The inimitable H.G. Wells, from 1895-98, wrote The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and War of the Worlds. That’s an unbelievable concentration of brilliance that I can’t find in another writer. Someone like Stephen King has written numerous works that will (or have already) become classics of their genre, but they’re spread out over a career (for instance, 1978’s The Stand followed hot on the heels of 1977’s The Shining, but Misery came out in 1987 and The Green Mile in 1997). Jules Verne published Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, a full five years before 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which itself came out three years before Around the World in 80 Days. Philip K. Dick is all over the place, as well. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? came out in 1968, and was preceded by The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Minority Report (1956), but Dick would go on to write Ubik (1969) and A Scanner Darkly (1977).
I don’t know why I’m so struck by this. It’s surely an oddity more than anything else, a synchronicity that always seems to hover around my understanding of Wells’ career.
Anyway. The Island of Dr. Moreau is a fairly straight forward tale. In the beginning, Edward Prendick is shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean…
Nope. Wrong shipwreck.
…but he gets rescued by another vessel, and is revived by Dr. Montgomery. They make their way to an isolated island, from which Prendicks is incapable of leaving.
Nope. Wrong island.
The island, of course, is filled with monstrous creatures built by the vivisectionist Dr. Moreau.
Look, can we just not go there?
What you end up with is a fairly taught story that seems prescient in retrospect. Wells adeptly balances a colonial Victorian need to explore the wondrous world around them with an unapologetic (though not heavy handed) harangue of scientific excess. This was written just prior to the florescence of social Darwinism and eugenical ideas of human development, which would of course culminate in the experiments of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The message here is clear: there must be an ability for scientists to self-regulate and balance the desire to understand how things work with whether or not their approach is morally responsible.
I don’t know how much H.G. Wells consciously advocated moral restraint in scientific progress, but it seems evident that he recognized our ability to go to some truly dark places. This book strikes me as a fairly clear warning against that.
I don’t think this book is at quite the level of The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine (some of the language alone is enough to give me pause; this book is definitely a product of its era) but I do think it’s a classic science fiction/horror novel that is too easily overshadowed by Wells’ other works of this period.
Just….let’s forget the Marlon Brando movie exists, alright?