Paul Di Filippo, Science Fiction Weekly, January 2002

The year is 1865, and five Union men are trapped in the
siege of the city of Richmond, Va. Cyrus Smith, master
engineer, and his Negro servant, Neb; Bonadventure
Pencroff, a hearty and bold sailor, in charge of a 15-year-old
orphan, Harbert Brown; and, lastly, an experienced and
adventuresome newspaper reporter, Gideon Spilett. Chafing
at their captivity, the men steal a war balloon for their escape,
being joined at the last minute by Top, Smith's dog. They take
flight under cover of a tremendous storm. But unfortunately
the storm does not abate, and the balloon is blown
southwestward for some 6,000 miles, into the uncharted
South Pacific.

By a stroke of immense luck, the balloon finally
crash-lands on a lush, uninhabited island. The
battered refugees catalog their material
possessions: the clothes on their backs, one
match, two watches, a notebook, Top's dog
collar and a grain of wheat. From this unlikely stock, adding in
hard labor and their wits, the five will, over the next four
years, transform their island home into a happy, flourishing
mini-colony of the glorious techno-democracy, the United
States of America.

The narrative proceeds at a deliberate, almost day-by-day
pace, yet is not without suspense and drama. Step by
meticulous step, the colonists progress from taking drafty
refuge under a jumble of large stones to residing warm and
safe in a cliffside mansion. They go from desperately eating
raw shellfish to grinding flour, roasting domesticated fowl and
pigs and drinking homemade beer. The discovery of native
tobacco gives them a recreational pursuit. Roads and a
telegraph line, a stout ship to cruise to a neighboring island
and an elevator to their front door soon follow. Along the way,
they acquire two more companions: a fellow castaway named
Ayrton, found on the nearby isle, and an orangutan named
Jup, who is trained up as a willing and good-humored
servant.

But throughout their stay, occasional baffling incidents arise,
which seem to betoken a mysterious and hidden human
presence on their paradise. Unseen help is given to the
colonists at crucial junctures, the most pivotal of which occurs
when they are attacked by pirates and the pirate ship is
exploded by secret means. It is only when the novel is
five-sixths told that their unknown benefactor emerges as an
ailing Captain Nemo. After this revelation, events quickly
converge to doom the further tenancy of the colonists, and
their eventual rescue comes at the very last possible minute.

A blueprint for rebuilding civilization

Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island appeared in 1874 in France, but the
history of English-language editions of Verne's masterpiece has been a sad
and sordid one. Bad translations which abridged much of the original text (the
Bantam edition of 1970 contained only 90,000 words of Verne's 200,000, for
instance) guaranteed a reading experience that would pale in
comparison to what Verne intended.

This current edition, buttressed by massive but
reader-friendly scholarly apparatus, remedies the deficits of
all previous versions.


Jules Verne doted on Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
and Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson (1814), and wrote
many Robinsonades during his long career. In Island, Verne
set out to outdo all his predecessors, and to large degree he
succeeded. So believable and detailed are the
accomplishments and tactics of the five accidental colonists,
so admirable are their characters and achievements, that
even a reluctant reader will be won over by their tale of
human triumph over seemingly insurmountable misfortune.

The many good things contained in this book begin and rely
on translator Sydney Kravitz's wonderful rendering of Verne's
original words. There is nothing fusty or dull about this tale,
as filtered through Kravitz's talents. The dialogue sounds like
actual people might speak it, and hardly any archaic
constructions obtrude. Reading this prose is pure pleasure; it
allows the story itself to leap free. And what a story it is!
Given any fascination at all with the infrastructure of
civilization, the underpinning of our modern lives which we
ignore and take for granted, the reader will be amazed and
astounded by the ingenuity on display here. Verne makes his
schematic for rebuilding civilization almost patentable, and
one feels that, possessed only of this book and marooned
under similar circumstances, one could do as well just by
following its prescriptions.

The castaways themselves are all vividly drawn, but the real
star of the book is Pencroff, the impetuous Everyman. Smith
is a bit stolid and Spilett is too philosophical. Neb is given a
full range of humanity, but still limited. Ayrton is trapped in his
remorse for past misdeeds. And Harbert is a Billy Budd figure
of too much virginal purity. But Pencroff can be relied on for
down-to-earth laughter and even rudeness. And the men are
not callous earth-rapists, but husbanders of the land. For
instance, they disdain to make a needless slaughter among
the helpless seal colony, deeming it a foolish waste of
resources. True, everything is regarded in light of their own
needs, but no waste or befoulment is permitted.

As for Verne's prowess as a science-fiction writer, one can
only admire the natural way he inserts all his facts and
research. True, he will occasionally include a neat tidbit of
knowledge that's really extraneous, but you can forgive him
his enthusiasm, since the next sentence will invariably find the
colonists battling a jaguar, climbing the walls of a crater or
breaking wild asses to the harness.

As someone who had never bothered to
approach Verne's forbidding mysterious island
prior to now, I can only thank my lucky stars that I
procrastinated until this fine translation
appeared! Paul