Book Review: “The Island of Dr. Moreau” by H.G. Wells – Unnatural Selection

WARNING: I can’t go into the depth of discussion I want to without giving away some spoilers.

I suppose the first thing I should say is that I highly, highly recommend The Island of Dr. Moreau to all my visitors here at The Honestly Blog.  The second thing I should say is that there are certain conditions under which you should not read this book.  Do not read Moreau:

  • On a boat
  • On a beach
  • While camping
  • With your family pet nearby
  • Before your biology lab
  • Alone in the dark

It should be no surprise then when I come to the third thing that I should say: The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of the scariest novels I have ever read.  Author H.G. Wells had a tremendous imagination, an extraordinary ability to present the finest detail, and a sense of pace and timing that I think every writer could learn from.  From the first chapter, the suspense and dread almost never relinquish their hold on you. 

The Island of Dr. Moreau is made all the more terrifying because it was originally published in 1896.  In spinning his tale of man’s attempt to harness nature and thus divine its course, Wells was staggeringly prescient in his anticipation of the science and technology that have come to allow us to manipulate life at the molecular level.  The actual science in the book, as Wells describes it, is completely bogus.  Yet just because the methods are off doesn’t mean that his ideas were.  Animal cross-breeding, genome-mapping, and cloning are all part of our reality.  To read a story that was written when those things were largely inconceivable, yet still addresses the issues brought up by such delicate and deliberate experimentation, is like few other reading experiences.

Wells tells his tale from the first-person P.O.V. of hapless traveler Edward Prendick, a biology student who winds up shipwrecked on an uncharted, but not unpopulated, island in the Pacific Ocean.  Rescued by a dangerous and unpredictable man named Montgomery, Edward is brought into the care and confidence of Dr. Moreau, a noted scientist who was run out of Edward’s native England for alleged experiments that defied convention, taste, and law.  It isn’t long before Edward learns that Moreau has continued his work here in secret, and that for the past ten years he has had astonishing and terrifying success.

The cover of the Bantam Classics edition, which I recommend
The cover of the Bantam Classics edition, which I recommend

The introduction to the edition I read helpfully framed Wells’ work within his time.  When Wells began writing Moreau, Darwin’s Origin of Species was still a controversial new work.  The questions, arguments, and fears raised by Darwin’s theory of evolution are all resonant in Moreau.  Wells, one of modern science fiction’s founders, imbues the tale of the mad scientist with more than just the shocking and grotesque; it becomes an argument about what separates man from beast, and what separates man from god.  The first two-thirds of the book could be read by reactionary skeptics as a horrifying but satiric repudiation of Darwin’s theories; but then something truly remarkable happens, in terms of both plot and character development, that shows whose side Wells is really on in the tug-of-war between reason and faith.  At that critical moment, Wells’ terrifying tale shifts focus from being a cautionary moral of science and becomes a heretical indictment of religion.  It’s positively stunning.

With The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells confronts issues of scientific responsibility, ethical conscience, the boundaries of experimentation, the myriad implications of evolution on humanity’s understanding and interpretation of itself, and the power and abuse of religion.  He does it while doubling your heart rate, holding you at rapt attention, and keeping you constantly but nervously wanting more.  And he does it all in under 150 pages.

This is hands-down the best book I’ve read all year.  Read it.

~ T


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