H.G. Wells wrote gritty novels before they were popular. Late-Victorian English readers were used to adventure stories about witty young men fighting savages in exotic locales. A book like The Island of Dr. Moreau, disturbing even by modern standards, was truly shocking with its graphic depictions of vivisection and man-animal halfbreeds wandering on a mad scientist's island. The novel is by no means tidy, and the sickening world into which the protagonist Prendick falls is ambiguous and uncertain.
The Island of Dr. Moreau explores the boundary between human and beast, as the crazed Moreau—a once-renowned scientist accused of cruelty for his bizarre experiments—carves living animals into Beast Men, as much like humans as possible. He decrees a code of conduct limiting their animalistic tendencies while encouraging human behaviors in the hope of civilizing them. Utterly traumatized by his protracted contact with the Beast Men, when Prendick finally returns to England after many grisly adventures he can't bear the company of other humans, suspicious that they are in fact Beast Men whose reversion is imminent. He ends his days in solitude, studying astronomy.
While it's tempting to focus on the horror of the Beast Men, to do so is to disregard Wells's statements about mankind's inherent cruelty and its proximity to anarchy and self-destruction. Published in 1896, The Island of Dr. Moreau was unsettlingly prophetic of World War I and its violence, the conflict Wells himself would famously name "the War to end all wars." More to the point, it was a fictional preface to the monstrous experimentation of the Nazis on Jewish subjects in the concentration camps, experimentation almost identical to Moreau's terrible vivisections.
This isn't a peppy adventure tale (there's plenty of adventure, but it's scary rather than exciting). It's a deeply frightening moral tale of the Heart of Darkness variety, one designed to shock and engender serious thought, a warning of what might be. And in our age of apparently limitless scientific inquiry it seems more pertinent than ever, more possible than Wells might have liked to admit. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach) The Island of Dr. Moreau is speculative fiction of the highest order.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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