Are We Not Human?

Last year I read Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne, in which a kind of octopus-starfish creature with high cognitive skills but some some decidedly unfortunate biological inclinations teaches a pair of broken humans how to better themselves, mostly through his own relentless striving toward humanity’s better ideals. The basic pattern of this theme is common in science fiction: a creature we think of as “monstrous” one ups humanity by striving better and harder than we do to be human. Mary Shelley kicked this off in Frankenstein. Another example is the Otto Binder short story and Outer Limits episode I, Robot.

In a recent decision to round out my reading of H.G. Wells, I picked up The Island of Doctor Moreau and found it to be within this same thematic vein, albeit with one big difference—rather than the “monsters” succeeding at being more human and thus reaffirming man’s own struggle, the creatures of Dr. Moreau’s island offer us no such consolation. Wells stakes an even darker path than Shelley, his tale insinuating that human social development is a flimsy facade atop a bestial nature just waiting to run rampant.

Our narrator for this journey is Edward Prendick, a washed up (both figuratively and literally) biologist who barely survives a shipwreck only to be rescued by a captain who wants to get rid of him at the next available opportunity, one which turns out to be the eponymous island. At first, Prendick believes the island to be inhabited only by Dr. Moreau, his assistant Montgomery, and his servant M’ling. However, it soon becomes apparent that a number of other people inhabit the island as well, all of them with bestial physical qualities and a bizarre, tribal culture in which they are constantly reaffirming through verbal and physical ritual that they are human.

At the time of my reading, I felt Edward Prendick to be the least relatable protagonist of all the Wells novels I had read (although I would go on to read The Invisible Man next; more on that tomorrow). Prendick is consistently slow at forming reasonable conclusions from the information he has gleaned. He is rash and impulsive as well, meaning that he will draw wild conclusions and proceed to put violent or petty plans into action. The poor reader is dragged along, already three or four steps ahead him and waiting for him to calm down long enough for the other characters to scream sense at him. Following him for the journey was decidedly unenjoyable and unenriching.

Despite that, I found the novel to be a remarkably adept rendition of its theme, particularly given when it was written, in the closing years of the nineteenth century. I am also forced to admit that for all my annoyance with having to follow Prendick’s point of view for the duration of the novel, his character does contrast nicely with Moreau, who is intelligent, logical, astute, and even strives for a form of perfection. These were qualities I could relate to, and his character seemed to be where the real depth of the novel lay, particularly because the doctor’s means of achieving that perfection were decidedly horrific and unethical. At the very least, though, I could have some of amount of sympathy for his situation, whereas I had very little interest in Prendick by the end. It did not surprise me that he returned to London wondering if beast people lay within the hearts and minds of those around him—that was likely a reflection of his own character.

Categories: Literature Book Reviews

Tags: H.G. Wells Jeff Vandermeer Mary Shelley The Island of Doctor Moreau Borne Frankenstein