First Published: 1896
Pages: 143 including afterword (Paperback)
A terrifying, prescient portrayal of a scientist trying to create a new super-breed, The Island of Doctor Moreau was described by H.G. Wells as an ‘exercise in youthful blasphemy’.
Edward Prendick, the single survivor of a shipwreck, is rescued by a vessel carrying a menagerie of savage animals. Soon he finds himself stranded on an uncharted island in the Pacific with the strange vivisectionist Dr Moreau, whose experiments have led him to break the laws of nature, turning beast into man with horrific results.
A short but absolutely excellent novel. H.G. Wells is one of the founding fathers of science fiction and The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those early blends of science-fiction and horror that (like the best of both genres) also offers an uncomfortable insight into human nature. A bit like Frankenstien but without the tedium, and better paced.
For a classic, I had heard relatively little about the plot of this book beyond ‘mad scientist performs horrible experiments, creates human-beast hybrids’ and I was surprised by just how very creepy this novel proved to be. Unlike my experiences with Jules Verne, H.G. Wells’ writing has actually aged pretty damn well. The story almost races along – most chapters are only four or five pages (which makes it very easy to read even when the bloody phone won’t stop ringing) – and the tension is admirably ramped up and up right until (and then past) breaking point.
After being shipwrecked and then rescued, the narrator, Edward Prendick, finds himself on a mysterious island where the disgraced Doctor Moreau and his alcoholic assistant, Montgomery, run a secretive research centre. It soon becomes apparent that Moreau is vivisecting and experimenting on animals and that the results of these experiments are the bestial creatures that inhabit the island, creatures that can walk and speak but are neither quite human nor quite animal. To keep their animal instincts at bay the Doctor has issued a set of commandments, the chief of which is that none of his creations ever eat ‘fish or flesh’, lest they develop a taste for it and turn against their masters. But with creatures created from leopards, wolves, hyena’s and puma’s, the introduction of rabbits onto the island proves a really bad idea.
It’s not just a horror story, though. It touches on a whole host of very real issues, most obviously the morality of scientific research; animal testing, the eugenics movement and the extent to which certain types of experiments can ever be justified by mere curiosity. Doctor Moreau’s hubristic experiments are, obviously, impossible, but the questions they raise are very real. But it manages to do so (and touch on religion as well) without being preachy about it or disrupting the flow of the story.
What I didn’t like about this book though, in common with lots form this era, was the treatment of race. The use of words such as ‘savages’, the way certain of the beast-men were at first assumed to be black or eastern, and that the Gorilla-man, upon his creation was deemed to be ‘a fair specimen of the negroid type’. Little things like that. The overall story, however, I really enjoyed.
I’m generally more of a horror person than a sci-fi one, so this was probably a good place for me to start with H.G. Wells – it reads more like Robert Louis Stevenson than Jules Verne (maybe translators treat Verne particularly badly but I found 20,000 leagues such a slog I gave up). I will definitely be trying some more of Wells straight up science fiction though, now that I have a taste for his writing style. War of the Worlds is sitting on my bookshelf and I believe there might be a copy of The Invisible Man lying around the house too…