Thursday, 28 April 2011

Brian Aldiss: 'Moreau's Other Island'


(Jonathan Cape 1980, Triad/Granada paperback 1982)

Brian Aldiss is an incendiary writer with a particularly well-informed sense of genre history. Elsewhere he’s integrated Mary Shelley and Dracula into his fiction. Within the Science Fiction continuity, HG Wells’ texts draw a clear and direct line through the work of other writers, from John Wyndham, Christopher Priest, Stephen Baxter and… inevitably, Brian Aldiss too. The genetic link may be stylistic. But it can also be more direct. And Aldiss wrote ‘Moreau’s Other Island’ (1980, Jonathan Cape) consciously utilising Wells’ literary-DNA. In Wells’ novel ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’ (1896), the shipwrecked Edward Prendick is rescued by a flaxen-haired man known only as Montgomery, who takes him to a remote Pacific island where Dr Moreau carves grotesque human-animal hybrids from living tissue. Moreau’s surgical modifications and glandular injections have populated the island with a bizarre bestiary of mutations ‘civilised’ by their chanted laws. Eventually the Doctor is ripped apart by the Puma Man, one of his own creations, after which a drunken Montgomery is also killed by the Beast-Folk. Leaving Prendick stranded alone on the island as the Beast-Folk begin to devolve, lapsing back into what Aldiss terms ‘feral savagery’. But although Prendick is rescued, his reintegration into society is flawed by his persistent vision of the people around him as ‘animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls’ who will, presently begin to revert, ‘to show this bestial mark, then that… I feel as though the animal was surging up through them, that presently the degradation of the islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.’ He even suspects himself. Is he really a reasoning human being, or just an animal tormented by some strange disorder of the brain? It’s an image, and a suspicion that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. Suddenly, there are Naked Apes in the shopping mall, the supermarket, the fast-food bar. All can be seen as ‘patient creatures waiting for prey’. It’s as eloquently imagined an allegorical comment on the savagery lurking forever beneath the surface of civilisation as ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ And a post-Darwinian forced-evolution take on the Frankenstein theme, as vitally current as today’s GM gene-manipulation hysteria.

As Aldiss points out in his ‘Billion Year Spree’ (1973), ‘inside Mary Shelley’s novel lie the seeds of all later diseased creation myths, including HG Wells’ ‘Island Of Dr Moreau’’. And it’s perhaps an expansion of ideas spun-off from researching ‘Billion Year Spree’ that led to him writing ‘Moreau’s Other Island’. An on-going continuity. Movies have already invested the theme with periodic updates. Philip Wylie – responsible for ‘When Worlds Collide’, also adapted the first version of ‘Moreau’ into ‘Island Of Lost Souls’ (1933). Charles Laughton was cast as a sadistic whip-wielding Moreau, ably supported by Bela Lugosi and Leila Hyams in a studio-set jungle island. Yet his ‘House of Pain’ is one of cine-world’s most unwholesome mad laboratories, where the Puma Man is trans-gendered into a sexed-up Panther-woman. Wells was less than pleased with the result, and can’t have been too distressed when the British Board of Censorship refused to grant the film a certificate on the grounds of its sex, horror, and cruelty. Burt Lancaster next inherited the ‘Moreau’ mantle for a 1977 version under the original Wells’ title, in a cast that included Richard Basehart, and the Beast-Folk upgraded as humanimals. More recently, Marlon Brando became ‘Moreau’ in 1996, with Val Kilmer, an airplane crash and DNA injections replacing crude vivisection.

The Aldiss novel is more a parallel history, or a sequel – with just a passing nod to George Bernard Shaw’s political comedy ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ (1904) in its title too. It is set in the future of 1996. Calvert Madle Roberts is the sole survivor of Space-Shuttle ‘Leda’ which nosedives into the Pacific while returning from a Moon-base conference via ASASC (Allied Space & Aerospace Corp). He is Under-Secretary of State in the US Government of President Willson, at a time when global Cold War is about to turn hot – ‘the nightmare, the closing agony of the twentieth-century was unrolling’. He’s rescued by a morose Hans Maastricht, and taken to the island of deformed thalidomide victim Mortimer Dart, who styles himself the ‘Einstein of revolutionary biology’. With Dart resembling a power-assisted cyborg in his prosthetics, as on the moon ‘reality here is only one-sixth of what it is on Earth’. In this Aldiss continuum, Wells’ Moreau was a real person, a pupil of Thomas Huxley (as was Wells himself, splicing truth with fancy) – in fact the genuine Mr Angus McMoreau supposedly even sued Wells for defamation! ‘Wells may have been writing an allegory, but his island was firmly based on a real one – just as the island on which Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ was shipwrecked was based on a real one. You know Robinson Crusoe? Just as there was a real-life equivalent of Crusoe so there was a Moreau’. And Roberts has reached the island – called Narorana, where the descendents of Moreau’s Beast-Folk still live, subservient to their embittered new master.

While closely tracking the contours of Wells tale, the Aldiss novel assumes added dimensions of its own. A cunning elision of literary games and sharply original insight. As it is Aldiss, there’s a knowing insinuation of cultural references. The hybrid creatures remind Roberts of the drawings of Charles Le Brun’s ‘Physiognomic Heads’ and Thomas Rowlandson’s lustful erotic grotesqueries. While ‘Foxy’ resembles the ‘foxes in children’s books who dress in men’s clothes for purposes of deception.’ Meanwhile, an orchestra plays Joseph Haydn on the 3V-screen beamed on World Third channel from Chicago (his music having prevailed over both Bach and Beethoven). Perhaps to throw the morality into more polarised extremes, Madle Roberts professes a belief in god, all the better to appreciate blasphemy (Wells even labelled his own book as ‘an exercise in youthful blasphemy’). The clean-living Roberts is even teased ‘you’re not drinking, not smoking – what do you do?’ Perhaps Adam Ant had been reading ‘Moreau’s Other Island’ when he wrote his “Goody Two-Shoes” hit? There’s a battle of wills with Dart, who holds Roberts prisoner on the island and refuses his demands to radio ASASC, who have announced the death of the Under-Secretary of State on the 3V. Among the Beast-Folk Roberts befriends Bernie the Dog-man, remains wary of brutish hulking George, expresses sympathy for feline Bella, and provokes an early flashpoint by intervening to stop Dart beating her. When Maastricht drowns, his funeral triggers a Beast People’s rebellion led by a Foxy-mutant armed with the dead man’s retrieved riot-gun. Bernie assists Roberts to escape and takes him to meet Jed Warren, the island’s other hermit, who reveals that the US Government he’s relying on to rescue him is subsidising Dart’s experiments and supplying him from a visiting submarine. Something hinted earlier when, before reaching the island, adrift in his inflatable life-raft, Roberts’ encounters a modified suicide-dolphin, tail-branded with the American flag and primed to detonate, suggesting that something in the tradition of Moreau’s vile experiments had been continued, and perpetrated by the militaries of the outer world. That maybe Moreau/Dart was not such a lone eccentric?

The vengeful Beasts tear Warren to pieces and Roberts becomes their human quarry. After hiding out with the Seal People he returns to find Dart ill and besieged in his stockade. With unrestricted access to previously secret labs there are further revelations of the experiment’s ultimate objective. Breeding a radiation-proof human-species – the gnome-like SRSR’s (Stand-By Replacement Sub-Race) adapted to survive and assist reconstruction after the ongoing global war, and funded by his own government department. In the final chapter a wounded Dart and his SRSR creations are rescued by the submarine, while Roberts and his Seal People friends are lifted off by the helicopter he’s summoned. Their conflict will presumably resume back in America, even as the global war breaks out around them.

As with Wells driven protagonist, Dart is ‘probing the borderland between human and animal nature, where the springs of modern man’s behaviour lie’. Aldiss responding through Roberts observation about the Beasts attacking Dart’s stockade, that as ‘they had moved closer to man. I had moved closer to them’. Themes that still make headlines. And a theme that Wells clearly expressed and anticipated in his final ‘note’ to the novel, that, ‘strange as it may seem to the unscientific reader, there can be no denying that, whatever amount of credibility attaches to the detail of this story, the manufacture of monsters – and perhaps even quasi-human monsters – is within the possibilities of vivisection’. A possibility far closer now than it was then.

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