Without an Eye in the Sky

The Island of Doctor Moreau - coverThe Week 6 reading assignments for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World were H. G. Wells‘ novels The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man, and the short stories “The Country of the Blind” and “The Star” from his collection The Country of the Blind and Other Stories.

It was a lot of reading, but it was also a treat; in the first five weeks, we had not had anything I think truly belongs in the science fiction category.  Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Poe’s more pseudo-scientific tales like “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” do not actually spend more than a short description on anything science-like; more importantly, they do not bring anything from the realm of science as more than trappings in a few scenes, whereas Wells uses its ideas and methods in constructing the structure of the novels.

I also enjoy Wells’ ability to use very different tones and styles from book to book — for example, The Island of Doctor Moreau is adventure and horror, The Invisible Man has a little bit of scariness in it but mostly humour.  In fact, I nominate The Invisible Man as a precursor in the British tradition now exemplified by the long-running Doctor Who, of mixing fear, adventure, and humour.

Here is my 300-word essay — not all that insightful, but sometimes you just have to phone one in. 

Without an Eye in the Sky

H. G. Wells’ thinking was shaped by his studies of biology under Thomas Henry Huxley, champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution (and grandfather of Aldous Huxley who later wrote Brave New World.) Wells explored religious and moral views in many of his books; with The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man, he explores in two different registers – horror and humour – the source of human morality and purpose.

Like Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau creates new life forms that never satisfy his vision. When inevitably he grows disenchanted with his creations, his casts them out like Adam from Eden — except that here, expulsion means the end of the pain he inflicts; return to the “House of Pain” is the ultimate punishment.

Religion “evolves” naturally when the Beast People create the Law, based on fragments learned from Moreau’s workers. Although Moreau speaks of the Law with disdain, he does not hesitate to use it to keep the creatures under control. But the Law is not enough to keep the Beast People “civilized”; Prendick tells us: “like a wave across my mind, came the realisation of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island.” [1] They lack a purpose and are not yet capable of creating one for themselves.

Despite the almost Pickwickian tone of The Invisible Man, the questions asked are once again about finding a morality and a purpose that do not depend on divine revelation: if a man is invisible to the law – human or divine – what are the consequences to his actions? Will he then be amoral? Griffin, the Invisible Man, is a petty, vengeful, selfish, intemperate man.

Having discovered that humanity arose from natural phenomena, not from the hand of a personal god, Wells asks, will we behave like animals roughly pulled to sentience, or perhaps like small-minded mediocre Griffin?  Or can we rise to more?

Works cited:

[1] H. G. Wells (1896) The Island of Doctor Moreau, Chapter 16.

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