Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Adventure classics -- In the heart of the beast

The Island of Dr. Moreau

by H.G. Wells


In deciding to devote the month of July to a discussion of classic science fiction I find myself searching, not for the first time, how to describe this genre. Two modern practitionerst, Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, famously disagree on every criteria except one -- the ability of all not-quite-real fictions to tackle subjects too sweeping for mere realism to address.

I’m going to say I know science fiction when I read it, so I can shoehorn the social commentary of H.G. Wells’ 1896 work, The Island of Dr. Moreau, as well as dystopian near-futurism, humor, and a bit of space opera into a single category for this month’s discussions.

Wells opens The Island of Dr. Moreau with the hyperrealism beloved by writers tempting us to believe their outrageous stories -- an introduction by a supposed relative of the narrator, Edward Prendick, supplying dates, latitude and longitude, and name of the ships whose wreck opens Prendick’s adventure.

Prendick is then rescued by a sinister vessel carrying a cargo of exotic animals and two passengers -- failed medical student Montgomery and his strange companion. Once arrived at its destination, Prendick is forced to disembark also, landing on a remote island governed by the notorious Dr. Moreau.

Moreau’s specialty of vivisection -- surgery conducted for experimental purposes -- has made him persona non grata in Europe. Although Prendick professes to have studied biology with Darwin’s advocate, T.H. Huxley, at first he shows no interest in the happenings of Dr. Moreau’s laboratory, simply trying to ignore the sounds of agony from the experiments and completely failing to connect them with the island’s odd-looking inhabitants.
But when the nature of the screams changes from animal to human, Prendick believes Moreau is trying to transform human beings into beasts. Fearing he is intended as one of Moreau’s victims, Prendick flees -- and at last learns the true nature of the experiments. Dr. Moreau, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, is trying to create not beasts, but human beings, this time from surgically-modified animals. And yes, he cuts and stitches creatures who never existed, such as a mock-satyr, just because he can.

“An adventure story that would once have featured battles with fantastic monsters,“ Atwood writes in Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, “keeps the exotic scenery, but the monsters have been produced by the very agency that was seen by many in late Victorian England as the bright, new, shiny salvation of humankind: science.”

“We do not recommend The Island of Dr. Moreau to readers of sensitive nerves,” a contemporary reviewer in April 11, 1896, edition of The Spectator magazine stated, with no apparent understanding that Wells’ book was anything more than a protest against vivisectionism. This, however, doesn't unexplain the story's power to transcend its time.
Atwood attempts an explanation, comparing the story to the tale of another shipwreck survivor, The Ancient Mariner, “which revolves around man’s proper relation to Nature and concludes that this proper relation is one of love.” The Island of Dr. Moreau also contemplates this relationship, but with a twist.

Prendick first saw the beast people of Dr. Moreau as degraded humans. At the end, he finds himself unable to see his fellow human beings as anything other than degraded beasts. The curse he lives under is more terrible than the Ancient Mariner’s wanderings -- the inability to love either humanity or Nature.

For a discussion of science fiction between master practitioners Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, see “Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin debate science fiction” at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction and hubris with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon.)

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