All the current paperbacks and Hollywood movies that luridly speculate about human cloning find an antique echo in The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells’s short ghoulish “scientific romance”—as all his SF thrillers were then called. The old page-turning horror story exploits the same fears we have today—that science and medicine, augmented by our growing knowledge of evolutionary mechanisms, could lead some maverick madman to manipulate the basic constituents of life in order to make up life-forms of his own. Nowadays, the madman might be a national government operating in secret; in Wells’s charmingly old-fashioned version, it is the renegade vivisectionist Moreau and his island of monstrosities.
The book remains what it was originally meant to be—a rattling good read, with lots of hunts, fistfights, shoot-outs, drooling ghouls, and Robinson Crusoe-style survival strategies. “How do I live through this day—this hour?” is the question the narrator repeatedly asks himself, hunkered in bushes, cowering behind rocks, at wit’s end—or almost. For Wells, it is wits—human intelligence and inventiveness—that is the true hero of the story, as it was of all his other romances, and indeed of his own life, which was a struggle from working-class obscurity to worldwide renown. (Ultimately, of course, mere intelligence proved insufficient; his personal life was chaotic, and his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether, despairing.)
The main flaw of Moreau is conceded by the narrator: he can’t describe the mutant beasts very accurately, apart from saying they’re bizarrely humanoid while retaining animal vestiges, and often he only nicknames them, calling them Ape-Man, or Rhinoceros-Man, or Leopard-Zebra guy, or whatever. Despite this, it is a crazy, hallucinogenic ride, and the chapter about the Law is excellent satire, if somewhat heavy-handed, in suggesting the human religious impulse is born out of pain and ignorance and our nearness to our animal past.