Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Ah, 100-page books. While Brent is slaving away at Don Quixote and War and Peace, I'm pulling away from the crowd by reading books like The Island of Dr. Moreau. And yes, it is a legitimate book, not a comic book, Nathan, and not a short story, Alyson.

The plot of this book is likely known to you, either from the awful Marlon Brando/Val Kilmer flick or the countless parodies on The Simpsons and what-have-you. An intellectual named Edward Prendick is shipwrecked and ends up on a ship bound for the Island of Dr. Moreau, where he is kicked off with the Doctor's assistant Montgomery. Prendick remembers Moreau from a high-profile scandal in which Moreau was kicked out of London for mutilating cats in his experiments, and learns he has come to the island to continue with his work: creating people from animals. (Not, as some parodies might have you believe, combining humans and animals.)

This book, written in 1896, is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. As all great science fiction, the book's value lies not in the science but the social commentary. With the island's Beast People, who have been indoctrinated by Moreau with "the Law"--Don't walk on all fours, don't eat meat, don't scratch or claw, be human--Wells seems to suggest that we are captives of our own inner natures, as the Beast People cannot help but revert back to their feral ways. Moreau's attempt to "play God" fails utterly, perhaps undermining our concept of control over our own bodies and minds.

But it also displays what it one of science fiction's biggest faults, which is that the science dates it extremely. Moreau's methods have nothing to do with "genes" or "DNA," but "vivisection"--a word which seems almost arcane to us in light of modern science fiction, in which Dr. McCoy can fix your broken arm by waving a blinking box over your skin. Moreau teaches his beasts to talk and think, but never once uses the word "conditioning," an idea for which Pavlov didn't win the Nobel Prize until 1904. No modern reader would be fooled into thinking that Moreau could create a human being this way, though many at the turn of the century might, and that's a shame--for all its potential and even though much of it deals with worlds that don't yet exist, it tends to become dated much quicker than other literature.


Carlton said...

I like that you tagged Kilmer but not Brando.

Christopher said...


Louie said...

I disagree slightly. Dr. Moreau is one of the only books which actually scared me and the science is pretty good. Yes it's not gene splicing or mutants, but the idea of creating animal frankensteins is still pretty cool. Gotta love H.G Wells!