He blinded me with science: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

The Mysterious Island recounts the adventures of six Yankees who escaped a Confederate prison by stealing a hot air balloon.  They ride the winds of a monster storm until the balloon fails and deposits them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The castaways have nothing but the clothes on their backs to help them survive.

One of the castaways is an engineer. All the others have man-crushes on him because he knows how to make anything out of dirt and gumption.

Another of them is a teenaged boy, who, despite his tender age, knows everything there is to know about exotic fauna and flora, including the various medicinal uses of the latter.

The third Yankee is a sailor, capable of building a pleasure yacht by himself, on a deserted island, in about four months.

The fourth castaway is a journalist. He is exceptional at making himself appear wise, though he is of less practical use than any of the others.

The fifth castaway is the black “companion” of the engineer. He is under no “obligation” to the engineer, and could have gone his own way at any time during his long “devotion” to the engineer.  Guess who does all the cooking on the island.

The final castaway is a dog, who turns out to be marginally more useful than the journalist.

Don't worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Don’t worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Remarkably, the island contains every natural resource necessary for five men with clothes on their backs to develop a western industrial society. The castaways, who, for reasons associated with the tourist trade, quickly become colonists, busy themselves in the production of steel, textiles, and other assorted necessities and luxury items.

What makes the island mysterious is the presence of an unknown benefactor who aids the colonists whenever they encounter a difficulty requiring too much effort to plot their way through. When pirates attack, a torpedo is placed in the pirate ship’s path by the unknown protector, destroying the threat without having to bother us with an annoying display of military cleverness by the colonists.

I wanted to dislike this novel from the beginning. The characters are flat. There is no conflict between them. They are great guys who always agree on everything, and anything they touch turns to gold. Verne’s obvious  and overabundant  love for his characters means there is no tension caused by worry that any of them will come to serious harm.

Readers more sciencey and less fictiony than I am might enjoy descriptions of the processes by which the colonists manufactured the many fine products used to build their empire. To me, a recipe book for smelting iron does not make a compelling story.

And then there was the time lost deciding upon names for the island’s various features. They really could have done this while I was at work.

In spite of all this, I could not hate this book. I found myself looking forward to revisiting the island. Even though some the colonists’ improvements were far-fetched, I wanted to see what else they were able to develop. The characters themselves were secondary to me. I wanted to watch progress. Jules Verne may not have been much into character development, but he sure was adept at showing off scientific progress. That’s how he got me; apparently, I’m a sucker for progress.

In the end, this collection of brilliant and amiable men faces catastrophe. With their mysterious protector no longer able to bail them out, they do what all clever, resourceful men do to save themselves: they rely on dumb luck.

It was disappointing that the characters did not concoct some ingenious scheme to save themselves, but I didn’t really care about them anyway. I was more concerned about the island itself. This once-primitive, now paradise, land was the true star of the show. Only Jules Verne could make me feel this way about a chunk of volcanic rock.

Is this the start of a flash fiction addiction?

I enjoyed my last attempt at flash fiction so much, I’ve decided to give it another try. I haven’t written much of this form before, but I am liking it now that I’ve tried it. Isn’t that what our parents always told us about vegetables? “Try it; you might like it.”

As long as it doesn’t interfere with my other projects, I guess it’s a harmless pastime. If it goes beyond that, it will have become a dangerous addiction and I will need an intervention. So stand by with the in-your-face tough love, okay?

Toaster

She grabbed the lever on the toaster like she did every morning. Today, her arthritic fingers slipped off the plastic and the toast did the very thing she had spent years preventing: it popped up, with a snapping sound from the spring mechanism.

He jolted in his chair.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she silently chastised her own carelessness. “It was just the toast.”

He gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s okay. It’s just toast.”

She put the plate down in front of him and took the seat opposite the kitchen table. His hands shook a little as he crumbled the toast onto his oatmeal. They were thin, age-spotted hands, but they only shook on particular days.

She lifted her coffee cup with both hands. Her hands shook every day. There was nothing to be read from them. “Any plans for the day?” she asked.

“I was thinking of driving in to get some chicken wire for that hole under the porch.” His eyes began to look past his toast, past his oatmeal, past her.

“Let me go with you.”

“You want to look at chicken wire?”

“I can look for a rose bush in the garden center.”

His eyes came back to the kitchen. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It was just the toaster. I know that.”

His hands hadn’t stopped shaking.

“I know, but I would like to get another rose bush.” If it happened again and she weren’t there, they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t know why.

“Okay. You come too.” He flashed his usual, tender smile. “Just in case.”

It was his old, tender smile that always got her. That remnant from before always tried to convince her everything was okay, but only reminded her that, even after 45 years, the war wasn’t over for him.