The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells (1896)

The Island of Dr MoreauThe story is a short and simple one. Virtuous man finds himself, quite by accident, in a place of scientific corruption. He must remain true to himself while battling the perceived evil, hoping for an escape.

Originally published in 1896, Wells allegedly called The Island of Doctor Moreau “an exercise in youthful blasphemy” but it became so much more than that. The copy I read was a free edition on iBooks, presumably a copy of the first edition, as there is no indication is any further edition.

The tale begins as told by the nephew of the main protagonist whose job is to give it a journalistic flavour; a hint of realism. But soon we’re into the story of Edward Prendick, who is the sole survivor of a shipping accident. He’s soon picked up by passing ship, containing a chap called Montgomery and laden with a menagerie bound of a small island. Montgomery’s mate is an oddly bestial fellow by the name of M’ling. The ship’s captain, a drunkard, and Montgomery both insist that Prendick remains with the other. In the end he’s abandoned, but Montgomery picks him up and takes him to the island. Soon Prendick learns that the island is full of such creatures as M’ling. It seems that disgraced scientist, Moreau, has set up shop in the island where he can continue his experiments with vivisection in peace. Montgomery brings him animals, including a puma. Prendick suspects he might end up under the scalpel and tries his luck with the beast-men. After an unfortunate incident, Prendick returns to the compound and although earlier professes to be abstinent in the ways of alcohol, takes a brandy to help sleep. Another altercation with Moreau sees Prendick back in the jungle, learning of the ways of the beast-like folk. Are they men turned into animals or animals made human? He learns they have a Law, determining their humanity.

The discovery of a half-eaten rabbit leads to the story’s prolonged conclusion with ends in disaster and tragedy. After months alone with the abominations, Prendick eventually escapes the island but is deemed to be a raving lunatic by the captain of the ship who rescues him. Meanwhile Moreau’s creations return to more natural ways without human guidance. Prendick feigns amnesia before returning to London. There he can’t bear the company of people who he sees as animal-like, so he moves to the countryside and solitude.

Victorian society in England was a place of the Gentleman scientist, debates on evolution versus the church and much experimentation with medicine. It was also more than 80 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had been published. In the interim, most science fiction had concerned itself with false utopias or end-of-the-world fears. Science had been left behind, until Wells himself wrote The Time Machine a year earlier. While Victor Frankenstein might be seen as a proto-mad scientist, Moreau can be said to the archetype: shunned by the establishment; ploughing on with his insane vison despite failures; and without solid justification other than because he can. Moreau has no conscience. He has ‘never troubled by ethics’. Meanwhile, our hero Prendick is a man of virtue (highlighted in particular by brandy and the fact the ship’s captain and Montgomery are both drunks) and courage whose fortitude must be tested if he is to live to tell his tale. Both Montgomery and Moreau try to corrupt Prendick. Are society and science corrupting the common man?

Wells is clearly a successful storyteller with a satirical imagination and his nose in the zeitgeist. He can also write great action set-pieces filled with tension. I’m not sure he gets the credit he deserves for this aspect of his fiction. The imagination shown is interesting too. It would be easy to concoct beasts a reader might expect, but combinations such as a hyena-swine, bear-bull and vixen-bear are unexpectedly vivid constructions. Some are hard to imagine in reality (the ape-goat satyr for example). Whatever the combinations, these are true horrors. His characterisation is a little heavy-handed but fits the story well and is of its time. The dialogue fits and is believable. It is easy enough to imagine the types of men the three humans are.

There is of course, a danger in reading much of The Island of Doctor Moreau as a bit racist. I don’t think it is specifically, although it is hard to judge in parts if Wells was reflecting the attitudes of the time or being satirical. He talks a lot about M’ling and the ape-like creature being brutish and idiotic. Black men as servants and slaves?

In the end, I think Wells was praising scientific advancement while cautioning against unregulated progress. He uses terms such as ‘triumphs of vivisection’ and describes how Moreau made the creatures. He suggests minds should be open to science. He thinks that maybe man can conquer nature using science as Moreau tries to remove the animal cravings from his creations. Also, when Prendick shuns society in the coda, it is for chemistry and astrology.

As an aside, there is a reference to religion and the heaven/hell and pleasure/pain concepts. These ideas aren’t dealt with in details except as punishment for the beast in the House of Pain. However, I wonder if this is a birthplace of the horror fiction idea of the exploration between the boundaries of pleasure and pain in such works as the film Hellraiser.

And so Prendick retains his virtue and escapes the horrors of the island but Wells reminds us that ‘an animal may be ferocious and cunning…but it takes a real man to tell a lie’. In the end, Wells has produced a classic mad-scientist science fiction horror. This is no simple ‘adolescent blasphemy’. There is death and destruction, with a dash of hope. There are warnings a-plenty about unfettered advancement and mankind’s animalistic nature. There is science beyond what is possible. Of course, the failing is the lack of any female characters within the text, but that aside, The Island of Doctor Moreau is a proper science fiction classic.

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