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essays

Dec 1, 1975

Wright, “Islandia”

“Austin Tappan Wright was a man of ideas. Some of those ideas will worry libertarians…but Islandia contains a wealth of ideas worth thought.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and call Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia science fiction, though there is almost no science in it and, indeed, the viewpoint is antiscientific. One of the hallmarks of science fiction is the necessity of inventing everything. In other fiction, the author creates characters and plots a story set in a world known or knowable (by travel or historical research) to himself and his reader; in science fiction, the author also creates the place and has the added problem of making the background real, clear, complete, and consistent.

That is what Wright does in Islandia. Shaped like a stylized bow tie, “Islandia forms the southern and temperate portion of the Karain subcontinent, which lies in the Southern Hemisphere.” Wright knows his country; in addition to the 944 pages of the novel, he also produced a body of material including a 135,000 word history and description, a glossary of the language, samples of the literature, and nineteen maps.

Islandia has an agricultural economy and a history of suspicion of things foreign. As the book opens, the Mora party is in power and is seeking to bring Islandia into the world community; the rival Dorn party opposes this change. The hero of the book, John Lang, comes to Islandia as the first American consul and is thrown into immediate conflict because his future demands the success of Mora, but ideologically and by bonds of friendship (he knew young Dorn at Harvard) he favors the Dorn position.

The plot is one that should have attracted Hollywood long ago. Lang arrives in Islandia; very quickly gets involved in an ill-advised international incident; falls in love with Dorn’s sister; loses her to Tor, the king; is replaced as consul; consoles himself with Nattana; sees the triumph of the Dorn party; joins an irregular border guard group, saves his first love, the queen, now pregnant, from a raiding party; is acclaimed a hero; and offered the rare option of settling in Islandia. The story is a blockbuster, but it’s probably the least important element in the book.

The characters are finely drawn; even the most minor is fully delineated, an original. The men—Lang, Dorn, Tor, and Don (the border guard leader)—are strong and attractive; but Wright’s female characters—Dorna, Nattana, the American Gladys Hunter—are even more arresting. It is almost frightening to watch this man’s grasp of female psychology. No “sex objects” these women, they are robust human beings living vital lives.

But it remains Islandia itself which is the ultimate achievement. It is a “nation” (quoted because one character wisely comments when the Mora government falls, “‘What we really decided was that we did not want to become a nation.’”) that values freedom—and understands it. Two brief excerpts are in order here:

‘[Centuries ago] He left it with the door unbarred, but declared it inviolate. We like to observe his command; it coincides with our own ideas as to the importance of respecting a man’s privacy….’

‘He said there were customs which served as a guide.’

‘Yes, but not as rules.’

‘What is the difference, Nattana?’

‘Oh, customs you follow yourself when it seems best for you to do so, which is usually the case, or when you are in doubt. They are only what most people believe to be the best course most of the time; and you don’t have to follow them when you have a good reason. But you always have to abide by rules whether there is any reason for it or not.’

Austin Tappan Wright (1883-1931) was a man of ideas. Some of those ideas will worry libertarians (his view of American business leaves something to be desired) and, I suspect, people familar with farm life (does any farm really “run itself”?), but Islandia contains a wealth of ideas worth thought, ideas on handling emotions, acting in accordance with one’s own nature, language, and the nature of kindness.

Islandia is a book to be read—and read again and again. It not only stands up to rereading, it rewards it. Quite simple, it is a beautiful novel. Reviewed by Alice Laurance / Science Fiction / Plume Books (NAL), 1975 / $5.95