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I'm a writer, podcaster and skills coach in Vancouver, BC. I have two legs, but often misplace the left one. If you see me operating this blog in an erratic or dangerous manner, please smile, nod and back your way out of the room slowly.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Island of Dr Moreau - H G Wells

The Island of Dr Moreau
H G Wells

Published: 1896
Read: January 2006

Capsule: Edward Prendick finds himself on a desert isle with myriad beast people created by a wanton vivisectionist, Dr Moreau. A classic early foray into the genre of scientific horror, The Island of Dr Moreau challenges Darwinian exploration and assumptions of Christian dominion. It also successfully displays both sides of the ethical scientist argument while taking typically 19th-Century British shots at "lesser" races.

Trade Paperback: 104 pages
ISBN: 0486290271
Dover Thrift Editions

I've read only a little H G Wells over the years, but spurred by the recent Tom Cruise debacle thought I should give the real deal a try. Despite being contemporaries in the newly emerging field of science fiction, Wells and Jules Verne apparently used to hate each other's writing. Wells thought Verne was unnecessarily dry and dark; Verne thought Wells was implausible and overly fantastic. For readers today, both authors provide fascinating looks at a genre in its infancy.

The Island of Dr Moreau is best placed beside works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: it's as much about the people involved as it is the crazy science of it all. With monthly breakthroughs in cloning, the Genome Project and medical nanotechnology, these stories are perhaps more important now than they have been in a hundred years.

At the same time, the most jarring issue for a modern reader is most likely going to be a very old one. The narrative spends half the book slamming species and races "less" evolved. Even with a clear call for scientific (and colonial) restraint, the racial intonations are, today, uncomfortable -- in agreement with British thought at the time, Wells equates white with intelligence and civilisation, black with brutish ignorance.

Moreau's attempts to inflict civility upon the animals of the kingdom, of course, turns out horribly. The vivisected beasts learn language to certain degrees, and are taught a rudimentary religion centred upon the good doctor's pain-giving abilities. "Stubborn beast-flesh" prevails time after time, however: invariably, the creatures slowly revert to instinctual, speechless animals. The racist comments make an otherwise brilliant text difficult to read in a modern context.

Sympathy for Moreau's victims quickly becomes awareness of colonial slave trade. One can't help think that Prendick's judgement of human servants would read similarly -- when the teachings of the great white man start wearing off, Prendick observes, "I... distinctly perceived a growing difference in their speech and carriage, a growing coarseness of articulation, a growing disinclination to talk."

The obvious allusions to race relations aside, Moreau is intelligent storytelling; Wells was incredibly well-read, and no matter Verne's opinion, his literacy shows through in his work. Near the end of the book, the Monkey Man offers up a little pre-Orwellian newspeak: everyday topics are "little thinks", while abstract discussion and inventive wordplay are "big thinks".

South Park took 30 minutes to tackle the little thinks in Moreau with their four-assed monkey interpretation. It would take a few semesters of studying colonial and black history, however, to even attempt a cranial wraparound on the big thinks in this story.


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