Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Island of Doctor Moreau

H.G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
The more Wells I read, the more I appreciate how graceful was the best of his writing, here defined as those novels which have remained popular; and for this reason I kick myself for not having made the effort with them earlier. As Brian Aldiss points out in the faintly superfluous afterword - superfluous because most of his observations concern themes which are already made clear within the novel and require no further emphasis, I would say - Moreau is, roughly speaking, a successor to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe with the man washed up on the beach confronting certain aspects of both himself and by extension the society from which he came.

Obviously, as I seem to recall being the great revelation of Ridley Scott's faintly annoying Prophets of Science Fiction show, Moreau may be taken as a commentary upon the practice of vivisection and as predictive of genetic engineering, although this sort of misses the point. Written in the wake of Darwin and Huxley breaking the once divine barrier by which humanity was regarded as separate from beast, The Island of Doctor Moreau more properly voices, I would suggest, Wells' fears regarding the industrialisation of mankind, flesh as a malleable commodity which can be turned to the will of an entirely human and hence fallible creator. The constructed beast folk might then be viewed as precursors to Karel Čapek's first robots, and much less the descendants of Stevenson's bestial Edward Hyde.

I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island.

A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

It's a simple message delivered with the irresistible force of Wells' meaty and yet often surprisingly lean prose, and the book is deservedly a classic. It's a shame that The Island of Doctor Moreau - a horror novel at least as much as it could be considered science-fiction - probably eventually led us to crap like The Human Centipede, but that's hardly Wells' fault.

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