May 2, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "The Island of Dr Moreau," by HG Wells

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Island of Dr Moreau, by HG Wells
The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)
By HG Wells
Book #16 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Along with French author Jules Verne, the British HG Wells is considered one of the co-founders of the "science-fiction" genre*, in which the latest advances in that field are elegantly enfolded into thrilling or sometimes philosophical fictional narratives. (So in other words, think of him much more as the spiritual godfather of Michael Crichton than Isaac Asimov.) And indeed, his early-career masterpiece The Island of Dr Moreau contains not a single fantastical element at all, but is rather a chilling extrapolation of what was happening at the time in the real world of medicine, starting as these Victorian novels often do with a shipwreck in the middle of an ocean, and of our everyman hero (a gentleman named Prendick) getting picked up by a mysterious ship out in the South Seas somewhere. Taken back to the remote tropical island where his rescuers are heading, he is there introduced to our eponymous doctor, a creepy former London surgeon who was disbarred from his profession for shady ethical practices.

And sure enough, it's no coincidence that Moreau happens to be on this remote island, and is having his nutso alcoholic nihilist assistant run around the various nearby islands and acquire as many exotic animals as possible; turns out that he has continued his formerly banned research here, a truly horrific series of experiments that has him seeing if he can somehow turn an animal into a fully rational human, through an elaborate series of delicate surgeries and psychological conditioning. Needless to say, he hasn't exactly succeeded yet, leaving the three humans on an island full of snarling, retarded man-beasts; to protect themselves, Moreau and the assistant have established among the beasts what they call "The Law," a combination of rational rules and religious dogma that keep the human/animal hybrids just barely civilized and not in a constant state of violent bloodlust. The majority of the book, then, concerns Prendick's time on the island and the ways that this delicate peace of course starts quickly falling apart; I'll leave the actual plotline itself as unspoken as possible, in that this 112-year-old story is actually still thrillingly surprising.

The argument for it being a classic:
Like many of the books reviewed here as part of the CCLaP 100, there is a strong argument for The Island of Dr Moreau being a classic based on its historical, trailblazing aspects; it's one of a handful of books, after all, to singlehandedly kick off the entire genre of science-fiction (now with millions of fans and which generates billions of dollars a year in revenue), not to mention such speculative tech writers as the aforementioned Crichton, Tom Clancey and more. But on top of this, though, this particular book is important too because it's held up so well over the decades, certainly much better than almost all of its Victorian fantastical counterparts; as its many fans will tell you, it still has the power to shock and disturb, and deals with issues like genetic engineering and the ethical role of doctors that are surprisingly relevant to this day. If you're going to pick any of the pseudo-science-babble books of the late 1800s to designate as a must-read, fans say, best to pick a book like this, not only as historically relevant as the others but simply a much more entertaining modern read.

The argument against:
A weak argument today at best; like many other Victorian fantastical tales, I suppose you can argue that Dr Moreau is too flippant and garish a tale, too focused on pleasing a lurid, mainstream crowd. But then that gets us into the whole subject of whether the forefathers of the various modern artistic genres out there even deserve to be recognized as the authors of "classics," people such as Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and the aforementioned Jules Verne; and I think most intelligent people at this point in history would say that these are indeed authors worthy of "classic" status, making this not really much of an argument at all.

My verdict:
Ah, how nice to again come across a book whose "classic" status seems to not be questioned by very many people at all; it happens so rarely, after all, much more rarely than you would think for a series of book reviews all centered around so-called classics. And indeed, it was a sincere and pleasant surprise to read Dr Moreau for the first time (I haven't even seen any of the movie versions) and discover just how legitimately scary and gross and great it was to modern eyes, after a year now of such badly dated 1800s prose like is found in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (to mention one infamous example). Now that I've sampled both, I can definitively state that Wells was a much better writer than Verne, and that his titles can hold up in a canon list without necessarily the Roger-Marin-style asterisk that so many other Victorian genre authors need. That said, please be aware that this is a surprisingly disgusting book, one that deals with such then-current hot topics as vivisection (or the act of cutting open animals while still alive, in order to figure out how their insides work); but then again, it also gets you thinking about all kinds of interesting ethical questions still relevant to current society, like whether the animalistic part of our brains can ever be truly tamed and controlled (another hot topic among Victorians), and if the torture and slaughter of animals can ever be a morally justifiable action. It not only gets an enthusiastic yes from me today, but I can even declare it better than a lot of the contemporary genre novels I've read in the last year. Highly recommended.

Is it a classic? Oh my, yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
In two Fridays: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
In three Fridays: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
In four Fridays: Candida, by George Bernard Shaw

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Project Gutenberg | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And by the way, it's no surprise that Wells ended up as one of the founders of science-fiction; he was actually a dual student of biology and sociology at university, who pursued not only creative writing as a lucrative hobby at the same time but also the visual arts as well. In fact, Wells was much, much more well-known when alive as a brilliant political analyst, socialist activist, and a forefather of "futurism:" among other accomplishments, in the 1910s he predicted the outbreak of World War I, in the '20s predicted that the war's destruction would pave the way for the rise of fascism, in the '30s predicted that fascism would culminate in another world war right around 1940, and in the '40s called for the creation of what we now know as Wikipedia (which he called the "World Brain"). Oh yeah, and he was a founding member of both the League of Nations and the United Nations, and incidentally was the inventor of the world's very first miniature war-game ("Little Wars," in 1913). What a surprisingly fascinating guy!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:48 PM, May 2, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |