Sunday, April 7, 2013
Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
I've been curious about this novel for some time now but always managed to put off reading it, which seems to be how it goes with me and the classics: they've been around for a while, the shiny novelty has worn off and there are too many books everybody is talking about today for the classics to manage to get to the top of my reading list. Fortunately it was on the syllabus for the Fantasy & Science Fiction course I'm taking through Coursera so it climbed to the very top, along with some other tried and true novels of years past.
This book managed to surprise me and at the same time it had a comforting familiarity about it, so it was an interesting experience. I didn't actually know anything about the plot before reading the novel so the nature of Dr. Moreau's experiments caught me unawares, and although I suspected that something wonky was going on when Prendick started feeling uneasy about Morris' servant the extent of it was not something I expected from a 19th century novel. My modern imagination did however work out the details before Prendick, for whom even what we now know as plastic surgery was already an advanced and awesome thing.
The comfort came from the circumstances that cushioned the adventure itself: Prendick ends up on the island by accident and when he returns from it he is not entirely happy to be back at home. This is a notion that was present in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and if memory serves Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and is a curious one in and of itself. In a way it remains true to this day and I've experienced it myself: wherever we travel we feel that we are outsiders and yearn for the place that is home, yet when we get back there the adventures abroad have changed us and we are no longer truly at home in our homeland and miss the familiarity of the place that transformed us. The only way I think to avoid that would be to never go anywhere new, but where's the fun in that?
The thing I enjoy about old novels is that the authors tend to manage to create characters who are complex and simplistic at the same time. Take the protagonist himself for instance: he at first seems one-dimensional enough in his decency, but then you think back to his time stranded at sea and you wonder what really happened to his fellow shipwreck survivors, and then all of a sudden he doesn't seem so decent after all. Authors of that era seem to have been a lot more subtle than the modern ones when it came to developing their characters, and taking their usual brevity into consideration I have to admire their skill.
Reading this novel I kept thinking about Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog, which explores the idea of similar surgical experiments. I haven't read that novel but Wells made me want to give it a try, although I understand that it is chock full of social criticism of the early post-Revolution era in the Soviet Union and that makes me want to read it less.
This was my second book by H.G. Wells and something tells me it won't be my last. I hear The Time Machine is quite good.