Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

June 16, 2009

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.”

14 Responses to “Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau”

  1. Chun Says:

    How about Lewis’ Space Trilogy?

  2. Adam Hincks Says:

    I remember this being one of my favourite’s of Wells. As for Lewis, he quite enjoyed Wells and explicitly acknowledges his debt to him in Out of the Silent Planet.

  3. cburrell Says:

    The Space Trilogy is an interesting case that has come up in conversation a few times recently. The truth is that I have not finished it. Some years ago — possibly as many as ten — I read Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra; I found the first a middling entertainment and the second genuinely tedious, so I abandoned (rocket-)ship. Recently I have been told that the final volume is the best of the bunch, so I am thinking of giving the whole trilogy another chance. What do you think of the trilogy? Which book do you think best?

    As I remember it, Lewis expressed admiration for the literary quality of Wells’ science fiction, but not its philosophical bent. Out of the Silent Planet was written under Wells’ influence, but also against it — and particularly against, if memory serves, The First Men in the Moon.

  4. Janet Says:

    You always make me want to read whatever you write about. (well, except for the books you should burn, etc.) I think this is a dangerous blog. I finished both of the Sansom books and found them enjoyable (if one can be said to enjoy all that murder, etc.) but, of course, I think he wasn’t entirely unbiased in his writing about the monasteries. I think it’s interesting that the most sympathetic character, in my opinion, is the faithful Catholic–Guy. Did you like the second as well as the first?


  5. Adam Hincks Says:

    Out of the Silent Planet is not middling.

  6. cburrell Says:

    I expect I didn’t give it enough of a chance, Adam. I remember thinking it was kind of embarrassing that Lewis had written a science fiction novel, and such a quaint one too. (Launching a rocket-ship from an English country-house? Oh brother.) I wasn’t in the right state of mind. This is why I am thinking of reading the whole trilogy again.

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the Shardlake books, Janet! I had been wondering how your summer reading was going. Sansom’s own views about the English Reformation are a little hard to pin down from his writing. He is clearly sympathetic to the idea that something of value was lost, but, then again, it’s not clear that he thinks it matters very much. As I said in my Book Note, “too much twenty-first century and not enough sixteenth”.

    On balance, and despite its bloated length, I liked the second book better than the first. I thought the Shardlake character was more interesting in the second, I liked the new assistant, and the story was more intriguing.

  7. […] Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau […]

  8. Nick Milne Says:

    I have to agree with Adam’s gentle outrage.

    But then, you probably knew that already.

  9. cburrell Says:

    I know that you and he are in cahoots. The evidence is beginning to look incontrovertible: first you both side with C.S. Lewis against me on a very doubtful matter, and, more brazenly, you both tempt me with offers of cheap books and then fail to turn them over.

    One such coincidence could be an accident, but two certainly amounts to a damnable conspiracy.

  10. Nick Milne Says:

    I don’t recall offering you any books at all, cheap or otherwise. I think you’re inventing that part and retroactively inserting it into your account of previous events. Redacting, if you will.

    The question, however, is why ಠ_ಠ

  11. cburrell Says:

    That was just one last attempt to trick you into offering me those new books of yours. I can see that it did not work, so I will now desist. No offense, I hope.

  12. Nick Milne Says:

    None taken in the slightest! I would have been more disappointed if you had given up without another try, in fact. Goodness knows I’ve gone to some inordinate – and unseemly – lengths to acquire interesting books in my time, so I could hardly begrudge such efforts in others.

  13. […] automatically produce an engaging story. A car chase on Mars is still just a car chase.  But in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and again here in The First Men in the Moon, Wells saves something fresh for the final […]

  14. […] entertainment. It is imaginative, well written, and intelligent, but it hasn’t the weight of The Island of Dr. Moreau, or even of The Time […]

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