Seems like I’ve been on a Jules Verne kick lately, slowly working my way through the classics. I’d heard about Mysterious Island before, and seen several of the films, but like watching the movie version of Around the World in 80 Days, the book is very much different!
To start with, this is NOT to a precursor Conan Doyle’s Lost World or Burroughs People that Time Forgot. There are no dinosaurs or aliens or giant insects. Instead, like most of Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages, it is a science text book wrapped up in an adventure yarn. It’s also a sort of sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, although that connection is incredibly tenuous, bearing on one crossover character who doesn’t actually make an on stage appearance until very late in the game.
What the story does have, though, is a character called Cyrus Harding who is an engineer. He is also, probably, the smartest man ever to live and would give the Professor on Gilligan’s Island a run for his money. Harding can do anything with anything. Need glass, no problem, Harding can glaze using three coconuts and a fish. Electricity? Sure, let’s just burn these leaves and the bones of the giant rat of Sumatra. Should we even mention the ceramics, explosives, elevator, telegraph, loom or any of the other things he recreates on the island? In fact, after two years of living an isolated existence the five castaways (and their orangutan/man servant Jupiter) are living better than they ever did on the mainland. This book, if it had an appendix with the actual formulas alluded to in the story, would be of better survival usage than the Boy Scout Handbook. It doesn’t hurt that anything Harding doesn’t know, by sheer coincidence one or another member of his party does, including Herbert who, at 16, knows more natural history than Darwin. Of course, this could all be put down to the fact these characters are all incredibly well-read. And the fact that the island couldn’t exist in reality.
All of the different flora and fauna, vegetables and minerals found on “Lincoln Island” could not co-exist in one geographic climate zone. In short, Verne gives us the perfect place for a perfect crew of castaways to be marooned. All of which would be great if there was a deeper purpose, a method to his madness. But there’s not, not really. He’s just setting us up for a slight morality play and a ripping good adventure yarn and the rest is just window dressing. Mysterious Island is a fun read, but I think I’m a bit Verne’d out at the moment.