Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright

First published 1942 by Rinehart & Company
Paperback reprint by Signet, 1966
Overlook Press trade paperback reprint, 2002

Islandia is unusual in being one of the great displays of the world-builder's art outside fantasy and science fiction. The hero of the story is John Lang, a young American who befriends an Islandian exchange student in his freshman year at Harvard and after graduation finds himself, one of the only Americans with a speaking knowledge of the Islandian language, appointed consul to Islandia. Though excellence of world-building is not the novel's only good quality, it's the main attraction, and unless you enjoy reading a story for the sake of its setting, you should spend your time elsewhere. A rule of thumb: if you skipped the appendices in The Lord of the Rings, you should probably skip Islandia. If you read them and still wanted to know more about the history and culture of Middle-Earth, you might well enjoy Islandia.

Islandia is a country on the coast of the Karain semicontinent in the southern hemisphere. One could compare it to Japan in the age of its civilization, its level of technology when discovered by Europeans, and to some extent in its political relations with Europe and America. However, its culture and political organization don't resemble that of Japan particularly. It seems superficially like feudal Europe, but with a much less deep or steep hierarchy separating the 'peasants' from the 'nobility'. There is only one City and one University, which thus need no names to distinguish them from others. Most significantly, no Islandian considers either of them his permanent home; one may spend his working career in the City or University, but always can return to his family's farm.

The story is mainly about John Lang, his coming of age with his first responsible job far from home and the customs and language of his childhood; his relations with Dorn, his college friend, and new friends made in Islandia itself. But larger, sometimes in the background but often enough a main theme, is the decision Islandia's people are making whether to ratify a new treaty that would open up Islandia to foreign trade and repeal the quota on foreign visitors, or remain isolationist and send away the few diplomats who have come during the years of a provisional treaty.

Other chief elements in the story are John Lang's slowly developing relations with more than one Islandian woman; Islandia's relations with its neighbor, a region populated by uncivilized tribes under a German colonial government; and, perhaps most important, Lang slowly becoming Islandian.

The style is nearly always clear, though sometimes more formal than it strictly needs to be. The story doesn't move quickly for the most part, but it's absorbing. I read several other novels in the three months during which I read Islandia, but I never doubted I would finish it.

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