The Island Of Dr Moreau ( H G Wells)

book cover No authors today can compete with the classic authors, by which I mean anyone who lived anytime before the Second World War. If you give a story written a century or more ago you’re time and attention, you will discover a world of charm and morality that you will not find in any modern writer around today. No matter how many copies J K Rowling sells she will never hold a candle to Charles Dickens. Excellent writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries had a resonance that is eternal.

First published in 1896 when the author was thirty, was the second – after ‘The Time Machine’ – of Wells’ early scientific romances. Like the others, it stands at the origins of modern science fiction, and has been immensely influential on later writers. It’s also a very readable late-Victorian adventure story – a genuine ‘ripping yarn’. Wells’s tightly written novel – only 130 pages of text in this edition – sucks the reader in immediately and by the end has set the benchmark for almost every subsequent horrific tale of scientific hubris in the post-Darwinian world. This was written at a time of significant anti-vivisectionist agitation in Britain and the USA. But Wells’ attitude to this procedure is ambiguous – this is not an animal rights tract – and scientific methods of investigation really provide only a starting point for a story that touches many other exposed cultural nerves.

The artificial society that Wells’ Moreau creates with godlike carelessness on an isolated island echoes with concerns about colonialism and racism, the role of religion in a secular society, the relationship between human and non-human beings, eugenics and the ethics of scientific research, and dark fears concerning the possibility of ‘human degeneration’. It’s not often that a work of popular fiction written over a century ago can be recommended without reservation. Inevitably, the science that Wells drew on has been superseded: but Wells was vague enough about the exact details – as he would have to be even now – for the story to work almost as well in our time as in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

In fact, it’s a matter for some embarrassment that many more recent writers working at three times the length have hardly been able to improve on Wells’ prototypical novel of biological horror. It makes an interesting exercise to read this tale alongside Joseph Conrad’s more literary ‘Heart of Darkness’. Wells is one of the towering greats of science fiction, and it’s books like this which cement his reputation. In these days of gene therapy, genetically modified crops and cloning, a story like this is even more relevant and important than it was when written. You can’t really go wrong with a mad scientist plot. Well, you can…things should go awry considering this theme, and the main protagonist in this novel is a little bland and stuffy, but I still highly recommend this.

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