Friday, June 13, 2014

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

A creepy thriller with philosophical bite
The introduction to H. G. Wells’ classic science fiction/horror novel The Island of Doctor Moreau explains that the text of the book is the account of Edward Prendick, an Englishman who, after departing on a Pacific Ocean voyage, went missing for about a year. When the ship he’s traveling on goes down, Prendick escapes in a life boat, which is discovered a few days later by a passing ship, the Ipecacuanha. On board this ship is a mysterious Mr. Montgomery, who is traveling with a load of African wildlife and a strangely deformed assistant. When the captain of the Ipecacuanha reaches Montgomery’s destination, a remote and little-known island, he refuses to take Prendick any further and kicks him off the ship, despite Montgomery’s objections. Now marooned on this isolated isle, Prendick is granted a modicum of hospitality, but he knows his presence is not welcome there because of secret goings-on that are kept hidden from him. He soon learns that the man in charge on the island is one Dr. Moreau, an expat Londoner and biologist who has fled civilization so that he may carry out his ethically questionable experiments.

I have no doubt that when this book was originally published in 1896, its audience was simultaneously terrified and delighted by its shockingly unique premise. For many of today’s readers, however, the cat has unfortunately been let out of the bag. Wells spends the first half of the book playing hide and seek with the island’s creatures, but any reader who’s aware of the movie adaptations of this story already knows what horrific surprises lie in wait. Once Prendick encounters Moreau the book gets a lot better, as it starts to get into the scientific and philosophical aspects of the story. I would have preferred a little more discourse between Prendick and Moreau, and a little less chasing each other around the island. Nevertheless, there are a good many suspenseful scenes that keep the reader thrilled and chilled. The science may have been a bit implausible by the standards of the nineteenth-century, but not entirely impossible by those of the twenty-first, and the issues of scientific and medical ethics are even more relevant in today’s age of genetic modification than at the time the book was published. Moreau, the arrogant scientist who dares to play God, is a fascinating character, as is his enforcer Montgomery, an alcoholic so disillusioned with human society that he feels more at home with the beasts.

I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Island of Doctor Moreau covers many of the same issues. Though a man of science may have the ability to tamper with the natural order of life and the universe, does he have the right? Is the infliction of pain justified when it advances scientific knowledge? Does the scientist have a responsibility to his creations, just as the father has to his son? If man is capable of bending nature to his will, does this call into question the existence of God? Wells tackles all these issues more successfully than Shelley, and what’s more important, his book isn’t boring. This novel is first and foremost an adventure tale, but Wells as usual elevates his work far above typical genre fiction by injecting his narrative with thought-provoking philosophical inquiry.

If you’ve seen the various film versions of this novel, Wells’ original text is still well worth reading. If you’re not familiar with the movie versions at all, then you’re in for an astonishing wild ride.

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