Fiction Reviews

The Island of Doctor Moreau

(1896 / 2017) H. G. Wells, Oxford University Press, £6.99 / US$13.95, pbk, xL +125pp, ISBN 978-0-198-70266-5


Wells' 1896 (omitted from the copyright masthead) novel has been reprinted by OUP a part of the two year slew of Wells' books being published due to 2016 being 70 years since the grandfather of British modern SF's death and so a number of publishers, including Penguin, Gollancz and here Oxford University Press, have been taking advantage of his now copyright free novels. So with that in mind there are a number of different editions for readers from which to choose.  Yes, most of us SF buffs will have copies of Wells' classics on our shelves but these may by now be rather battered, and in any case the new generation of readers will want to get this SF grandmaster's works from themselves. So which edition should they get?

Before we address that, for the younger generations we need to remind ourselves of the novel's plot set-up…

The story is brought to the reader from papers undersigned by the nephew of an uncle who was an amnesiac: the uncle lost his memory psychologists assumed due to some mental stress.

The uncle, Edwards Prendick, had been the sole survivor of his boats collision with a derelict somewhere in the eastern portion of the Indian Ocean. He had been picked up by a small tramp ship on a rare supply run to a small, remote island. The disagreeable captain was only willing to take Prendick as far as the island from where he would somehow have to make his own way back to true civilisation.

However, those in charge of the island, Montgomery and an old mysterious man called Moreau, were almost as unwelcoming as the tramp ship's captain but did give Prendick shelter. Also on the island were somewhat odd – Prendick at first presumed – local natives that had almost bestial traits that Prendick presumed was due to their primitive state. (Remember, this book was written in the 19th century, which unlike the early 21st century, had many parts of the world in comparative isolation from developed cities: there was no global communications and far fewer people with a global population one-sixth of that of today.

Yet as the days pass, it becomes clear that the presumed locals really are bestial and not human. Indeed, by mid-novel, we learn that they have been created by Moreau who had been a notable biologist albeit one whose theories had been considered wild and whose work had begun to tread into areas that were ethically dubious.  What Doctor Moreau had done was to take himself away into isolation in order to conduct his research into what is now today the common SF trope of creating sentience from non-sentience and which was particularly popularised in the 1980s and '90s with regards to non-sentient animals gaining sentient intelligence as 'uplift'.

Yet, it transpires, the process is not perfect and it would appear difficult to abolish the creatures animalistic traits, so leaving the islands true humans at risk…

Once more, H. G. Wells provides a thought-provoking novel that stands up surprisingly well in today's genomic and genomic editing era. True, today traits from one species are conferred on another via DNA, whereas in The Island of Doctor Moreau it is done through surgery and grafting. True, in Victorian times the ethical issues from the novel were centred on vivisection as well as, perhaps, the sanctity of the human being. Conversely, today – with vivisection very much a rarity – concerns focus more on the possible ecological consequences of genetic modification. Yet the novel does speak to the social and philosophical issues of creating genome edited humans that are increasingly coming to the fore but which in modern times have been aired for over a quarter of a century. Once again, the value of scientists using SF as a vehicle to explore such controversy comes to the fore: remember, Wells studied natural science (though failed geology) and graduated in zoology. So there is much here for the hard SF reader, those interested in the philosophical aspects of science and technology, as well as scientists working in science and society.

Given that this novel is something of a landmark SF work, we return to the question of which publisher edition to get and this Oxford University Press (OUP) edition.

Here, for many years I have lauded the Gollancz SF Masterwork editions; specifically their hardbacks. These carry an often illuminating introduction by a contemporary SF author that help frame older works for contemporary readers. The only detrimental thing I can say about these Gollancz versions is a comparatively minor quibble that some of them do not have fresh typesetting and so the lettering is not quite as clear as might be. However now we have Oxford University Press muscling in with their 'Oxford World Classics' series of which this edition of The Island of Doctor Moreau is a part.

First up the Oxford World Classics have fresh typesetting which is a plus, albeit undermined by OUP using a slightly smaller than usual font size. Conversely again, this does reduce the page count and this, no doubt combined with the new Wells copyright situation, does mean that this title (and other Wells titles recently released by OUP) are very reasonably priced.

Yet where this work really scores is with the 33-page introduction by Darryl Jones, the Trinity College Dublin lecturer who is kind of the Republic of Irelands equivalent to the leading speculative fiction academics associated with the SF Foundation at Britain's Liverpool University. While his introductions speak less to SF readers as do the Gollancz SF Masterwork editions' introductions, they are more detailed and provide much more for those concerned with science and society and the historic aspects of this work. In addition Darryl Jones has asterisked words in the text likely to be unfamiliar to early 21st century readers such as: 'Hunter's cockspur', 'bogle', 'ha-ha', 'piggin' and scientific ones such as 'radula' and 'fumarolles', as well as expressions and some names, and explained in 7-page appendix of explanatory notes.

In an ideal world I'd have both the Gollancz and OUP works together, with Gollancz doing the production and providing a short, SFnal orientated introduction and OUP also providing Darryl's introduction as well as his notes. Indeed many die-hard SF readers may well want to get both.  For the less avid SF reader the Gollancz edition may be preferable, but for those whose interest verges on the academic the OUP edition is the one to get. This is an accomplished edition.

Jonathan Cowie

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