“How could you possibly know what retrofuturism means today if you don’t know what futurism of that era was?”
(Eric Renderking Fisk, 2018)
Heading into the Journal’s celebration of the venerable Verne’s birthday, our dear editor Phoebe Darqueling challenged her friends to review some media associated with works. It could have been a book, a movie based on his work, or the Audible version of one of his novels.
I chose The Mysterious Island to enjoy during the weekend while my wife and sons were with my in-laws and I was keeping an eye open for our yet-to-be housebroken puppy. I picked it based on the fact that I had zero idea what the book was about besides the short synopsis on Audible.
Like many Jules Verne classics, The Mysterious Island takes you on an unforgettable journey of adventure and reflection. During the American Civil War, a group of Union soldiers escapes their Confederate captors when they steal a balloon. What they didn’t anticipate is the violent storm that awaits them and leads them into uncharted territory.
When the storm-damaged balloon crashes, the men are marooned on a desert island. While awaiting rescue, the soldiers must work together to stay alive by making use of their survival skills and taking advantage of the vast resources on the island. Eventually, the men make the island into a home away from home, naming it Lincoln Island, after President Lincoln.
All is well until the group discovers a box of guns and ammunition that shouldn’t be there. They begin to suspect the mysterious island may have its own secrets. Can the men survive long enough to be rescued off the island?
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What I thought of The Mysterious Island
As with all of Jules Verne’s books, each page is chock-full of deep, rich detail written with nearly perfect poetic prose. The dialog is both snappy and lyrical, succinct yet rich with character. The characters don’t speak the way ‘everyday people’ talk, but in the way you wish people still did. (You know, like using full sentences and “stuff.”) After a couple of hours of enjoying the Audible version, I caught myself trying to speak in the same sophisticated manner because that sort of quality is contagious.
Because of the detail of how the characters use science and ingenuity to solve problems, it’s not hard to imagine any of us doing the same after reading The Mysterious Island ourselves. There are perfect teaching moments in these books as the text demonstrates how our heroes in the novel survive through brain power and sheer will, not by luck…
… well, maybe a little luck. Without it, I’m not sure they would have survived the balloon ride through a hurricane on their way to the island. And then there’s the secret of the book—a deus ex machina of epic proportions—that makes this story about surviving a deserted island into… Actually, why spoil it?
If you’re a fan of some of Mr. Verne’s other famous works but haven’t read The Mysterious Island yet, then it’s a must-read. Jules Verne is among the first authors I know of who convinces the reader a book will be one thing and it becomes something totally different in a surprising and entertaining way.
For instance, imagine you’re reading a romance about how two people in Victorian England from opposite sides of the tracks who meet. One chapter, they’re dealing with the struggles of their star-crossed love, then you turn a page and you’re suddenly thrust into an epic space drama about invaders who hunt human beings for sport.
The Mysterious Island is that kind of book and provides an abrupt but fun plot twist.
Why Should You Read This or any Other Book by Jules Verne?
The answer is easy. When talking about Steampunk, he wrote what is now considered the source material.
When you ask, “What is Steampunk?” the name of Jules Verne is almost always mentioned. If his name isn’t there, the phrases “Victorian Fantasy” or “Victorian Science Fiction” are there in his place.
Mr. Verne practically writes “How-To” instructions in all his descriptions of every location, device, craft, and outfit. If you’re paying attention, his descriptive prose is dripping with ‘this is how you do it, retrofuturists!’
Jules Verne’s work is so important that a study of his works should be part of your essential Steam-ucation. In my humble opinion, there are either Junior Grade Steampunks who haven’t read Jules Verne, or Varsity Steampunks who have. I know that sometimes plowing through the classics is time-consuming and could feel like a difficult homework assignment. But It’s worth the effort because it’s an accomplishment, and puts you more in tune with a piece of history. Without Jules Verne and all the other pioneering writers of his day, there would have been no true roots being put down. Without them, we’d be but tumbleweeds and pretending “retrofuturism” is what the next Harlot of Steampunk Babylon says it is.
Go ahead, read or listen Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and pop over to The Mysterious Island next. Then get ready to watch your creativity explode.
Eric Renderking Fisk is the founder and web host of The Fedora Chronicles. He’s also the co-host of The Fedora Chronicles Radio Show and The Metaphysical Connection. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Soundcloud.