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.

Learned from Jules Verne: A successful hero knows when to cry

Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne is a 19th century adventure novel. It’s less well-known than Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or A Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I liked it better. I don’t remember much about those novels.

Michael Strogoff is a special courier for the Czar. The Tartar hordes are invading Siberia, and the Czar needs to get a message to Irkutsk warning of a traitor plotting to sabotage that city’s defenses.

The Czar's man in Irkutsk.

The Czar’s man in Irkutsk.

Michael Strogoff would be a typical adventure, with its prerequisite, larger-than-life hero, except for two characteristics. First, it made me root for a Czar and his military forces. I’m no expert on Russia, but I have a notion Czars where not the most sympathetic characters. Nor does the image of Cossack cavalry inspire me with warm fuzzies.

Second, Michael Strogoff is not your typical action hero. In my youth I read 24 Tarzan novels, and I don’t recall Tarzan ever shedding a tear. Mr. Verne never comes right out and admits Michael was crying, but there was clearly something in his eye when he was under duress at the hands of his enemies.

Here’s the situation: the Tartars have captured Michael and his mother. They might decide to do some bad stuff to his mom at any moment. Meanwhile, they are going to make Michael go blind, which, I guess, is what Tartars do sometimes. They pass a red-hot blade before Michael’s eyes, in the Tartar custom of blinding prisoners.

In the tradition of bad guys everywhere, the Tartars grossly underestimate the hero and eventually let him go (because he’s helpless, right?). The blinded Michael, and some girl he hooks up with, struggle across the steppe just in time to save Irkutsk. There, Michael kills the traitor in a sword fight. That’s right, a sword fight. How is blind Michael able to do this? Guess what? Michael’s not blind! He never was.

Everybody (except the reader) is shocked to discover this. Even his girlfriend, who led him across versts and versts (old Russian kilometers) of countryside, was hoodwinked by his blindness scam. It’s anybody’s guess why he couldn’t let her know, in a private moment, he wasn’t really blind. Maybe he was using her pity to coax back rubs out of her.

Anyway, here is the inspirational reason Michael was able to escape being blinded by the hot blade passed over his eyes: he was crying at the time. Mr. Verne doesn’t use the word crying; that might be unbecoming a classic hero. Michael was upset with worry about what the Tartars might do to his mom (they ended up letting her run free too) and there was just a little layer of water covering his eyes when the hot blade passed by. This little bit of water insulated his optic nerves from the heat, or something like that. Consult Dr. Verne for the technical explanation.

Paging Dr. Verne.

Paging Dr. Verne.

This series of events is a great comfort to me, because if Tartars ever come after me with a red-hot blade, I guarantee, even lacking endangered relatives, I will be bawling my eyes out. My optic nerves will remain cool and calm under my pool of tears. I just have to make sure to walk into some stuff afterward so they’ll think the procedure a success and let me go.

Even if he didn’t cry us a river, Michael certainly got teary-eyed. I’d have preferred it if he saved his vision through some more clever means, and then, after wreaking his terrible wrath upon the Tartars, took a moment to get misty-eyed about his poor mama. I don’t mind heroes having a sensitive side, but I don’t like them to cry their way out of trouble; toddlers shouldn’t even be allowed to do that. I want great heroes of literature to hold their tears until some serious bad-guy ass has been kicked. Is that too much to ask?

I shouldn’t make too much of the crying. I did enjoy the adventure. Besides, if shedding a few tears would have helped me defend Irkutsk, when I played Risk as a boy, I would have let them flow in a heartbeat.