The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells cover

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If the fantasy genre has its roots in fairy tales and mythology, science fiction birthed from the horror genre in a kind of mutated mitosis. The sympathies between the two are visible today any time you have the misfortune of watching movie previews; there’s always at least one horror movie with science fiction trappings, and the science fiction movies that fall into other sub-genres are rare. Modern science fiction books have a great deal more variety and breadth, but horror still makes up a significant sub-genre of science fiction. That relationship is on prominent display in HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.

In fact, there is an argument to be made, especially in a modern context, that there is very little of science fiction about this story. Vivisection as a means of combining animals into viable, humanoid lifeforms is far less realistic than the grafting of plant species from a modern perspective. Then again, if you replace every mention of vivisection which some kind of genetic manipulation you end up with a science fiction story once more. Either way, this is the sort of story that is meant as a warning against the hubris of Man acting in the role of God, much like Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.

There are a great many parallels between Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau, and it is not unrealistically to suspect that Wells may have read Mary Shelly’s classic piece. Yes, Frankenstein is typically described as Gothic Horror, but I would argue it fits better in science fiction; however, that is a topic for another post, if and when I should ever decide to re-read and review Frankenstein. The resonances between these two books are uncanny, though, including a framing story, humanoid creatures formed by unnatural processes that slowly descend toward a bestial nature, and the dangers they present.

If this story were told from the perspective of Dr. Moreau, I wonder how it would change. By making an outsider, without knowledge of the experiments Dr. Moreau is conducting, the protagonist, Wells dramatically increases the tension, mystery, and visceral horror evoked in the reader. No matter how repugnant or dangerous the island’s inhabitants might seem, it is the unknown that lends true fear to the arrangement, which is why we do not see Dr. Moreau interacting with his creatures with nearly Prendick’s trepidation or disgust.

All kinds of morals and meanings can be drawn from this story: the relationship between power and responsibility, the dangers of scientific hubris, the differences between Man and beast and between Man and God (or lack thereof), even a hole in the veneer of civilization. While I normally rale against searching for meanings and morals in stories, and I’m certainly not here to tell you what you should be getting from this classic, I do think this is one story where reading into it is appropriate. Otherwise, there simply isn’t a lot of story present.

Compared to how this book would be written today, The Island of Doctor Moreau is short, doesn’t have a lot of story, doesn’t have a sympathetic protagonist, and spends too much time telling and not enough time showing (we should really do that post). However, it’s a classic for a reason, because despite all of those things that are “technically” wrong with it, it is still a compelling read, for all that I find War of the Worlds and The Time Machine far more interesting. If you’re looking for another Wells book to read (perhaps after finishing his biography), then I recommend checking out The Island of Doctor Moreau. Just not in person: that could be dangerous.

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