Birth of the Biological Thriller: THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU

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Berkley Highland Books paperback cover

H.G. Wells, as every schoolboy knows (or should, the little bastards), built the foundation for science fiction as we know it. Less widely acknowledged is the debt owed to Wells by thriller writers, particularly the writers of science thrillers. Moreau’s second novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) forged the ground rules for further genre subsets, the biological thriller and the medical thriller. Superior to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), this short novel has to be the scowling godfather of every novel and movie in which general unpleasantness results from transforming flesh and bone.

After fleeing a Europe outraged over his mysterious, unnamed experiments, Moreau, the brilliant scientist and gifted surgeon, has set up shop on a remote Pacific island. DNA and genetic engineering were completely unknown at the time, so Wells employed the cutting edge science of the day to populate his story with animals modified to emulate humans. Moreau subjects his animals to agonizing weeks under scalpel and saw, vivisecting them in the “House of Pain,” reattaching leg ligaments here, tweaking the spines there, rearranging faces into distortions of humanity. The creatures, which may have once been pigs or dogs or leopards, are molded into hideous bipeds, neither beast nor human, but wretches somewhere in between.

And reshaping animals into more or less humanoid forms is not enough. Restructuring the larynxes, Moreau imbues his animals with the capacity for speech. Finding that all have feeble abilities of reasoning, he proceeds to educate them.

These animals want badly to be human. Moreau is their god, an angry, vengeful one, to be sure, one who wields power via bullwhip, pistol, and threats of the House of Pain. The animals are given laws and morality with one central tenet: act like humans, not animals. The teachings are reinforced in ritual chant:

Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

(Fans of 70s early punk will recognize the rejoinder — “are we not men?”– from the Devo song “Jocko Homo.” The song is the anthem for the devo philosophy…that we’ve achieved our high point of evolution and it’s a long, bleak slide downhill from here—a devolution. Mark Mothersbaugh was quite the clever songwriter and image-maker).

The chant deifies Moreau, programming the beasts for his own protection. They must emulate and worship him and forsake all that is animal, especially that which is aggressive and, worse yet, carnivorous.

But a leopard can’t change its spots. The creatures are in turmoil, raging against what they were, what they are, and what Moreau insists upon them being. Violence spills bloody and uncontained as they slip their human constraints and revert to their inner beasts.

Or maybe they’re just becoming human.

George Orwell was a fan of Wells, and it’s hard to imagine Animal Farm, his allegory on totalitarianism and the Soviet Union, not being at least partially inspired by Wells’ novel. Pigs walking upright and speaking, writing moral codes and laws for fellow creatures, turning on their human masters, imposing order through force… it’s all there in both novels. Although the novels’ tones and aims are dissimilar, the two are kindred spirits. Whereas Animal Farm is a brilliant modern fable and Moreau is rendered as adventure/horror, both are clear indictments of our moral abdications.

Moreau, brilliant but human, is inhumane toward his creations. His creatures– stupid, confused, and tormented though they are– are ultimately his moral superiors. I suspect Wells knew exactly what he was doing when he gave the doctor a name that suggests morality.

Readers and writers of thrillers are hereby commanded to stop sucking up Drink, and, if they haven’t already, to read The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Are we not biotech-thriller fans?

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For a look at H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, click here...


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