Friday, December 4, 2015

The Island of Doctor Moreau: a progress report

Although he spent pretty much his entire adult life writing books, H.G. Wells is best known for half a dozen "scientific romances" he wrote in his late 20s and 30s. These books are now considered classics of the science fiction genre, and I suspect that they share the fate of all classic books: everybody has heard of them, but hardly anybody has actually read them.

I myself read The War of the Worlds in the sixth grade when Scholastic Books published a discount edition for schoolchildren in 1974. I had already seen the film version by George Pal, and I found the novel a bit of a slog and hardly anything like the movie. A few years later, in high school, I borrowed and read a classmate's copy of The Time Machine. I had not seen the Pal version at that point, so I didn't have that comparison in mind, but I did find it kind of slow and tame compared to later, more sophisticated time travel stories I had already read by that point.

And that was basically it for my Wells reading until I came upon a copy of In the Days of the Comet in a used bookstore, bought it, and eventually read it. I found it moderately interesting, but it turns out this was not so much a scientific romance as a utopian novel in which the Earth passes through a comet's tail and everybody suddenly loses their irrational beliefs and realizes that H.G. Wells was right all along.

The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) is best known for introducing the now-common SF trope of biological uplift, the practice of raising animals to human intelligence. Modern uplift stories involve the use of genetic engineering, but almost nothing was known about genetics when Wells was writing, and his Dr. Moreau is a vivisectionist who uses brutal surgical methods to refashion animals into near-humans.

An odd, perverse impulse has led me to start reading this book at Project Gutenberg. I'm currently most of the way through chapter XVI; this blog post is by way of being a progress report on my reading of the book.

As was common with 19th century works of fantastic fiction, there is a framing story that tells how the main narrative came to be presented to the public. In the framing story, a man named Charles Edward Prendick finds a manuscript written by his late uncle, Edward Prendick, relating the story of what happened to him after he was shipwrecked in February 1887. Charles Edward states that his uncle disappeared for eleven months after the shipwreck, and after he was rescued the story he told was so strange that he was regarded as demented. He also notes that almost nothing in his uncle's story can be independently verified.

Edward Prendick is an independently wealthy man who studied biology under T.H. Huxley. After the wreck of the Lady Vain, he is marooned on one of the ship's boats until being rescued by a passing tramp freighter called the Ipecacuanha. His rescuer is a passenger on the Ipecacuanha, a disgraced alcoholic English medical doctor named Montgomery, who is overseeing the shipment of a cargo of animals to a mysterious island. The even-more-alcoholic captain of the Ipecacuanha takes a dislike to Prendick, and after dropping off Montgomery and his animals at the island, leaves Prendick marooned there.

Montgomery's boss, a vivisectionist named Moreau, is initially reluctant to allow Prendick ashore, but changes his mind after he learns about Prendick's scientific background. Prendick is deeply disturbed by the various inhabitants of the island, who are all misshapen and distinctly beastial. He initially concludes that Moreau is surgically altering people into animals, and flees into the jungle. Moreau eventually convinces Prendick that he has it backwards: Moreau is actually surgically altering animals into people.

Moreau's surgical technique is imperfect, and he is troubled by the fact that his uplifted animals invariably start backsliding as soon as he creates them. To hold off the backsliding, Moreau has instilled a religion called the Law in his uplifted animals, a series of prohibitions against reversion to animal behaviors:
 “Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
 Trouble raises its biologically uplifted head when Prendick discovers that one of the animal people, an uplifted leopard, has killed and partially eaten a rabbit, a violation of the Law. When Moreau learns about the violation, he calls the animals to a council where he accuses the leopard, and sentences him to be returned to his laboratory (known to the uplifted as "the House of Pain") for additional surgery. The leopard flees, and is hunted by Moreau, Montgomery, Prendick, and the rest of the uplifted animals. When the leopard is finally cornered, Prendick chooses to shoot him rather than allow him to be returned to the laboratory.
“Confound you, Prendick!” said Moreau. “I wanted him.”
“I'm sorry,” said I, though I was not.
Moreau is presented as being utterly amoral. He specifically tells Prendick, "To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter." He is contemptuous of humanity for its preoccupation with pain and pleasure, which he regards as an unworthy holdover from its own animal origins, and he is indifferent to the pain he inflicts on his experimental subjects. Victor Frankenstein may be the original Mad Scientist, but I'm sure Dr. Moreau gave the trope a healthy boost.
Prendick, the viewpoint character and the person Wells' audience (and likely Wells himself) would identify with, does not accept Moreau's dismissal of pain. He is unwilling to allow the uplifted leopard to be further tormented by Moreau, and he views the scientist's uplifted experimental subjects more sympathetically than their creator.
Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed to me the lesser part. Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau—and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.
And that's where I've left off the story for now. How will the conflicting beliefs of Prendick and Moreau play out? We shall see.

1 comment:

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Are we not men?

It's been ages since I've read this... it's high time for a re-read.