An Audio-Book Review: Where the Heck Are We?


By Jules Verne

Translated by William Henry Giles Kingston

Published by

Read by Mach1, fiddlesticks, David Lodes, Oxygen, Anton, Thomas May, Kevin Powell, Jon Smith, merelyseoneil, Xiph, CPvoice, pyfeman43 and deongines


The Book:

This is the middle third of the larger work known as Mysterious Island. It picks up sometime after the castaways have managed to hijack a balloon in Confederate Virginia (toward the end of the US Civil War) in the middle of an impossibly large hurricane (it was over 1800 miles wide and extended across the Equator from thirty-five degrees north to forty degrees south and cause great destruction across the Americas, Europe and Asia. This is all blatantly impossible and stands as a testimony to how little weather was understood at the time) and was swept to somewhere in the South Pacific.

Where, you ask? Hard to tell, because the island hosts an (also) impossible variety of plants and animals, but if forced to guess, I would say it ought to be off the coast of Australia and Indonesia since among the critters are kangaroos, koalas and orangutans. The whole thing sounds like Verne strolled through a natural history museum one afternoon, read the plaques and decided to add in everything that caught his eye regardless of where it was from. An example of that are some of the birds that are obviously not from the South Pacific and the wild onagers, though to the best of my knowledge there has never been an onager native to a Pacific island. Some of Verne’s lack of scientific knowledge can be forgiven as he frequently conjectures based on 19th Century theory that has since been disproven, but the mix of plants and animals is just sloppy since where they were found was well-documented even then.

As it happens, however, he goes on to state the exact location of Lincoln Island as being at 34° 57’ South Latitude and 150° 30’ West Longitude. Now how they figured that out is somewhat problematic. Apparently, someone thought to put a sextant on board the balloon they escaped from Richmond on. Whey they might have done that is beyond me. It’s not likely to be of much use to a balloon that could not possibly have been intended for anything by aerial observation and therefore a road map would have been more useful for establishing their location. Even more amazingly either whoever st9ored their sextant in the balloon’s gondola also thought to store a book of navigational tables without which they could never have calculated their longitudinal position. Verne does not mention that at all and it is possible that he did not actually know the mechanics of how a sextant is used. Maybe he did and chose not to detail it, but considering how much verbiage is spent describing everything the castaways did, that seems unlikely. Fortunately, one of the characters is a sailor and I guess he assumed that all sailors were fully trained in maritime navigation. Then again, he also explicitly states that all sailors have a strong aptitude for sewing…. Yes, that would be a handy talent, but I refuse to believe that the occupation automatically bestowed that aptitude on a person. Sailors then and now were trained in knots and splicing (aka marlinspike seamanship) but that is training, not inherent ability.

To save you all some time I looked up the location. Lincoln Island is supposedly situated roughly halfway between Australia and South America (literally in the middle of the South Pacific) a little north of Sydney’s latitude and just under one thousand miles east of the northern island of New Zealand and about 870 miles south of Pape’ete in French Polynesia.

Okay, anyway, the castaways (called colonists in this book) have somehow managed to ride thousands of miles in a single day, if I recall correctly, and lands safely on this strange island. Since their arrival, they have names the island after Abraham Lincoln, a mountain after Benjamin Franklin, built a place to live called “Granite House,” and gone on to name just about every other geographical feature in sight. Why did they bother? I’m not sure, I am certain that having only one unknown island to live on, I would probably just call it “the island”, call the one mountain, “the mountain,” or maybe “the volcano,” and the house I lived in, you got it… “the House.” It’s not like I had more than one of these things to get confused about. Certainly, I would not bother about naming everything before ensuring I could continue to eat, but apparently, the naming of things is important to these people.

While Verne has frequently been hailed as a visionary, I cannot help but be jarred by the many times he gets it wrong. He inundates the reader with the known facts of something (to prove the science in his science fiction) often to the detriment of his plotline. One of the more jarring passages to me early on occurs when a troupe of orangutans invades and takes over Granite House. Apparently, he didn’t realize that Orangs are mostly solitary creatures. Well, the castaways kill all but one of the apes but decide to accept one of them as a servant because he is obviously at least as smart as an Australian Aborigine or a San bushman based, according to Verne, on the angle of its face. Indeed, the castaways lament they do not know the Orangutan language so they could speak to the creature, who, apparently, is happy to serve them.

Never mind the lack of knowledge about Orangutan living habits, they probably had not been studied to that extent by Europeans yet at the time, but to assume that either they were as intelligent as people or else that some people are only as intelligent as an Orang shows an utter lack of understanding about the subject. There is a basic law of writing, “Write what you know.” I have come to realize that Verne violates that law with reckless abandon.

He makes a similar error when a large pack of Culpeo foxes (normally native to Chile) attempt to invade the castaway’s side of the island one night. Culpeos are not pack animals. Solitary males will mate with females and stay with them five or six months before they split up and go their separate ways, but being fairly large for fox-like critters, I guess Verne thought they would sound impressive.

I would also like to know where the domesticated grains came from (never mind all the other plants from all over the world (including tobacco, which the Orangutan apparently likes to smoke. It’s possible the Orang later got a job as the Librarian of the Unseen University on Discworld)). It seems obvious that Verne did not realize that domesticated wheat is generally not self-seeding. The reason for that was the wild grains naturally fell off the stalks easily so even as humans gathered it, enough fell off to seed the next year’s crop. The stuff that stayed attacked were the grains the humans actually brought home and ate. However, once humans started planting their own, that reversed since they planted some of the seed they had gathered – the ones more likely to stay attached to the stalks. As time went on the grains stayed on the stalks better and better and humans had to learn new and more effective ways to thresh the grain. So as part of the domestication process, grains became firmly attached to the stalks and domestic grains lost the ability to plant themselves, but they did not need to since the plants had trained their pet humans to do it for them.

The thing is, the sort of wheat you make bread from is domesticated. The wild sorts make good porridge and other cereal, but aren’t really glutinous enough to make a loaf of bread, so there should not have been any bread wheat on the island.

However, that’s a nit-picking point compared to the question of where they found sufficient tools to build the house, bridges, boat, wharf, windmill and everything else they built on the island. Verne makes the building of a windmill sound easy, but I suddenly realized that they needed a saw to cut the timber (although improvised stone axes might have chopped the trees down), a way to either make nails (no mention of a blacksmith on the island… or any mention of a way to smelt iron and make steel) or else cut pegs to peg the wooden structures together. He also states that the making of mill stones was very simple… I am sure Verne never tried to make a mill stone. And if he did, did he do so with iron or steel tools or stone tools? It can be done with stone tools, but simple is not a word I would use to describe the process. So, I can only assume that along with the sextant there was a full inventory of 19th Century tools on board that balloon as well.

And then one day they find a message in a bottle (which they reason must have been written recently as it was still dry (that is not explained, but for the sake of argument, I’ll let it pass and assume that the method of sealing the bottle would not have lasted for years, although some similar bottles have been found years after they were first set afloat. In 2015 a 108 year old message was found in a bottle floating in the Baltic Sea – that one was researching oceanic currents and promised a shilling (now called 5 New Pence) to whoever found it. Nicely enough, an old silver shilling was sent to the person who found it.

Anyway, the message tells them there is another castaway on an island about 150 miles away and since their resident sailor has just build a sea-worthy boat and proved it by sailing around the island, a party of three set out to rescue the other castaway who has become an ignorant savage in his solitude (I assume Verne meant he had gone mad, but instead describes him as no longer human), but before they he had managed to build a house a find garden with just about every other plant that did not exist on Lincoln Island and raised pigs, which the castaways of Lincoln Island want, although why I don’t know considering they were already making wool for themselves, so they must have had sheep to go with their poultry. I know I’d rather have lamb or mutton than pork, but maybe that’s a cultural and religious bias…

The only question, I had at that point was that if they had built such a fine sailing vessel (one with a fair-sized cabin and from the description was rigged in a manner of a small 19th Century ship) and were capable of navigating beyond sight of land, why didn’t they set sail for New Zealand or Australia? Sure, it’s a fair-dinkum journey, but Capt. Bligh made a much longer trip in a somewhat smaller craft following the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty over 75 years earlier. But I suppose that if they had thought of that, they probably would not have bothered trying to build a new civilization, complete with a flag declaring them the 38th State of the United States (The State of Lincoln… I wonder if the capital would have been called Nebraska).

I could go on, but really, I think I’ve griped enough and this is not “Everything Wrong with Mysterious Island (or the middle part of it) in Six Minutes or Less.” I’ll leave that to “CinemaSins.” It’s just that they seemed to have so quickly established themselves on the island that they had the time to build an ocean-going boat, a small electric power plant and then a telegraph system and a windmill after establishing a comfortable subsistence, one has to wonder why they did not even try to get back to civilization. You could argue that by then they had no need to do so, but keep in mind there were no women on the island. Most of Verne’s adventures do not seem to include women; Journey to the Center of the Earth, Off on a Comet, Mysterious Island… Of the Verne stories I have reviewed so far the only vaguely important female character was in Around the World in Eighty Days.

I can understand why they might not have wanted to head into Polynesia etc. as they would not have known which islands would have offered happy, friendly native and which would have had happy friendly cannibals, but they knew where they were and where New Zealand and Australia was. They even recognized that some of their flora and fauna were from those places. Why did they wait over two years before at least discussing the possibility of sailing there? The distance? Well that was the eventual excuse, but they had quite a bit of fresh food to stave off scurvy and had capable sailors (two by that time) among them. And if they did not want to go to Australia, then Chile was roughly the same distance in the opposite direction and along the way it would not have been out of the realm of conjecture they might run into a whaling ship from out of New Bedford or Nantucket. They might have been blown off course by a storm and ended up on Pitcairn Island to meet the descendants of the Bounty mutiny too. But, no, not this bunch.

Why not? Well, probably Verne just did not think of it. There have been stories, both fictional and real, about such voyages, but these gentlemen seem intent on just sitting on this remote island/ Adaptations of Mysterious Island have attempted to justify that by [placing impossible tides or reefs that block them from leaving the island, but in the book they had no trouble sailing off to Tabor Island (supposedly 150 miles away) so there was nothing but good planning (or the lack of such) combined with the belief that they just cannot go elsewhere keeping them on the island.

And then this middle installment ends with the sighting of a ship (well, a vessel. For all the description as the first sighting, it could be a small dugout canoe) off the coast of Lincoln Island.

Believe me, I have left out a lot, such as hours of tedious narrative explaining how they developed photographic supplies for the newspaper reporter among them to use of the batteries of their electric power plant, or the rescue and rehabilitation of another castaway and so on. The dialogue is tedious and clumsy, but I cannot help but think that might be more the fault of the translator than the author. It was rather stiff and formal, which does frequently seem to be the case in Nineteenth Century novels written in English (at least to my more modern eyes), I do not know if the writing flows better in French.

I’m sure this story sounded more reasonable when it was first published, but this middle section of Mysterious Island just has not stood the test of time. For all the descriptive narrative and dialogue, the who section reads like filler to make sure the beginning and the end of the story don’t meet as they pass each other. That is not something I noticed when I first read the complete work, but Abandoned might have benefitted from being considerably shorter.


The Audiobook:

I like listening to Librivox recordings. Some are polished and professional products and others, maybe not so much, but they are always honest readings if not always artistic performances. The books that are read by a collection of readers, rather than by a single one are usually interesting to listen to because it is easy to imagine a group of friends sitting around a campfire or a living room, taking turns reading a chapter.

Yes, whenever you have multiple readers some are definitely better than others, but that just makes the reading that much more interesting. IN all, however, this was a good mix of readers and perhaps enough different sorts to please any listener.

So, the story is definitely the middle of a larger work and reads as such. I do not think you have to have read the first section to know what is going on since Verne did recap the salient points. However, the real action in my view is getting on the Island and eventually getting off again. The rest is just what happened in between and that is what Abandoned is. The readers do their best to keep the story going and in this case perhaps having many readers is better that having a single unified one. If Verne’s writing is interesting to you, this recording is worth spending some time with.

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