Monday, October 5, 2009

The Island of Dr. Moreau - H.G. Wells

Another read in my efforts to get a bit better aquinted with the classics of speculative fiction (I will be reading some more Heinlein in the not too distant future). Apparently Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are the fathers of science fiction. I have read Verne, which I recommend, they are fun to read, but so far Wells has escaped my attention. Something of a miracle given the fact that Wells was one of the few readable things on the English literature reading lists at the pre university college I attended. I have no idea where this copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau came from but it was gathering dust on the living room table for quite some time so I gave it a go. I found it very readable and, despite being over a century old, in some respects still very relevant.

The story is presented as a written account of the adventures of one Edward Prendick. He is shipwrecked somewhere in the Pacific, Wells is vague about the precise location, and picked up by a ship with some very strange passengers and a very remote destination. The ships crew turns out to be a quarrelsome lot and refuses to take poor Prendick any further than the island they are headed for. Prendick has no choice but to join his mysterious rescuer Montgomery and his bestial servant. The island Prendick finds himself on turns out to be the laboratory of Dr. Moreau, a scientist with an interest in vivisection far beyond what his colleagues find acceptable.

I suppose a novel like this was an inspiration to many writers in the pulp era of science fiction. At barely a hundred pages it is short and throws the reader straight into the story. Very little attention is paid to the main character and trivial questions such at what Prendick is doing in the Pacific in the first place. The novel is very much based around the sense of horror about what is going on at the island, something Wells cultivates to great effects. The sense of dread and rising panic in Prendick is very well done. These days it would probably be considered horror in stead of science fiction.

The science in this novel is date of course. Wells enjoyed part of his education as a student of the Darwinian Thomas Henry Huxley and it shows. I very much doubt that many of is contemporaries would have used the theory of evolution in their works. Man is still very much considered the absolute pinnacle of evolution of course, something that colours Prendick's vision on Moreau's experiments. Vivisection was a big topic of debate when Wells wrote this novel. I guess it still is in some respects. Animal welfare protests certainly haven't gone away and animal testing is as controversial as ever. Most of the things Moreau are not possible or at the very least incredibly complicated. Mixing man and beast is probably the ultimate Victorian taboo, sure to horrify and secretly delight readers back then, but grafting tissue in the way the book describes won't work. Still, it may well have looked possible back then.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is not the most challenging of reads but I think I can see why Wells became so popular in the 1890s. Compared to modern works of speculative fiction it is a very basic story, the bones of which have been used many times since. What it does very well is create a dark, brooding atmosphere and a sense of imminent disaster. It is obvious to the reader that this affront to decency and the balance of nature cannot remain without serious consequences, I guess the story is a bit predictable in that respect. Generally I am not to fond of science fiction before the new wave era but I must admit I liked this one. In Victorian times this book must have been quite something, Wells made quite an impact in this period and from this book it is clear why.

Book Details
Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Author: H.G. Wells
Publisher: Dover Publications
Pages: 104
Year: 1996
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-486-29027-0
First published: 1896

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