Islandia is fully realized world which has drawn parallels to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but it contains no elements of standard fantasy fare such as dragons, wizards, magic and so on, and so it is much more a utopia than a standard fantasy.
The original Islandia was conceived by Wright as a small boy. Creating its civilization became his lifelong leisure occupation. The complete Islandia papers include "a detailed history ... complete with geography, genealogy, representations from its literature, language and culture."4. The complete and never published version of Islandia can be found in the Harvard library. A 61 page Introduction to Islandia by Basil Davenport was published along with the original novel in 1942.
The protagonist of the novel is an American named John Lang, who graduates from Harvard in 1910. The setting is Islandia, an imaginary country set in the real world of that time. This remote nation "at the tip of the Karain semi-continent" is near "the unexplored wastes of Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere."2 The citizens have imposed "the Hundred Law, limiting access to Islandia to a bare one hundred visitors at a time."3 Wright may have had in mind both the self-imposed isolation of Siam, starting in 1688, and that of Japan, starting soon after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1603. In any case, for the country of Islandia, these two factors have shrouded this nation in mystery.
Islandia's culture has many "progressive" features. For example, prostitutes are rehabilitated back into respectable society. Another "progressive" feature is the citizens' love of nature, and their rural lives. Everyone, including members of the upper classes, engages in some kind of useful work, especially farming. The word for city in Islandian literally means "a place where people get together," as opposed to a place where people live; all families have a country home to which they can return.
Like other writers of speculative fiction, Wright decided to imagine a society that differs from ours in one or several key features. One of these is that, while Islandian civilization is technologically primitive, it is far in advance of Western culture in terms of understanding of human emotion and psychology. Wright wrote much of the story in the 1920's, but set it before World War I, providing a particularly stark contrast between Islandian understanding, and the emotionally unperceptive and self-repressive Victorian world. Immersed in the Islandian culture, John Lang steadily grows in understanding of his emotions and his sexual feelings. He grows accustomed to the sexually permissive Islandian culture. Wright's portrayal may have been intended as a positive comment on the growing sexual permissiveness of American culture in the 1920's.
Another difference between Islandian culture and the West is that Islandians determinedly reject the rush of modern Western life, and most modern Western technology. It is a rural society with an arcadian worldview, which at one point Dorn humorously describes as "enlightened Hedonism". They're not interested in building railroads for quick travel. But they do not blindly reject all Western technology; they use a few Western inventions that they judge to be worthwhile, such as modern rifles, and Singer sewing machines.
Among John Lang's discoveries, he finds that the Islandians use four words for love:
John Lang meets and falls in love with Dorn's sister, Dorna. They spend some time together alone, which John finds unnerving at first, since they are not chaperoned. When Dorna comes to understand John's feelings, she tells him that she does not love him in return in that way (though he wonders whether she means "cannot", or "will not"). She accepts the hand of the King instead, a handsome young man who has been courting her for some time.
One of the culminations of the plot is the decision by the people of Islandia to reject the aggressive overtures of the Great Powers for unrestricted trade and immigration, choosing instead to maintain their tradition of isolation. As this political struggle comes to a head, John Lang follows his conscience and sides with the Islandians, to the great disappointment of many American businessmen who were looking forward to new lucrative trade opportunities, including John Lang's uncle.
Near the end of the novel, John Lang is allowed to become a citizen of Islandia as a reward for heroism in an attack by a neighboring group. By this point he has fallen in love with an American friend with whom he has maintained steady correspondence. They decide to marry, and when she arrives in Islandia she, too, is granted citizenship.
Reviewers describe these books as entertaining and self-contained. The prequels concern events that are mentioned in passing in the original novel, and evidently are based on Wright's unpublished notes.
2 p. v in the Introduction to Islandia, Austin Tappin Wright, 1942, Introduction by John Silbersack, 2001, ISBN 1-58567-148-7.
3 p. vi, Ibid.
4 back cover, Ibid.