The Magazine

Making Science Fiction

The unmysterious future, according to Jules Verne.

Apr 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 30 • By JOHN SUTHERLAND
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The Mysterious Island
by Jules Verne
Modern Library, 640 pp., $23.95

ASKED to name the first parents--the Adams and the Eves--of science fiction, most literary chroniclers come up with five names: Mary Shelley (for "Frankenstein"), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (for "The Coming Race"), Edgar Allan Poe (who can claim to have invented all genres), Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells.

Science fiction's record for prophecy of the shape of things to come is lamentable. But of the founding quintet, Verne was the most clairvoyant. When the young French author pitched a proposal to his publisher, Pierre Jules-Hetzel, called "Paris in the Twentieth Century," the hardheaded book man turned it down as preposterous. According to Caleb Carr in his introduction to Jordan Stump's new translation of Verne's "The Mysterious Island," "Set in the 1960s, the book described a city consumed by runaway materialism and shrouded in pollution caused by automobile fumes, a city where people commonly possessed such luxuries as photo-telephonic facsimile machines but forsook even basic cultural knowledge."

"The Mysterious Island" is put forward as Verne's chef d'oeuvre. It is certainly substantial, and the new translation has the virtue of the very best Englishing--one does not notice it. The volume's introducer, Caleb Carr, is a writer who, in his own fiction, has profitably hybridized American historical settings of the Gilded Age with what H.G. Wells called "scientific romance." Carr writes lovingly about Verne, in whose work he is evidently steeped, although he makes rather hard work of the title: "Mysterious" is not connected with late-nineteenth-century detective fiction but an echo of Eug ne Sue's runaway bestseller of the 1840s, "The Mysteries of Paris."

Published in 1875, "The Mysterious Island" opens in March 1865. Five Americans--opponents of the Confederacy trapped in Richmond, which is ringed by the forces of General Ulysses Grant--make an escape by balloon. But, instead of reaching the Union forces, they are carried by storm winds far into the Pacific. The narrative begins with the necessary action hook and a barrage of exclamation marks: "Are we rising? No! Quite the reverse! We're sinking! For the love of God! Drop some ballast! That's the last sack emptied! Is the balloon climbing now? No! I think I hear waves crashing! We're over the ocean!"

Was ever an adventure story opened with more brio? In fact, the five occupants of the balloon (a mixed crew of men, including a black former slave, Neb) are over an island in the Pacific, and a Robinsoniad ensues. But Verne's version is distinctively different from its predecessors: Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," Wyss's "Swiss Family Robinson," Marryat's "Masterman Ready," or Ballantyne's "The Coral Island" (different, too, from its successors: Hughes's "High Wind in Jamaica," Golding's "Lord of the Flies," and the movie "Castaway").

Verne, a man of his time, was preoccupied with two great recent historical events: the American Civil War (of whose republican outcome he heartily, as a liberal Frenchman, approved) and the Prussian siege and occupation of Paris in 1870 (of which, as a patriotic Frenchman, he mightily disapproved). As Brian Aldiss reminds us in his history of science fiction, "The Trillion Year Spree," the genre is most often prodromic rather than prophetic. "Nineteen Eighty-Four," that is, tells us more about the 1948 in which George Orwell wrote his dystopia than the 1984 in which he set his tale. "The Mysterious Island" allegorizes French nationalist resentment at the military humiliation visited on their country and the firm belief that, as in America, the forces of virtue would eventually prevail.

From the first, Verne calls his band of Americans "colonizers." There are (conveniently) no natives on the island and thus no problem of relations with the subaltern colonized. The heroic five, under their engineer leader, Cyrus Smith, name their new home with some pomp. "Let us give it the name of a great citizen, my friends," Cyrus declares, "a man now engaged in a fight for the unity of the American republic! Let us call it Lincoln Island!" Verne's book was initially serialized and he ends the installment with what English serialists like Wilkie Collins (motto: make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait) called a curtain line: "The date was March 30th, 1865. They could not have known that sixteen days later a terrible crime would be committed in Washington, and that Abraham Lincoln would be felled on Good Friday by a fanatic's bullet."