Steampunk Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau

Island of Dr. Moreau cover
Island of Dr. Moreau cover

The Island of Dr. Moreau was published in by H. G. Wells in 1896. This sojourn into the dark side of medical research was described by the author as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy.”

The story is written as a an account by the late Edward Prendick (the manuscript is said to have been found by his nephew) about his experience as a castaway. Probably the most well-known shipwreck in the Steampunk canon is Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the Wells’ tale actually predates it by four years.

1887 Battleship
1887 Battleship

The narrator is a monied drifter with a background in science. His tale starts with the sinking of his passenger ship, the Lady Vain, and his subsequent week at sea. The other two survivors go into the drink after a scuffle and Prendick is left alone. Later he is rescued by a Dr. Montgomery aboard the Ipecachuanha (named after a root which is the main ingredient of ipecac, a syrup used to induce vomiting. The name is a joke by the captain about how much the boat pitches in bad seas.) The doctor is accompanied by M’ling, whose slow mind and hideous appearance make him a constant target for scorn and bullying aboard the ship. After Prendick attempts to stop the crew from beating M’ling, the corpuscular captain of the Ipecachuanha sends Prendick overboard when they stop to let off Montgomery and his on an uncharted island.

One of the islanders was described as being a satyr, half man and half goat
One of the islanders was described as being a satyr, half man and half goat

Montgomery has a variety of strangely elongated workmen under his charge, and together with another English doctor they unload a shipment of animals including a puma and several cages of rabbits. Montgomery makes a slip of the tongue and reveals the other doctor is the notorious vivisecter, Dr. Moreau, who was banished from London society after his work drew public scorn. Prendick soon finds that the good doctor’s work is on-going and they are far from alone on the island.

The anguished cry of Moreau’s newest victim sends Prendick out to explore the island where he encounters a series of strange people. These beast folk have a strict moral code and religious rituals that Moreau uses to control them, but can this fragile cultural ecosystem withstand a new and unplanned addition to the island?

I really enjoyed reading this book. The story moved much better than some of the Victorian-era novels I have read like the painfully slow Dracula. The science of this book revolves around vivisection and skin-grafting, along with complex brain surgery, to create various new forms of human beings. I know that there is a lot of fiction in science fiction, but I found that premise to be a bit flimsy (though according to Wells’ paper “The Limits of Human Plasticity” he thought it was all very possible.) Even so, Wells successfully uses the premise to explore themes like pain and cruelty, and like all good science fiction, ultimately asks readers to think about what it means to be human.


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