Say the name “Jules Verne” and most people will think immediately of his most famous books: “A Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” “The Mysterious Island,” “From the Earth to the Moon,” “Around the World in Eighty Days.” I always remember the rapture with which I devoured the first three of those titles when I was in sixth and seventh grade. (The last two, along with “Master of the World” and “Michael Strogoff,” I enjoyed as Classics Illustrated comics, read surreptitiously in various drugstores.) As introductions to the adventure story, these “Voyages Extraordinaires,” as Verne called his marvel-filled journeys, remain unrivaled even now.
In France, most of Verne’s many works first appeared as part of an educational series for young people. These original “Hetzel” editions — much sought after by collectors — were hefty, oversize volumes, their cover designs a collage of hot-air balloons, caparisoned elephants and similarly colorful exotica, while the texts themselves were abundantly illustrated with steel engravings. More than just books, Hetzels seemed little worlds of wonder in which to lose oneself. Yet aiming to instruct as well as entertain, Verne’s novels also regularly dispensed fact-rich paragraphs about the world’s geography, the culture of various nations and the latest discoveries — real or projected — of modern technology and science. When reading Verne, you didn’t simply go off on a comet or explore the oceans in a submarine, you learned a lot about the physical world and its wonders.
That said, “The Self-Propelled Island,” first published in 1895 as “L’île à hélice,” and now available in a new edition from the University of Nebraska Press, somewhat overemphasizes description. As its title suggests, the novel focuses on an artificial island, a gated community restricted to the super-rich, that has been motorized to cruise the world’s oceans. Verne consequently offers us a Cook’s tour of the Pacific, in a double sense: The book’s chapters resemble the log of a prolonged holiday excursion, similar to those sponsored by the famous travel agency, while its characters frequently contrast their contemporary adventures with those of Captain James Cook. Throughout we are regaled with detailed information about the inhabitants and customs of Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji and the New Hebrides. All this ethnological and historical data prove partly justified when a French enthusiast, hungry for local color and eager to meet real cannibals, almost gets himself eaten.
Aside from its tendency toward leisurely travelogue, “The Self-Propelled Island” consists largely of slapstick comedy, prescient satire of capitalist privilege and melodrama. Ultimately, it develops into another of Verne’s pessimistic, late-in-life cautionary tales about technology and society, a chronicle of progressive disillusionment leading to disaster.
The book begins as a surreal farce. The four members of a Parisian string quartet, stranded a few miles from their next gig in San Diego, find themselves kidnapped by the social director of “Standard Island.” The rich nabobs of that artificial paradise hunger for live, classical music, having had to content themselves hitherto with listening to concerts via the radio-like theatrophone. To give just two performances each month for a year, these four musicians of very different temperaments — “Zorn irascible, Yvernès phlegmatic, Frascolin calm, and Pinchinat overflowing with joviality” — are offered a small fortune. How can they refuse, especially because the island has already set sail for tropic climes and won’t return to Southern California for many months? Nonetheless, the grouchy cellist Zorn keeps insisting that things will end badly.
Verne doesn’t supply an exact date for the novel’s action, though it must be early in an imaginary 20th century. He mentions battery-powered electric carriages, moving sidewalks and bathrooms with “the latest modern refinements: faucets thermometrically programmed for hot and cold water, basins emptying automatically, water heaters, curling irons, sprayers of fragrant essences dispensing on demand, rotating fans running on electricity, mechanically activated brushes.”
On a walking tour of this floating utopia, Verne’s quartet learns of devices such as the telautograph, which “sends the written word the same way the telephone sends the spoken word” and the telephote, “which records images.” Wristwatches, when consulted, pronounce the time aloud, like a steampunk version of Siri. The city library even rents out “phonographic books,” and some periodicals are “printed on edible sheets with chocolate ink,” so that they can be read, then eaten.
Milliard City is the center of Standard Island. The avenues and streets are laid out geometrically, with handsome squares and green spaces. Since the island follows the sun and avoids the infectious microbes of the mainland, its inhabitants hardly ever get sick. The schools are good, but Verne notes that the students lack drive and curiosity. Perhaps they don’t need them. Their parents, like nearly all the island’s 10,000 residents, are American millionaires and several are billionaires. Manual workers might be taken aboard for specific tasks, but are sent back to their own countries as soon as possible. The whole ridiculously expensive, luxurious enterprise is designed to foster “a quiet, happy life free from all care.”
Unfortunately, this “Jewel of the Pacific” isn’t quite the peaceful retreat it was intended to be. Northern Yankees, largely Protestant, live on its larboard, or port, side, while Southerners, mainly Catholic, reside on the starboard. Their respective leaders, the Chicago wheeler-dealer Jem Tankerdon and Nat Coverley, a banker from New Orleans, hardly speak to each other, and the rivalry between their two camps is fanatical. When young Walter Tankerdon and Dy Coverley fall in love a la Romeo and Juliet, the family antagonisms are even further exacerbated.
To these plentiful internal tensions in lotus land, Verne adds an external threat. In Hawaii, a mysterious Malay ketch begins to follow Standard Island, remaining just out of sight — until apparently being rammed by a passing steamer and forced to signal for help. Once rescued, Captain Sarol and his crew are permitted to remain in Milliard City until they can be set safely ashore in the New Hebrides (now the nation of Vanuatu). There’s clearly something fishy about these Malays. But what is their dastardly plan?
If you haven’t read Jules Verne since childhood, now is the time to rediscover him. The University of Nebraska Press’s admirable “Bison Frontiers of the Imagination” imprint includes “The Chase of the Golden Meteor,” “The Lighthouse at the End of the World” and other Verne novels. However, this edition of “The Self-Propelled Island” eschews any critical apparatus, except for Volker Dehs’s excellent introduction, and leaves out the original period engravings. By contrast, the Verne titles from Wesleyan University Press in its “Early Classics of Science Fiction” series, such as the recent edition of “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” as well as the works published in Oxford paperback and in the scholarly Palik series from BearManor Media, do provide these useful extras. If, by some sad mischance, you’ve never read any Verne, you couldn’t do better than begin with the relatively concise yet thrilling “A Journey to the Center of the Earth ” in William Butcher’s annotated translation for Oxford World’s Classics.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Jules Verne
Translated from the French by Marie-Thérèse Noiset. With editorial assistance by Robert Sandarg
University of Nebraska. 323 pp. $29.95