Between 1895 and 1901, H.G. Wells published six science fiction novels that would forever change the genre—wait, wait, stop. We need to back up a bit here and kill some misconceptions.
For starters, Wells never wrote science fiction. The term didn't exist until Hugo Grensback coined it in 1929, and it wasn't even his first naming choice—he originally wanted to go with "scientifiction." Wells wrote what was then called "scientific romances." These were adventure stories that contained a heavy emphasis on scientific elements to spice up the story. Second, Wells certainly did alter the way people looked at scientific romances and the soon-to-be-born genre of science fiction, but the change didn't happen overnight. It took a good chunk of the 20th century.
Okay, where were we? 1895 to 1901, six novels, all right, got it. The second of these novels was The Island of Dr. Moreau. It told the tale of Edward Prendick, an English gentleman who finds himself an unwelcomed guest on the Pacific island of one Dr. Moreau. There, Prendick discovers Moreau is performing horrific experiments, using vivisection to craft animals into human beings. Worse, the island is now home to an entire society of these creatures, some more dangerous than others. Think Jurassic Park only without the advantage of electric fences and Samuel L. Jackson.
The Island of Dr. Moreau was a hit when it was first published in 1896. Along with The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, Wells's scientific romances struck a chord with the late Victorians. His novels had all the high-flying adventure and edge-of-your seat suspense you could snap Indiana Jones's whip at.
Yet hidden within the pages of these novels were deep discussions of the hot topic issues of the day. Dr. Moreau specifically considered the implications, dangers, and morality of vivisection. He even touched on what Darwin's ideas of natural selection and evolution—found in On the Origin of Species—meant for civilization and humanity as a whole.
As science fiction began to become a full-fledged genre, Wells's novels became a guiding light for how to do things right. The Island of Dr. Moreau became a go-to example of how to craft intelligent and fun stories with that extra ka-pow of social critique. The novel was so influential in this regard that it hasn't been out of print for over one hundred years. Ever. We're talking Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens levels of influence here, people.
Of course, Dr. Moreau hasn't been confined only to book form. Like plenty of pop stars, it's tried its hand at breaking into the movies, not once, not three times, but five different times. Actually, six if you count The Island of Doctor Agor, an 8mm movie shot by a thirteen-year-old Tim Burton. These films tend to focus on the science and culture of their day, updating the story and characters as they go. The 1996 adaptation starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer is notable as it updates the now-dated aspect of vivisection with the more modern practice of gene splicing. Neat.
And did we mention that The Island of Dr. Moreau is just plain fun to read? Because it is. Mad scientists, beastly creations, horror on a secluded island, come on, what isn't to love? It's like Jurassic Park, Frankenstein's Monster, Lost, and Survivor all wrapped into one. What a bargain.
Stem cell research, genetic manipulation, cloning, cryogenics, nuclear testing—what do all these things have in common? Are they all topics people on TV yell about a lot? No… well actually yes, but we were thinking more along the lines of science. Specifically, they are some of today's hottest scientific controversies. But why all that yelling?
Well, science has given us, the people of Earth, some truly wonderful gifts over the centuries. Through scientific research and endeavors, we've created vaccines for polio, put a man on the moon, and discovered the atomic building blocks of the universe. And let's not forget those websites you browse to put off doing your science homework (oh, the irony).
But every now and then scientists try something that just doesn't click with some people. Maybe it's because of morals or ethics, such as stem cell research. Other times it may be because of the inherent dangers, like nuclear power. Sometimes it's politics, like renewable energy.
"Okay," we hear you say, "but where does The Island of Dr. Moreau fit into those controversies?" The book was written over a century ago; it's ancient history, right? Yes and no. H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau to consider the morality of a particular scientific controversy in his day: vivisection or, in vanilla English, the process of dissecting animals while they're still alive.
In the Victorian age, some people argued that vivisection was immoral and just plain cruel. Others believed vivisection to be hunky-dory since the medical benefits vastly outweighed any evil intent, and animals weren't really harmed anyway. The idea was that animals lacked souls so couldn't feel pain like we humans do.
Today, we all agree that to vivisect an animal is wrong—plain and simple, no questions asked, seriously don't pull out your vivisection anecdotes on a first date... But you'll notice that the discussion above sounds kind of familiar. In fact, you can replace the word vivisection with, say, stem cell research, and you've got an almost identical argument.
And that's why we should care about stories like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Since we are no longer arguing about vivisection, we can take a step back and think about the nature of scientific controversy without all the emotional baggage of a modern, undecided topic. We can consider why a scientist might break the boundaries of morality, or why we might find a particular type of experiment gruesome and not acceptable. We can ponder what drives society to scorn one scientific endeavor while it praises another, and why the controversy is seldom settled with ease.
To top it off, all this intellectual questioning is wrapped up in a nail-biting horror show that'll keep you in suspense until the very last page. Bonus.