The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)
H.G. Wells (Magnum, 1968)
190 p. First reading.
I have decided to do a bit of reading at the origins of science fiction. It is a genre that I have mostly avoided in the past. The reasons for this neglect are as follows: I have been under the impression that most of it is poorly written; I have imagined that the genre is prone to pedantry and abstraction, the “stories” thinly disguising a conceptual skeleton better set forth in non-fiction; and I have an aversion to the placing of too great an emphasis on the value of technology and scientific knowledge, which defect I have taken to be common among the practitioners of the art. As such, and remembering C.S. Lewis’ dictum that one ought not to pass judgment on books in a genre one dislikes, it might be best for me to leave well enough alone. But recently I have begun to wonder whether I might be wrong on one or more counts, and bethought me to give the genre another chance.
My initial explorations have been haphazard, limited by what I happen to have sitting on my shelves. I began with Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, and now I turn to one of the early stories of H.G. Wells. They could hardly be more different. Verne, for all his affability, is didactic in the extreme. His book really is a series of technical lectures thinly clothed in plot and character and tied up with a bow of scientific cheerleading: Hooray for rocket-ships and kinematics! Wells is a far superior novelist: this is a real story with atmosphere, intelligent plotting and dialogue, and imagination. He paints a dark picture. Contrary to my expectations, already here in the early sources of science fiction we find a dystopian vision and a warning against scientific hubris. I stand corrected.
The novel can be read as a study of a particular perversion of the scientific mentality. On his remote island, Dr. Moreau indulges in a series of grotesque experiments to create human-animal hybrids, which he then, as much for his own safety as anything else, attempts to educate and civilize. His technical means are skin, bone, and organ grafting combined with blood transfusion (I note that an instructive benefit of reading older science fiction is to realize how poorly scientific speculation often turns out), but the more interesting point is how he thinks about what he is doing. It is “Nothing very dreadful really — to a sane man” — a revealing qualification. For Moreau, his activities have lost their moral aspect, for he sees only the technical challenge: “You cannot imagine the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires. The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem.” I am reminded of Oppenheimer describing the Manhattan Project as “technically sweet”. This way of thinking is an enduring temptation for certain scientific minds, for science itself cannot provide moral guidance, and, as with any field of study, absorption in the subject matter can dispose one to forget about what lies outside it. The consequences of Moreau’s forgetfulness are horrifying.
If Wells seems antipathetic to a certain kind of science, the book also conveys a robust antipathy for a certain kind of religion. Moreau’s Beast People form a rough society on the island, and recite in unison a self-serving “Law” drawn up for them by Moreau, whom they fear and revere as a kind of god. In Wells’ telling, these recitations come across as grotesque parodies of religious rites, and I suspect that he intends the insult. One might go even further and say that his portrayal of the Beast People, so like us and yet so vulgar and stupid, their savagery held at bay by a fragile civility, conveys an antipathy for mankind in general. Our narrator, Edward Prendicks, seems to see things this way. Confronted with the horror of the island, he overlooks the particular and peculiar actions that have brought it about to draw broad conclusions about all of our lives:
“I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau, by his passion for research, Montgomery by his passion for drink, the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.”
That is, in the eyes of some, the world according to science, and it is certainly bleak. We have heard it before, of course, but Wells succeeds in giving it literary life. Yet there seems to be a moral incoherence in Prendicks’ both objecting to Moreau’s experiments and assenting to this grim worldview, for if the latter be true, it is hard to understand why Moreau deserves censure.
Prendicks: “An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie.”