Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Brian Aldiss, Moreau's Other Island (1980)

This 1980 pendant to The Island of Doctor Moreau is the second of Aldiss's loose trilogy of SF Masterwork sequ/allotropes, following Frankenstein Unbound (1973) and in its turn followed by Dracula Unbound (1991). This one is set in the then-future of 1996: there's a moon-base, the Soviets have kicked off World War 3 by invading Japan, and things are looking grim. The novel's dourly unlikeable protagonist is a senior government official called (of all names!) Roberts, whose space-shuttle crashes into the Pacific, shot down during one of the early engagements the war. Indeed Aldiss's choice of title is a little puzzling: the novel is clear the Pacific island on which Roberts washes-up is not another Moreauian island, but the very same island on which Wells's bad Doctor performed his experiments in the 1890s—the scientist's real name, we're told, was Dr McMoreau, and Wells knew him personally. (The American title is An Island Called Moreau, which has the advantage of greater accuracy, since the western cliffs of this island do indeed have a gigantic ‘M’ carved into them, but loses what may have been the deliberate echo of Shaw's satirical Irish-set John Bull's Other Island).

Anyway: instead of McMoreau's surgical interventions, the new ‘Master’ of the island, one Mortimer Dart, uses genetic manipulation: ‘McMoreau's crude vivisection techniques were just an amateur beginning,’ Dart says. ‘After that came my early experiments in genetic surgery’. Dart, deformed in the womb by thalidomide, uses a three-metre-tall robot exoskeleton to move about the island, and draws on his own experiences as inspiration: ‘you see what a pre-natal drug did to me—used randomly with random effect. Since thalidomide a whole new range of drugs has been developed to govern cellular and glandular activity’. [154] Dart has been creating new varieties of Beast People in utero. This replaces the sheer sadistic torturous horror of Wells's novel with something creepier, more internalised and awkwardly sexual, and that unnerving, rather Cronenbergian vibe is well evoked throughout.

For most of its narrative the novel cleaves fairly closely to its Wellsian prototype. Roberts (a name of kings and princes!) tries to contact his government using the base's radio, but Dart, who thinks him a Soviet spy, stops him. Roberts then takes a cook's tour of the island, and discovers various kinds of monstrous Beast People, all kept in check by Dart and his henchman, Maastricht, with guns, whips and chants they have been taught to recite (‘His is the hand that Maims … His is the whip that tames’) as per Wells's original novel. And as in that original, order breaks down: Maastricht accidentally drowns, the Beast people grab his gun, go wild and chaos ensue, with a lot of howling and running around and people getting eaten.

And Aldiss makes explicit the bestiality that is only implicit in Wells's original. After leaping into the sea to avoid being devoured by the now out-of-control Beast Folk, Roberts spends time with some ‘seal people’: a female and several males altered in utero by Dart but now living free on an islet off the coast, and with a ‘normal’ human four year old daughter. This interlude turns into a whole-family orgy, involving the child as well as the seal-people, concerning which Roberts pretends narrative coyness (‘of my two day stay on Seal Rock I prefer to say as little as possible. Some acts which seemed beautiful and natural and profound at the time of their doing are distasteful in memory’ [130]) before going on to give us the full blow-by-blow. On the island one of Dart's human employees, a beautiful woman called Heather, performs an elaborate strip-tease in front of Roberts—this chapter is actually called ‘A Little Strip-Tease’ and achieves the full Spung! effect with lubricious descriptions of ‘the springiness of her breasts’ and ‘a glimpse of perfect buttocks’ and the like—although in the end Roberts seems to prefer the Beast-woman Bella. The cover-art to the French translation captures something of the novel's distinctly queasy eroticism.

Anyway, after threatening to expose Dart's unholy experimenting to the authorities Roberts discovers that the authorities know already, and indeed have sanctioned and are funding the whole endeavour. Dart has been working to produce what he calls the ‘SRSR’, or ‘Stand-by Replacement Sub-race’ to thrive in the post-nuclear-holocaust world: ‘immune to certain radiations lethal to us’, they ‘gestate in only seven months, mature early, bulk less, consume less food, less oxygen’. Roberts encounters one of these creatures:
One and a half metres high, disproportionately thick of body, it had extremely short legs, so that the arms trailed almost to the ground. Its head was distorted into cephalic form, the skull tapering almost to a point at the rear ... distorted bone-structure also accounted for the ugliness of the creature's face, which was inordinantly fleshy ... the overall effect of the creature was of a malignant gnome. [148]
Dart says: ‘if we can breed up the SRSRs they can take over the enormous tasks of reconstruction ... they are, in fact, our survival kit for the future; they may even replace us’ [156]. It's all rather reminiscent of Atwood's later Oryx and Crake (and conceivably Aldiss's novel was one of Atwood's inspirations). At any rate, the book ends with Dart's facility burned to the ground by the riotous Beast folk, Roberts rescued by US helicopter and, in an epilogue, the nuclear bombs raining down over the whole planet. There's also a prologue, which the epilogue echoes, and which frames the whole busy narrative from the radically alienating perspective of the deep ocean: ‘the light faded as pressure increased towards the submerged valleys and hills of the ocean bed ... [sound] became infrequent and acquired a lugubrious note’. This, according to Aldiss's conceit, is the planetary Id: ‘in the aqueous subconscious of the planet all was as usual, all as it had been for millions of years’ [8].

As far as that goes, Aldiss seems to be playing a kind of inversion game with this venerable Freudian mental topography, what he calls those ‘parts labelled for convenience, if not accuracy, conscious and unconscious’ [175-76]. So the abyssal global subconscious of the ocean bed, which opens the novel by placidly receiving the wreckage of Roberts's shuttle, remains a location of timeless, driveless serenity; where the above-the-waterline conscious mind is busy-busy with running around and fighting, with monstrosity and anger and sex and plotting. Roberts himself, US Under-Secretary of State, is a kind of avatar of the planetary super-ego: rather haughty, given to pompous if  inchoate pontificating on matters of God and politics and the like. The SRSRs, when they finally enter the narrative, belie their bestial exteriors with a Spock-like rationality of discourse: when beast-woman Bella finally dies, and Roberts breaks down in grief, one of the ‘gnome women’ says: ‘I believe you will find that the animal is defunct’ [151]. If Wells's Beasts were a way of making plain the extent to which supposedly civilized Victorian mankind was actually a mass of barely-suppressed animal drives, Aldiss appears to be doing something almost the reverse: to suggest that a carapace of superegotistical has stifled the vitality of our animal natures, deforming and perverting us into the kind of animal that will poison its own planet with nuclear catastrophe. To adapt Forbidden Planet's most famous line, these are monsters from the superego, not the cleanly perverse-lustful or angry id. We might, in other words, call this a very 1980s novel.

It does, at least, send us back to Wells's original: which is what any sequ/allotrope worth its intertextual salt ought to do. Quite apart from anything else, the pseudo-logical superego rationale behind Dart's project (to paraphrase: ‘the world will soon be a radioactive wasteland; we need to modify humankind to be able to survive in such a hellhole!’) reverts back upon the original Wellsian Moreau. Why was he making all those Beast-people, in the original novel? Does Wells ever spell it out? Or was it simply, like climbing Everest, because he could? I'm not sure I know the answer to that.

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