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The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells - Sci-Fi Classic Review

The Island of Dr. Moreau
The classic cover

"Vivisection" was perhaps one of the greatest medical controversies of the late Nineteenth Century. It is, essentially, the use of invasive surgery on a live subject--animals, usually--for the purposes of experimentation. While there are plenty of examples of the practice being done in cruel and inhumane ways that were inexcusable even by the standards of the time, it was at the forefront of medical science, responsible for increasing our understanding of anatomy and physiology by at least an order of magnitude. It was in the midst of a rousing, decades-long debate that H.G. Wells, himself well-versed in biology, wrote one of his darkest novels, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

It is the story of Edward Prendick, a scientist lost at sea who finds himself stranded on a mysterious island where beasts have been turned into proto-human abominations by the eponymous Dr. Moreau, a disgraced physiologist forced into exile a decade earlier for his brutal experiments and wild ideas about the possibilities of vivisection. The beast-men of the island are outwardly tame and intelligent, but once they get a taste for blood and realize their human masters are mortal, they begin to revert and rebel against their artificial humanity. It isn't long before Moreau is slain and Prendick must find a way to survive.

While not quite as famous as his first novel, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a more mature work, both in style and content. It retains Wells' brilliant use of thematic ambiguity and layered point-of-view, but it flows more easily, with more poetic language and vivid imagery. Depite the novel having more in common with horror than adventure, it still feels like Wells' primary goal is to entertain, not preach. He is tackling a real-world, contemporary controversy head-on, but instead of the story coming across as a social statement, it comes across as a gory bed-time story whose messages are incidental to the thrills.

The Island of Dr. Moreau
The exploitative paperback cover

This is not to say there isn't a moral to this story, because there absolutely is. On the surface, it is clearly about the dangers of scientific experimentation divorced from ethics. However, Wells doesn't really dwell on that message, choosing instead to let the visceral nature of the plot do the heavy lifting while he concerns himself with deeper matters more open to interpretation and consideration. It's a philosophical work as much as it is a scientific one, with Wells dipping his feet into matters of religion and the nature of man (and contemplating the implications of Darwinian evolution, a motif found in almost all of his science-fiction).

One of the ways Dr. Moreau keeps his uplifted monsters in line is by indoctrinating them with The Law, a set of rules of behavior that encourages them to act more human than beast while reinforcing the supremacy of Moreau and his fellow humans. The creatures take up The Law with intense, religious fervor, and Moreau believes--and the plot seems to demonstrate--that obedience to The Law is the only thing keeping them from shuffling off Moreau's modifications and returning to their inherent, beastly nature. As a metaphor for religion, as it is practiced by men, it can be read as a cynical, skeptical take on spiritual matters or it could be read as an affirmation for the need for God and scripture to keep men civilized.

Wells himself was a deist, neither atheist nor following any specific creed. He believed in a personal God, but frequently criticized and brutally satirized organized religion on multiple occasions. From that perspective, the apparent theocratic conflict disappears: Moreau's Law is a foolish crutch that predictably fails, but it is entirely possible, in Wells' view, that mankind is held separate by the machinations of an unknowable deity more omnipotent than a mere mortal like Moreau.

The Island of Dr. Moreau
The spooky one

Wells' story also springs from a conceit that Rousseau was correct about the nature of man, that we are inherently savages only made noble by the skin of our teeth. This is the lesson Prendick takes from his experience, and the disillusionment he feels after living so long with the beasts has made it impossible for him to tell the difference between man and animal anymore. The closing chapter, in which Prendick explains this, is also a startlingly accurate depiction of PTSD, eighty years before it was ever diagnosed. It highlights one of Wells' most brutal endings, made terrifying not because Prendick dies, but because he lives.

As is typical with Wells, his science isn't particularly accurate, though at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. Medical science in 1896 hadn't yet learned the difficulties in tissue compatability--that it is virtually impossible to splice together two organisms from the same species, much less two different species--and we still didn't know that the vast majority of animals lack the physiological capacity to come anywhere close to what we would consider human intellect and speech. Thankfully, these were hard truths we came to learn through empiricism, not through mad scientists trying to meticulously sew animals together and surgically alter their brains. In Wells' day, though, it could, in theory, have been attempted. That's why it's so scary.

As with most of Wells' famous science-fiction novels, there have been several film adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Next week, we'll look at one of the first, The Island of Lost Souls, and after that, we'll look at the 1970's version starring Burt Lancaster as Moreau and the infamous 1990's production with Marlon Brando. In the meantime, let me know what you think of Wells' most disturbing and grotesque story in the comments below.

-e. magill 4/18/2019

Diane Magill-Davis
John Burrill

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Diane Magill-Davis
John Burrill

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The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) - Movie Review
As trainwrecks go, this bizarre adaptation of Wells' classic is pretty entertaining. [5/2/2019]
Island of Lost Souls - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
Wells may have hated this pre-Code horror film, so salacious and controversial it was banned all over the globe, but it is a bonafide classic. [4/25/2019]
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This surprisingly accurate prediction of submarine life is both a great novel and a fatally flawed one. [3/14/2019]
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley - Sci-Fi Classic Review
A world without suffering or conflict might just be more terrifying than the alternative. [9/27/2018]
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells - Sci-Fi Classic Review
What makes this prototypical time travel tale so important? [8/30/2018]