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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Self-Propelled Island

Jules Verne

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To purchase The Self-Propelled Island

Title: The Self-Propelled Island
Author: Jules Verne
Genre: Novel
Written: 1895 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 334 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Self-Propelled Island - US
The Self-Propelled Island - UK
The Self-Propelled Island - Canada
L'Ile à hélice - Canada
The Self-Propelled Island - India
L'Ile à hélice - France
Die Insel der Milliardäre - Deutschland
L'isola a elica - Italia
La isla de hélice - España
  • French title: L'Ile à hélice
  • Translated by Marie-Thérèse Noiset
  • With an Introduction by Volker Dehs
  • Previously translated as The Floating Island (1896); later also published as Propeller Island

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Our Assessment:

B : grand premise, but a bit sluggish

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       At the center of The Self-Propelled Island is a grand premise: set at a time a bit in Verne's future (a few decades into the twentieth century, presumably) America's super-rich get the ultimate island-escape. The Standard Island Company Incorporated is formed to realize this grand project, the building of a floating island. Not just some grand, oversize yacht, but a true island; man-made, but of incredible proportions -- ten and a half square miles of unmoored land that can ply the Pacific.
       It is a technical wonder, with generators powering propellers that allow it to move (slowly) across the seas. Three-quarters of the land area is given over to vegetation, but at the heart of the island is Milliard City -- the height of exclusivity. Life on the island is relatively expensive, but everyone is wealthy -- and some are inordinately so.
       Verne has typical fun in presenting his grand centerpiece and suggesting how it, and life there, function. It allows him to make jokes about contemporary society -- such as slyly noting that on Standard Island:

There were very few lawyers, which accounted for the paucity of lawsuits, and even fewer doctors; as a result, the mortality rate was ridiculously low.
       While it is inhabited almost entirely by Americans, there are some divisions -- religious, for one. Indeed, the island can be divided into Starboard and Larboard halves, each with a dominant billionaire family -- and, yes, there's some tension between the leading families in the air. And, complicating matters, possibly some romance too .....
       Verne begins his story with an illustrious French chamber quartet, on tour in California, getting stranded on the way to their next concert. A Standard Island scout takes advantage and lures them on board -- without revealing to them that the grand city they have been taken to is a floating one, drifting away from land. Offered a very generous contract to stay aboard for a year, the quartet gets over the kidnapping quickly, and instead they enjoy the ride, and the high life on offer.
       Of course, it is not all smooth sailing. The ocean can't shake the island, but they do have to take care navigating in shallower waters and between islands. Of greater concern are the on board tensions between the two sides of the island. And then there are those shipwrecked locals they pick up -- clearly up to no good, but Verne makes their plan one with a very long lead-time, and it is many months before that crisis hits.
       Eventually, the parent company goes bankrupt -- but that's barely an issue for the capitalist Americans on board, who simply buy a controlling interest in the land under their feet. Still, eventually more crises hit, and the stable little universe proves less hardy than the practical idealists had imagined. As Verne asks several times -- and also in his closing lines --, maybe mankind oversteps its bounds in trying to leash nature in this way, usurping: "so recklessly the power of the Creator". Certainly, one lesson on offer here is that with great hubris comes the great fall.
       Verne spins his story amusingly enough, though perhaps more predictably than usual -- even (loudly) telegraphing much that would be more effective if he went about it more subtly. But he does the big things -- the island itself, the moments of crisis -- well enough to get away with all the rest. The use of the chamber quartet is perhaps not ideal here -- clearly the outsider and foreign (they're French, after all) perspective has its advantages, but four of them is a lot to juggle, and their status also prevents them from being in the middle of some of the more interesting action; an insider view might have been more compelling.
       Verne's original does achieve more immediacy by a trick forgone in the translation: as the Translator's Note casually mentions: "the narration has been translated into the past tense" -- which is not what it was written in. Granted, Verne's own choice was unusual -- in his Introduction Volker Dehs speaks of the French original being: "strangely narrated in the present tense", and L'Ile à hélice is apparently one of the first examples of a novel written in the third-person and the present tense -- yet surely these should count as additional reasons to try to recreate that in English .....
       In reviewing a reissue of the previous translation Arthur B. Evans wrote (in Science Fiction Studies 19.2 (1992)):
To summarize, a revised and more accurate English translation of Verne's L'Ile à hélice would have been genuinely welcome and would have done honor to any publisher. In contrast, this book brings shame: it represents a commercialized resurrection of a translator's travesty, and it aptly demonstrates how an industry's profit motive can sometimes overpower its sense of literary integrity.
       Certainly, this new translation -- which also restores previously cut parts and pieces -- is to be welcomed; nevertheless, literary integrity again seems not to have been the highest priority.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 June 2015

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The Self-Propelled Island: Reviews: Jules Verne: Other books by Jules Verne under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jules Verne (1828-1905) is one of the bestselling writers of all time.

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