These days I have such a focus on reading the ever-increasing number of unread books on my shelf that I so very rarely indulge in rereading old favourites. And, as Oscar Wide put it so wonderfully, “if one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” As book lovers, we should all take time out every so often to read books that have already given us joy. I know people who will never reread books and I get it. If the thrill you take from reading is to find out the end of the story then reading something again is futile. But, I always think that rereading gives you a chance to really appreciate a book. To really take in the intricacies of the writing style. Although, I do tend to struggle when reviewing books I’ve already read. Even if I’ve never reviewed them before. I don’t know why. I guess already knowing that you like a book means it’s difficult not just to gush about it. Plus, I’ve never been that good at it anyway I suppose.
H.G. Wells cemented his reputation as the “father of science fiction” in the space of about 3 years. He published 4 books that became some of the most influential works within the genre. The second of these was his 1896 release The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is the earliest example of the uplift motif that became so common within science-fiction novels. It tells the story of a man, Edward Prendick, who ends up trapped on an island with a mad scientist and the diabolical results of his experiments with vivisection. It is a philosophical study and a nightmarish science-fiction fantasy. It is a book that has inspired many works and remains one of Wells’ most well-known pieces of fiction.
The main narrative is presented as the written testimony of Edward Prendick that was found by his nephew upon his death. The idea of found documents was already a common feature of science-fiction thanks to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein so it makes sense that Wells uses that motif here. It’s something that I think has been overdone at this point but I can’t really fault Wells for that. And it is something that can add an extra sense of terror to a narrative in the correct hands. Through his writings, we learn that Prendick became acquainted with the mysterious Doctor Montgomery after being involved in a shipwreck. Forced to abandon ship, Prendick is forced to take shelter on the island Montgomery shares with Doctor Moreau. Prendick quickly discovers that Moreau is experimenting with vivisection on the animals that Montgomery sources for him.
Moreau has been trying to recreate animals in the image of man and give them great intelligence. Though he has never been able to fully convert one into a human, he has created a community of Beast Folk who live according to a list of Laws that their human superiors wrote for them. Prendick quickly learns that not all of the animals are abiding by these rules and that their animal instincts are starting to take control again. With no obvious way off the island, the three men will quickly find themselves at the disposal of island full of wild beasts.
The Island of Doctor Moreau is a terrifying tale of a scientist gone mad with power and the consequences of that experimentation. It is a classic Victorian science-fiction story that stemmed from a growing concern of the era. Many scientists were worried that humanity was beginning to degenerate. There was growing concern that civilisation was in decline and it was because of a biological change in mankind. At the same time, many groups were formed to speak out against animal vivisection. Within the novel Wells explores these ideas and paints an awful picture of what science could be capable of one day. The image of Doctor Moreau as a man who was unconcerned with the pain his animal experiment felt was a common one amongst the minds of the British public in the 1890s and would have served to make the figure even more realistic and terrifying. A man of science who was capable of blurring the lines between humans and animals would only have played on the fear of an already declining society.
Wells’ novel caused quite a stir when it was published and, eventually, the author himself would even condemn the book as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy”. Really, this type of backlash can only mean it is a highly successful horror narrative and, though it is fairly tame by today’s standards, the novel has stood the test of time. And it still feels relevant today. But it is more than just a bleak science-fiction story. The Island of Doctor Moreau deals with much deeper philosophical ideas as well exploring the dangers of science. There is much debate about what it means to be human, the human influence on nature, moral responsibility, and the inevitability of one’s nature. It is a very deep novel that offers a little something more with every read. The debate runs deep throughout but never distracts from the main, horrible storyline.
Wells was an extremely clever and entertaining writer. As a man of science, he was at the cutting edge of new debates and trends at the time and he always played on the common fears. But he manages to do so in a way that modern audiences can still appreciate. Yes, this idea may be an overplayed one these day thanks to the numerous allusions or parodies of the original over the years. But there is nothing quite like going back to the start. It doesn’t really get any better than this.