Moreau’s Other Island
Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1980
Moreau’s Other Island by the science fiction writer Brian Aldiss was published over thirty years ago, but it still retains a certain “bite” in socio-biological terms.
It obviously re-writes H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau from the 1880s which, in and of itself, was one of the most magisterial examinations of all the moral questions around vivisection that had ever been penned (certainly up to that date). Aldiss definitely outdoes the moralising of John Cowper Powys’ novelistic treatment, Morwyn: or the Vengeance of God, and the only books with which it can be usefully compared are non-fictional. These were Savitri Devi’s Impeachment of Man and Professor Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.
Brian Aldiss’ work examines a senior American government official or bureaucrat, Calvert Roberts, who has no idea that the island he plummets down onto is actually conducting experiments sponsored by his very own State Department. It is a classic example of the German sociologist Max Weber’s Iron Cage: where the left-hand in administration chooses not to know what the right-hand is doing, deliberately so . . . These vivisections go way beyond the original Doctor Moreau (re-named McMoreau in this narrative — and perceived of as a real character rather like T. H. Huxley, Wells’ old mentor). The purpose was, first, to replicate human-animal hybrids; then to experiment with limblessness and the extreme plasticity of the human shape; and finally to develop a new species, humanoids, who would be resistant to fall-out and radiation after a nuclear war. Such a cataclysm is just beginning in the novel’s earliest pages.
The interesting thing to note is that variants on all of these experiments have been done. The latter two stages as computer simulations (to my knowledge); and the primary area has definitely been realized. Scientists all over the world, but primarily in the West, have created both human-animal hybrids and mortal-plant-admixtures. It is also interesting to note that dysgenic or anti-ethical experimentation, biologically speaking, has been conducted by virtually every political regime on earth — especially the Federal government in the United States.
Note: for these purposes I am using “eugenics” in the way Galton originally proposed, meaning positive and legal interventions that break no generic law at the present time and that intend to reduce disease, boost life chances, and improve or maximize Mankind’s nature, somatically. Most bio-ethicists approve of these procedures with one or two quibbles, although Pro-Life and religiously motivated ethicists object to many procedures in biological science per se.
Dysgenics — for the purpose of this review — means transgressive or illegal procedures that go beyond what is permitted, often fueled by a particular interpretation of Nietzscheanism, and that many scientists are addicted to. They call it pushing the envelope or boundaries, and, in fictional guise, Wells had Moreau describe it as “the pure colorless joy of unlimited research.” It has to be said that most biological scientists have this view-point, although few of them have the courage to articulate it in the wider society.
Metapolitical sensitivities are still relatively raw here — although eugenics is usually associated with some of the biological management program in Europeanist and revolutionary Germany between 1933 and 1945. Much of this material, in turn, has been sublimated and exteriorized in The Boys from Brazil sort of way. Nonetheless, the Clinton administration paid out ninety million US dollars in reparations to poor White Americans and Black ex-cotton pickers in both Utah and the Deep South. It appears that nuclear radiation was deliberately leaked to test its effects on civilians in the Mormon state; and that various Negroes were irradiated, and injected with tertiary syphilis and other diseases, in order to test their effects. Indeed, Dysgenic research — primarily sponsored by the CIA and what the left-wing dissident Noam Chomsky would call the military-industrial complex (sic) — only formally ended under the Nixon administration 1972. This was most evident in the program known as MK-ULTRA which carried out destabilizing, devitalizing, fringe, extremist, and “edge of darkness” behavioral experiments throughout the era of the high Cold War.
As Freudianism faded amongst hard scientists in psychology — witness H. J. Esyenck’s Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire — various security bureaucracies became obsessed with Skinnerian behaviorism. This was the sort of Maoism-in-reverse formula where humans could be completely re-programmed to do violent acts, assassination for example, as a result of brain-washing, re-conditioning, and reflexiveness to prior stimuli.
Many of these notions fueled the anti-psychiatric movement at the latter end of the twentieth century — epitomized by R. D. Laing, for instance. Most of these techniques are now known to be completely flawed — Man is too complicated to be reducible to such simplistic programming, re-wiring and formulaic/stock responses. Yet the British state itself was heavily involved in Skinnerian “torture” experiments against Axis spies in North Africa during the Second War (1939–1945).
Today, most Western countries deliberately contract out such “dubious” or Black activities to Third World partners where there is little media intrusion. Also, as part of the recent Al-Qa’EDA emergency or “War on Terror,” the US has established Black sites all over the world: in Algeria, Tunisia, Poland, the Czech republic, etc. . . .
Actually, I mention this not to demonize any particular regime. My metaphysically conservative and ontologically pessimistic view is that virtually every form of state (including liberal-humanist regimes) carry on in this way.
Incidentally, the British behavioral-cum-dysgenic experiments were conducted in Egypt, near Cairo, at SIME (Secret Intelligence Middle East) by Doctor Alexander Kennedy on behalf of SIS/MI6. The subjects were always non-European (much like French special forces in their war against the Algerian FLN later on) in what the great historian Alistair Horne called A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962.
It is also important to point out that such experiments are kept secret even within bureaucracies — this is partly designed to give politicians plausible deniability. Also, many senior figures in security bureaucracies fiercely oppose such measures. Dick White, an upper-class Englishman of the old school and a deputy director of MI6 in the 1940s, wrote a scathing report about Kennedy’s experiments which he regarded as amateurish and counter-productive. He considered them to be the work of quacks and sadists.
Similarly, virtually 100 per cent of the British interrogators at SIME who dealt with German and Italian prisoners (quite fairly as it turned out) knew nothing of these experiments. Spies — unlike Axis combatants from a legal point of view — remain uncovered by most laws of war and the Geneva convention. All that prevents the most grotesque abuses is the fear of what rival intelligence bureaucracies might do to one’s own agents (as it were).
But to return to Aldiss’ fiction: one of the most original features in this narrative is the characterization of the Moreau figure, Mortimer Dart, who makes his appearance in the chapter, “In the Hands of the Master.” Unusually for science fiction, the inner or psychological motivation for his vivisections is well sketched. For Aldiss presents Dart as a thalidomide victim.
Thalidomide was a drug that the Sunday Times went outside the law in order to expose in the early 1960s. It was designed to ease labor pains in pregnant women, but actually led to gross abnormalities in the unborn child. These — almost after the fashion of a medical thriller writer like Robin Cook — involved the stunting of the arms and legs . . . although it has been widely noted that many thalidomide victims have led happy and successful lives. Quite a few commentators have remarked on this. Could it be because they were mentally predisposed to be able-bodied — to make use of “politically correct” jargon over disability?
Nonetheless, Aldiss portrays Dart as filled with a misanthropic rage due to his affliction, and, it has to be said, that your average James Bond villain pales in comparison to the relative sophistication the author shows here. Mortimer Dart also wears a prosthetic suit, much like Doctor Octavio Octopus in Spiderman — from which he reaches out in order to master and grapple with the world.
Over time Calvert becomes more and more rebellious, loses the spark of his early Christianity, and even sides with the Beast people against Dart. Despite their relative danger to him and bestiality, these half-animals are better — in this American administrator’s eyes — than the post-humanoids whom the U.S. government wants Professor Dart to create. Aldiss clearly shares this view — but only just.
He is too much of a scientist manque — if we consider science fiction to be an imaginative conduit for many rationalists — to completely give up on this dysgenesis. Like a painter with a blank canvas before him, the pure or research scientist always thinks that the next experiment will be the one that leads to the greatest illumination. Nothing else matters: to paraphrase the original Moreau, way back in the nineteenth century, “I ceased to having a bleeding mass of pain before me (a vivisected animal) and conceived of it only as a problem. And once I had liberated it from its form . . . why, what did I have? Another problem . . .” Wells, who began as a biological experimenter, knew exactly what he was talking about here. Prendick, the protagonist in Wells’ tale, objects to Doctor Moreau’s effusions — but the great scientist merely raises his hand to silence him.
Do you think that Science has anything to do with Humanism seems to be implicit in Moreau’s gesture? There have actually been so many variants of these debates in the real world — and the physical realities that they have led to — that it is difficult to know where to begin. One example of such a parallelism (most definitely) is Israel’s attempts to create genetic or ethnic weapons — the so-called racial bomb. These would be microbial agents designed to attack and kill only Arabs. The problem for the Zionist state has been twofold; weaponization; and the fact that at least forty per cent of the citizenry inside the Israeli republic could be targeted by such a device.
At the close of Aldiss’ fable there is a condition of stasis or unresolved tension. Both Dart and Calvert (irrespective of their different moral responses) are rescued from the island by distinct parts of the American federal government. The Navy (and hence the Pentagon) rescues Dart, the limbless experimenter on the margins of flesh, and Calvert is air-lifted from this fumarole by dint of a State department helicopter. Aldiss is a fictionalist — an artistic writer; not a philosopher. One also presumes (doubtlessly) that at another level he just wanted to re-write one of the most famous books ever written in his genre. Yet a sort of theoretical residue is left once the plot’s violent catharsis is over — a writer like Ray Bradbury, to my mind, often achieves this as well.
Possibly Aldiss is hinting in Moreau’s Other Island that the on-rushing speed of biological developments will crush most ideological and ethical speculations in their path. Certainly, most notions of socialism, communism, radical or left-liberalism, an equality agenda enforced by PC norms, left or egalitarian anarchism, Christian ethics, Humanism, liberalism or feminism are rejected out of hand by Biologism.
Biology now dwarfs the other physical sciences and increasingly bestrides the other disciplines like a colossus. Each and every issue — when put to a purely somatic test — comes down with Konrad Lorenz in On Aggression and against Kropotkin’s views about mutual aid. For, even if altruism is hard-wired, this itself confirms the supremacy of living matter and its norms.
One faces the inescapable conclusion that every tendency in Western society runs counter to biological fanaticism — with the sole possibility of market-worship, the cult of beauty (even in commercial pornography), and the adoration of success.
Yet maybe this is the New Left’s last hurrah? According to Brian Aldiss’ dystopian fiction there are only two options — eugenics or dysgenics. This completely revolutionizes the left-right split, in accordance with Nietzsche’s gnomic diction in the posthumous notebooks, Will to Power, when he declared that life is a matter of breeding.
It is also interesting to note that many extreme right-wingers now, if the only option were eugenics or dysgenics, would actually choose the former — thence putting themselves on the liberal side of a merciless biologism; i.e., with Calvert against Dart. This isn’t at all unintentionally ironic, since the Eugenics movement in the early part of the twentieth century was nearly all leftist (completely counter-intuitively to received wisdom today).
In western Europe especially, where mass religion has virtually died out, with the sole exception of immigrant communities, and scientific materialism measures its own wasteland: what’s your choice? Eugenics or dysgenics?
What! Cat got your tongue? Perhaps, passim. Aldiss’ other novel in a similar vein, Frankenstein Unbound, there is no cat — only a tongue!