Earlier this summer we challenged all of your to join the NonPro Book Club as we re-read a classic of science fiction and adventure, “The Mysterious Island” by Jules Vern. For many of you, this was a first foray into reading Vern or period scifi in general, and to bridge the gap we tried to draw attention to the many elements of steam-punk and the strange similarities between The Mysterious Island and another tale of castaways in peril, LOST.
As we mentioned in our first write-up about the book, The Mysterious Island is fairly typical of what pulp scifi stories would become. Memorable stock characters, rich world-building, and sense of urgency tempered with a desire to provide minute detail of a setting the reader would find exotic – all are present, and indeed, many of these tropes were first developed by Vern himself.
Twists and Turns!
No matter how well off and ingenious our castaways seem, Vern is never completely at a loss for obstacles to hurl at them. While half the novel is dedicated to showing how they managed to produce nitro from manatee fat (not an exaggeration), the rest of the novel shows them battling against entropy, as the course of their luck turns foul. There are pirates and volcanoes and a mysterious (and somewhat ominous) benefactor for our heroes to contend with, and in the second half of the story we really do wonder if they will all get out all right.
More annoying LOST comparisons
- The others attack!
- Their make-shift vessel is destroyed!
- A mysterious cable is found!
- A powerful force within the island is at work!
What amazes me most about the similarities between The Mysterious Island and Lost are actually how the two stories tackle dramatic resolution differently. In each tale, we have a cast of characters that are the central focus of the story, thrust into an isolated locale with some mysterious properties. There are benefits to being there (like not drowning) but the isolation of being “saved” and separated from their old lives introduces conflict. Added to this interpersonal conflict, our characters must survive in the hostile natural environment, and struggle to comprehend the strange secret nature of the island that is their new home.
The Mysterious Island wonderfully shows man versus nature, which makes sense given the time period in which this was written. Whereas modern desert island survival stories tend to gloss over how their characters managed to live, we get a truly science fiction approach by Vern, who not only details how his characters survive, but how they thrive. There is little hand-waving here – by the end you believe that you too can train an orangutan to farm goats (or at very least, you believe that a waterfall powered saw is a reasonable DIY project).
With the character of Ayrton, we see how our novel deals the emotional redemption characteristic of the show LOST. Here again, we see how the period colors the work, as Ayrton’s past life as a criminal is almost regarded as a disease to which he must be purged. Even as he rejoins society as a civilized human being, is seems as if he’ll always live under the burden of what he once was.
But most of all, The Mysterious Island does something far better than LOST ever could; uphold the sense of purpose behind the wonder.
As the island’s mysteries finally break, Vern’s sentences grow shorter, the anticipation is higher. All the strangeness of their time on the island builds to a crescendo as they trace the route left to them to the heart of the mystery. The reveal is astonishing, and extremely gratifying to the reader. Imagine if you were a fan of Vern’s work at the time, and noticed all the tie-ins and call-backs and world-building that went into the novel. J.J. Abrams is pretty famous for the inter-connectivity of his productions. Once again, Vern was first.
Well, that about wraps it up for our first delve into classic scifi with our re-reading of Jules Vern’s “The Mysterious Island” What were your thoughts?