Jules Verne’s stories of science fiction adventure have acquired an almost legendary status. I was aware of his reputation as an author with an uncanny knack for predicting the future, yet I’d never got round to reading a single one of his books until I tried The Mysterious Island.
Rather than being introduced to Verne through one of his best-loved works such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I must confess that I chose to download this one because it was a free ebook. It also happened to tie in nicely with the escapism theme which I keep returning to recently: the idea of retreating to a peaceful spot in the middle of nowhere appealed to me.
In The Mysterious Island, the five main characters (and their dog) find themselves stranded on a small, undiscovered island in the South Pacific. They are thousands of miles from civilisation and all other human contact, and they have no way of sending or going for help. So the group set about making the best of what they have and embark on civilising the island.
They literally begin their adventure with nothing, not even a knife or a means of making fire. As the novel progresses, they evolve their tools and their luxuries by following in the footsteps of their ancestors, learning to become hunters, farmers, blacksmiths, even scientists, and progressing at an incredibly fast rate. This is mainly thanks to the unbelievably vast knowledge of their leader Captain Harding (or Smith in some editions). He teaches them how to carve furniture, forge iron and create explosives, the materials for which they are happily able to extract from the island’s natural resources. I have to say that this meant I was forced to suspend belief to quite an extent in order to enjoy the novel (which didn’t bother me, by the way, but may not be for everyone).
The islanders are also subject to a remarkable series of lucky breaks, such as a chest filled with clothing and navigation equipment washing up on the shore, or their dog Top being mysteriously saved from an attack by a sea creature, which they at first try to dismiss as fortunate coincidences. However, as these odd events mount up, even Captain Harding’s severely logical brain struggles to find rational explanations for them all, and the group are forced to consider the possibility that a God-like presence also inhabits their island.
The way in which the book describes these men making use of what little they have in the worst of circumstances, yet still maintaining a positive outlook, made this an interesting read from the start. It gets a little wordy and technical at times when Captain Harding outlines yet another new plan, such as his implementation of a telegraph system (yes, telegraph poles on this beautiful, unspoilt island!) but you can easily skim over these bits if it gets a bit too much: they’re quite short. Overall I enjoyed their adventure and their triumph over their surroundings, and the supernatural element keeps you guessing until the end.
Captain Harding is a little pompous, but the other characters are likeable if not particularly developed. I’m not sure that I agreed with the heavy-handed civilising of their island, but you have to bear in mind the time in which this was written. This work was first published in 1874: a time in which the possibilities and resources available to man still seemed infinite and incredibly exciting. This is worth reading just to experience that feeling of man’s potential to create anything he can dream up.