Friday, April 16, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau

Yesterday I talked about Jules Verne and Optimistic Scientific Romances, which were the forebears of the sweeping, heroic epics of Steampunk and contemporary Science Fiction. Today, I'm more concerned with the Pessimistic Scientific Romances, as exemplified by H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau.

The Island of Doctor Moreau was published in 1896, in the midst of concerns about degeneration and animal vivisection that were sweeping European society. Degeneration, as you may or may not know, is the opposite concept of evolution. Essentially (and my scientist readers can correct me if I'm wrong), degeneration is the social theory that states mankind and society in general may degenerate into a bleak, pessimistic future. Many of the near-future dystopias of novels and movies could be considered degenerative, dystopian futures. For movies, think Johnny Mnemonic or A Clockwork Orange; in novels, you might go more for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Road (Yes I know A Clockwork Orange was a novel first, but I needed a good movie example).

Vivisection is a type of surgery conducted on living organisms for experimental purposes. It's used in a broader sense to refer to any sort of testing on animals. In the time frame Wells wrote Doctor Moreau, there were entire societies dedicated to abolishing the practice of animal vivisection. Doctor Moreau was Wells's offering to the debate, wherein the title character is a brilliant physiologist who was forced to flee Britain because of his advocacy of vivisection as a valid practice.

Doctor Moreau is additionally interesting as a novel because it's one of the first works to introduce genetic experimentation with its beast/man hybrids. In this case, the titular doctor eventually explains to our narrator -- an Englishman named Edward Prendick -- that the Beast-men are animals the doctor vivisected to look like humans, and that he is attempting to complete the transition from animal to human.

Though the hybrids are created surgically instead of at the molecular level as in most genetic manipulation fiction, Doctor Moreau still classifies as one of the first examples of this concept. The titular doctor classifies for mad scientist cred through his unbridled ambition, and the story itself falls clearly under the pessimistic arena of Scientific Romances simply from its subject matter.

Prendick, our narrator, tells the story of his travels on the island and the degeneration of the society after both Moreau and Montgomery, the title doctor's assistant, are killed by the Beast-men. The creatures become more animal than human, and though Prendick eventually escapes, he finds himself gone mad from his time on the island. Prendick is unable to re-integrate into human society, and withdraws to the study of astronomy and chemistry instead.

Perhaps most interesting in this story is the concept of the unrepentant mad scientist. If you'll recall, Victor Frankenstein was written as a repentant soul -- he knew what he did was wrong, and sought to correct it by destroying his creation. Doctor Moreau, on the other hand, is one hundred percent convinced of the rightness of his cause, as is Montgomery. It is only Prendick, the narrator, who acknowledges the horror that Moreau has visited upon the island.

To Steampunk, The Island of Doctor Moreau gives the kind of blind scientific ambition that characterizes many of the mad scientists of the subgenre, as well as the concept of degeneration of society that it shares with dystopian fiction. That science brought on this degeneration is an integral part of many near-future dystopian science fiction stories, and the aesthetic of the darker Steampunk works.

Monday: Alternate Histories and The Road Not Taken


L. T. Host said...

Told ya.

Anyway, this was really fascinating to me. It's interesting that the MC goes mad and studies science... I wonder if that was supposed to be a set-up for another mad scientist story?

Also fascinating that he does his experimentation through surgery and not genetics, was that a limitation of the world at the time? (I can't recall when Mendel did his work with sweet peas).

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

"Prendick is unable to re-integrate into human society, and withdraws to the study of astronomy and chemistry instead."

Hahaha! Astronomy = refuge of madmen and the immoral. *don't tell the scientists!*

Seriously, I love this series you're writing - I've been AWOL on the blogosphere a bit, so I'm just now catching up.