth the wait, and it was definitely not one I would have predicted. In terms of echoes of modern productions, there is a strong hint here that the writers and producers of the TV series Lost must also have read this novel once upon a time – the unseen hand that guides their time on the island is a common thread between the two works.
Verne clearly was an enthusiastic amateur scientist, and spends a disproportionate amount of time walking the reader through detailed technical explanations of the islanders’ various innovations and inventions. Generally I have a rule against skimming sections of text – it is cheating really – but I made a few exceptions here, although far fewer than in “From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon” which is weighed down with some fairly obscure and quite possibly nonsensical analysis of the mathematics of space flight. In this novel, one of the earliest about space travel, some comic American gun enthusiasts fire a massive cannon with a manned capsule at the moon. The travellers survive the return journey – they don’t actually land on the moon, but “slingshot” round it in a way similar to Apollo 13 many years later – by landing in the ocean.
I am not sure if I will continue with Verne for now, or go in a different direction – perhaps some more non-fiction?