Review of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)


H. G. Wells (writer).

Read in 2022.

Three scientifically trained Englishmen, one of them shipwrecked, spend a year together on the titular island. One of them, a surgeon, experimentally rebuilds non-human animals on a human pattern and rules the resulting “Beast Men” as a god of pain.

Wells invented many of the motifs of the science fiction genre. Here he invents a bad one, the “uplift” motif. He doesn’t furnish it with a plausible scientific basis, despite his own belief in the concept. Instead, the main point of the novel seems to be what the author would say about it in 1933, for a collection of his novels: He called this one “an exercise in youthful blasphemy”, which is exactly right. It’s edgy, and that’s about it.

Dr. Moreau’s surgery is specifically vivisection, that is experimental surgery upon a living organism. This was popularly associated with horror at the time because it was invasive, painful, frequently lethal and linked to mounting evidence for Darwin’s controversial but correct materialism. By setting the plot on an island that functions as a colony, where the three English lord it over their bestial slave labourers with knife, whip, gun, and religion, Wells essentially fused together so many edges that he built an edgelord Death Star, full of violence, drunkenness, revolt, occultism, uncanny-valley creepiness and late-Victorian hints at sexual debauchery. It must have been spectacular at the time, but it’s all too flimsy.

Wells tried to make the story believable enough through a complex framing device involving naval misadventure, a mainstay of action-adventure fiction that is supposed to explain why and how the protagonist ended up on the island and had to stay there for a while. As in The Time Machine (1895), Wells allows the framing device to dominate the narrative in a way that later SF authors wouldn’t, yet he fails to achieve the tempo of The Time Machine or the high weirdness of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).

The main feature of the novel that does work is the colonial metaphor. The “Beast Men” are not the British working class of The Time Machine, but they are openly a metaphor for humans with natural origins, not for the non-human. Wells’s protagonist is changed by his circumstances, becoming a brutal master reliant on his slaves for food and other comforts. Like Socrates and his buddies in the Republic (ca. 375 BCE), Wells’ character even adds features to the religious beliefs of his slaves to sustain his power and protect his life, without Plato’s excuse of trying to create a better society. He develops like many of the colonial policemen and other enforcers who, in reality, debased themselves to sustain the British Empire against its peoples. Wells gives this metaphorical dimension a cynical end that lines up with the other edges: The beasts ultimately regress, abdicating from civilization. This is somewhat ambiguous; they regress to laziness and violence as racist Brits believed that their non-white subjects would, but on the other hand, the coda makes it clear that the protagonist is weary of human nature, including his fellow Brits, who are not better.

References here: “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970), “The Death of Doctor Island” (1973), BoJack Horseman (2014).

text fiction