Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Weird & Wonderful- The Island of Dr. Moreau

For the last meeting of the Weird & Wonderful club at City Lit Books, we discussed The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H.G. Wells. Spoiler: it's about a mad scientist who's turning animals into human-like creatures through surgical techniques.

By a considerable margin, this is the oldest work we've discussed, and it's intriguing how well it's held up. In addition to the strengths of the writing, we talked a lot about the novel in comparison to other stories of "going wild" and animal concerns, as well as The Island as a horror story. Brief notes below:

One of the first things we noted was how effective this is qua horror: the violence is pretty shocking, it's quite gruesome, and it slowly builds a deeper, creepier level—the way that either the human or the animal aspect is always sort of emerging or receding out of all characters. I was also surprised to discover (or re-discover, hadn't read this in ages) how good Wells is as a writer in parts, particularly the kind of atmospheric scene-setting he does.

Per the standards of a scientific
community that hasn't yet developed
ethical experimentation regulations,
One of the best questions we discussed was whether or not Dr. Moreau was "mad".  While he certainly seems so from a modern perspective, there's a sense in which he wasn't by the standards of 19th century science—standards Wells may very well be critiquing here. We talked a bit about vivisecting around this era, how it was a critical aspect of scientific advancement and simultaneously very often cruel, unnecessary, and essentially pointless. Lots of horrific examples from the early days of the Royal Society, or see for instance the Brown Dog Affair—a vivisection-based controversy that broke out just a few years after The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Lots of comparisons to other works involving the responsibility of scientists to their creators, beings that sit uneasily between human and non-human, and the sense of "savage" nature re-emerging from "civilized" under stress: Frankenstein (1818), Lord of the Flies (1954), Animal Farm (1945), and the currently ongoing Westworld series among them. We also noted some strong similarities with Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899). We weren't quite able to figure out what to say about racism & colonialism The Island of Dr. Moreau, since Wells seems to be criticizing that project while also using racial caricatures as a template for some of his beast-people.

This led us into a discussion of whether or not the novel is satire. Inconclusive!

We did, however, talk for a bit about H.G. Wells' socialist/humanist politics and projects, noting the level to which he was involved in government and using his writing to spread his ideas. We racked our brains trying to think of current writers who have that kind of influence. I thought of SF writers involvement in programs like the Sigma Forum (touched on in Worldcon notes, btw), and also the overt political/cultural projects of people like Kim Stanley Robinson or Ursula Le Guin, but I'm not sure those are really quite on an H.G. Wells level.

We talked briefly about various film adaptations of the novel, including Dr. Moreau's House of Pain (2004), which spiralled off into many tangents about horror films that we recommended. I didn't keep a full list, but It Follows (2014) kept getting suggested.

Oh, also—best insult/cheers from the novel: "You logic-chopping, chalky-faced saint of an atheist, drink!"

Good discussion, as always. For next, Weird & Wonderful will be reading To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Don't forget to check out City Lit Books for their many other clubs and events!

No comments:

Post a Comment