Friday, March 24, 2006

The Island Of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells (spoilers)

Title: The Island Of Dr. Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Poor

Beware: there are spoilers in here. Sorry.

This is the second of the books in a collection of H. G. Wells's work, and - I hope - the most problematic. I've been sick with a flu for some time now, and that hasn't helped my attitude, but this book is not good. About it Wells writes in the preface: "... and The Island Of Dr. Moreau [is] rather painful." He's right, and for more reasons than he knew when he wrote those words. It hasn't held up over time.

Perhaps looked at as a sample of early science fiction it is an important work. Perhaps as a piece of writing it is significant, though I would argue against that suggestion. In any event, the science is so abominably bad I can't imagine how it could be worse. Taken as a morality play, and with substantial rewrites to get past the most horrific scientific blunders, it might be useful. But even there I wonder. The hero does some stupid things, and doesn't take rational actions when he should have.

Of course this book was first published back in 1896, and apparently the English were all aflutter over the "science" of vivisection at the time. Maybe those factors should cause me to give Moreau a break, but I won't. The language is stilted, the story is simplistic, and as stated above there isn't a single bit of science in here that is close to correct. It really is painful to read 110 years later.

A brief plot summary: the hero (Edward Prendick) is ship wrecked but gets to a life boat. He is picked up by a ship on the way to Dr. Moreau's island with a cargo of live animals. Once there, he is left behind by the ship, and so has to get on with Moreau, his assistant (Montgomery) and a set of servants who turn out to be created (by Moreau's art of vivisection) from various animals. These beast men live on the island after Moreau has decided they are failures. Moreau is eventually killed by one of the animals he is working on, Montgomery is killed by others, the beast men slowly revert back to their animalistic ways, and Prendick finally builds a raft and is rescued. He's writing the tale years later, though no one will believe him.

My biggest problem is that this story goes on forever. I could never believe what was happening, and so the pages dragged on and on and on and on and ... never mind. It was not a fun read.

As of this writing, the wikipedia entry says this book addresses:
  • Society and community. But there is really little here on that. True, the beast men form a society, and true the narrator isn't comfortable in English society when he returns a year later, but that's about all you get. There is no real exploration of what makes up society here. In fact, I would argue that it fails on this point entirely, and there could have been a lot more development of the society of the beast men in the book. That might actually have been interesting.
  • Human nature and identity. What's present on this is so sophomoric that it doesn't deserve the title. Through surgical procedures (vivisection) and hypnosis Moreau enhances animals to near human stature. I think not. But even if you buy it, Wells doesn't actually deal in human nature much here. What little you find is all simplistic stereotyping. Even the hero - who winds up disliking what Moreau does - can't empathize with the animals being tormented. I wonder what Wells's sense of human nature really was.
  • Religion. Other than the hero's occasional statements that he is a religious man, and his use of religious terms when Moreau dies - in an attempt to scare and control the beast men - there is no mention of religion here at all.
  • Darwinism. Yet again I disagree with Wikipedia. First off because the term "Darwinism" has been taken over by the religious right and is used in a negative light. The term that should be there is "evolution". Secondly because once again the term is mentioned a couple of times in passing, and then Moreau goes on to do all kinds of things that simply aren't possible within any evolutionary scheme. (Combining bits of rhinoceros and horse to create a single man-like organism, for example.) There is no exploration of evolution here. It's mentioned in passing to give a hint of science to the work. Nothing more.
  • Eugenics. Perhaps we've hit on something the book is actually about, but even here I am not certain I agree. Eugenics is generally about making the "race" better - for some definition of race, generally encompassing a much smaller set of people than than "all of humanity". In the book, though, Moreau is doing science for no reason at all, unconcerned about repeated failure despite hints that it will never work, and there is no real gain to be had in what he's doing. It doesn't really strike me as a small scale eugenics program going on here. More like a small scale program of torturing animals.
  • The dangers of unchecked and irresponsible scientific research. Yes, here I finally agree with wikipedia, but to my mind the larger problem is the idea that there is such a thing as "unchecked" scientific research. I admit there is a lot of research that leads in unexpected directions, or whose results can be misused, but I would argue that doing the research itself isn't wrong. In any event, Moreau is doing research to no point and purpose. That might be fine if it was mathematics, but he is injuring creatures and discarding them when they fail to meet his expectations. If that was acceptable - even to a minority of people - at the time the book was written, then I am ashamed of that portion of my heritage.
I wish the wikipedia article authors would support why they think The Island Of Dr. Moreau actually addresses - as opposed to "mentions" - these things. If mentioning something is addressing it, then just about everything I've ever read was much deeper than I thought.

My copy of this book is a 1978 reprint of a 1934 edition of this tome. Remember that the preface - written by Wells himself for that 1934 edition - called The Island Of Dr. Moreau "rather painful." He was right, way back then, and it has only gotten worse. Unless you're studying the history of science fiction, I'd give this one a pass.