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The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells
Book Name: The Island of Doctor Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Publisher(s): Heinemann, Stone & Kimball
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Release Date: 1896

The Island of Doctor Moreau (cover)The late Victorian era was a time of new and dangerous ideas. The concept of evolution challenged traditional religious belief. The first few voices were questioning the politics of Empire. Ideas of hypnotism and psychology were starting to be taken seriously. H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau is a vivid, uncomfortable exploration of these concepts and remains just as disturbing today, even though much of the science behind it has been disproved. Like The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau has aged much better than might be expected.

The narrator, Prendrick, finds himself lost on a mysterious tropical island. His only companions are Montgomery, a heavy-drinking medic, and Moreau, an arrogant scientist with a dark past – and the strange, brutish people whom Moreau has trained to obey him. Prendrick at first believes the islanders to be men who have devolved into beasts, but the opposite is true: they are the results of Moreau’s hideous experiments to turn animals into human beings. As the beast-people start to revert to instinct, Prendrick struggles to avoid being torn apart by them – and to stay off the doctor’s dissecting table.

The Island of Doctor Moreau (cover 2)Wells himself held a variety of opinions, ranging from the vaguely progressive to the downright strange, but there is no hiding the fact that this is a Victorian novel (albeit a light and very readable one). Modern readers might be uncomfortable with the fact that almost all of the characters are either white colonists or half-animal hybrids, but I think this misses the point of the satire. The target of Wells’ disgust is Moreau and what he stands for, not the creatures he creates and terrorises.

Doctor Moreau is one of the great monsters of science fiction, and is even more recognizable and timely now than when Wells created him. Moreau is a mad scientist, but not a raging maniac. His madness comes from arrogance, amorality and the belief that any criticism of his cruel methods is just sentimental nonsense: his actions are truly evil, but he can explain them perfectly. He is a racist – a kind of fascist, perhaps, although the word didn’t exist when the book was written – and the worst sort of colonialist: he doesn’t just rule over the beast-people, but tries to set himself up as their god. In teaching them to be like him, Moreau forces them to obey – but however well they mimic their conqueror, they’ll never be quite “right” in his eyes.

The Island of Doctor Moreau (cover 3)Ultimately, the island is torn apart by bloodshed, but even the comforts of Europe don’t offer Prendrick an escape: back in England, his countrymen seem much less human than before. Wells leaves his genteel readers with the suspicion that they may not be as far removed from beasts as they would like…

This novel is unnerving rather than horrific, although Moreau’s description of his working habits and failed experiments leaves enough gaps for the reader to fill in the unpleasant details. It’s a classic example of less being more. Like The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Island of Doctor Moreau gains a lot of strength from being written rather than performed. Nothing on-screen could compare to the reader’s mental images of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones or Wells’ beast-people.

The Island of Doctor Moreau remains creepy and exciting, and packs a lot of force into its short length. For me, it is as powerful as Dracula or Frankenstein and more readable than either. It is deservedly a classic of early science fiction.


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