As we all sit at home waiting for disease and/or economic collapse to find us, many people have been watching Contagion, or zombie films, or any number of other shows or movies about pandemics. For me, though, one of the pieces of media that has felt most relevant is Ann Halam’s too little-known 2002 YA adventure novel Dr. Franklin’s Island. Halam, aka Gwyneth Jones, is best known for work like the White Queen series—ambitiously opaque feminist cyberpunk novels which push the boundaries of epistemology and gender. Dr. Franklin’s Island, though, is beautifully, and often painfully, limpid. It’s a quiet story about how isolation can lead to horror, trauma, and sometimes to something better.
The novel’s narrator is Semirah or Semi, a shy nerdy Jamaican-British girl traveling to Ecuador on a summer program for young conservationists. En route, though, their plane crashes, and Semi is washed up on an island with cool girl Miranda and irritating whiner Arnie. The three of them manage to survive on coconuts and fish for weeks, before Arnie disappears. Not long thereafter, Semi and Miranda are kidnapped by Dr. Franklin, who wants to use them in transgenic experiments. He turns Semi into a fish creature and Miranda into a bird creature. With limited communication, and completely alienated from their former lives, they struggle to retain their humanity and try to find some means of escape.
As most readers will have figured out from the brief plot description, Dr. Franklin’s Island is what Halam calls “an argument” with H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Halam in an afterword says she liked Wells’ story very much, but “I didn’t like [his] ideas about animal nature vs. human nature.”
Halam (as Jones) has long been engaged with environmental issues, and it’s no surprise that she wasn’t swayed by Well’s portrayal of animals as filthy, violent, ugly and unnatural. In Moreau, the mad scientist uses vivisection to turn dogs, apes, pigs, and panthers into twisted parodies of human beings. In Franklin’s Island, in contrast, the doctor turns humans into animals, and while the process is cruel and monstrous, the actual experience of being an animal is anything but. The first thing Semi notices after she’s been turned into a manta ray-like creature is that her near-sightedness has been corrected; turning into an animal means she sees clearly, naturally, again. She’s become a single wing in the water, strong and lovely: “It was as if being normal had been a straitjacket, and this was how it felt when all the horrible restraints, that you’d been suffering all your life without realizing it, were magically taken away.”
The differences between the two books aren’t just in the approach to the animal kingdom. The Island of Dr. Moreau is a bleak book, in which adversity diminishes and isolates the protagonist. Edward Prendick never meets a soul he admires or even likes throughout the book. Drunken sea captains and obsessed white-haired scientists are as crudely motivated by base instincts as the beast-men on the island. When he returns to England, the people around him have become to his eyes nightmarish monsters:
I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that.
Prendick’s vision of degeneration is even more disturbing when you realize that the Beast People are stand-ins for black or brown people in the colonies, who are portrayed as servile, animalistic, and uncivilizable. Prendick traveled abroad and discovered that he shared a kinship with (metaphorical) non-white people. But instead of expanding his empathy, the encounter with other cultures makes him hate himself for having something in common with them. “You’re a solemn prig, Prendick,” Dr. Moreau’s assistant tells him, and he’s right. Prendick is a white circumspect Londoner who hates impurity. His sense of order is also his racism and intolerance, which, under stress, overwhelm him so thoroughly that he ends up loathing the entirety of humankind, finding comfort only in staring at the stars.
In Dr. Franklin’s Island, Semi starts out where Prendick ends up in terms of interacting with other humans. She’s so shy that she can barely talk to her fellow students on the trip; as she straps into the plane she’s preparing herself for spending the entire program in silence because that seems preferable to interacting with other people. When she’s abandoned on the island, though, she forms a strong friendship with polished, resourceful Miranda, whose wilderness skills and relentless, calculated optimism keeps Semi and Arnie from despairing.
And then, when the worst happens, and Semi and Miranda are transformed and literally separated from humanity, Semi finds that her shyness can be a kind of resource: “Before we were changed Miranda was the strong one, and I was the one who panicked. Since we’ve been changed, it seems to be the other way around.” Miranda “has a bird-mind”—she wants to fly high and succeed, “always striving to be the best, to get things right.” That’s a useful approach when you’re fighting for survival, and even at the extremity of terror, when the worst is about to happen. As they’re waiting for the injections which will change them into monsters, Miranda continues to tell Semi that they are going on a great adventure, and encourages her to see themselves as explorers, charting new scientific ground. They both know it’s nonsense, but the point is to keep acting like it isn’t—to keep flying, no matter what.
But after they’re changed, Semi and Miranda can’t fly metaphorically (though Miranda physically can, with actual wings.) They’re trapped in a cage (in Semi’s case, in a pool.) They need to be able to survive waiting, and doing nothing—the challenge is to retain a hold on themselves while sheltering in place. For this set of circumstances, it turns out, Semi has more resources to draw on. As she flaps back and forth in a sunlit pool beneath a mango tree, she muses, “I’m more of a deep swimmer, keener on things than people, content with my own thoughts: and that means I’m better able to cope with being locked up and abandoned in a freak zoo.” Miranda tells her friend that Semi has always been the strong one, but Semi herself disagrees. “We’re both strong, we’re both weak, in our different ways.”
Semi doesn’t think she’s strong at all at the beginning of the novel—but being changed into a creature that is one giant wing of muscle makes her reconsider. Separated from all of humanity, Semi survives, and then thrives. Semi and Miranda discover they can speak to each other through a kind of telepathy radio Dr. Franklin installed during their operations. Isolation brings them closer together; losing everything allows them to develop abilities and a connection they didn’t know they had. Dr. Franklin condescendingly praises their resilience. But they get the last laugh when they out-resilience him…
The horrors Miranda and Semi face aren’t in any way good or fun. On the contrary, Halam manages to convey the children’s helplessness and their fear with a bleak vividness. Dr. Franklin himself is an unusually effective villain, one who treats his victims with quiet consideration even as he tortures them for his own pleasure, which he calls “the good of science.” Everything he does is evil. But everything Semi experiences because of that isn’t evil. Even tortured, even isolated, she still has agency, and the ability to experience friendship and joy.
“It was like swimming through music,” Semi says of being a ray. “Not loud, wild music…but sparkling, dancing music, with a deep steady underbeat, and distant voices weaving in and out; and I was part of this music.” At the end of the novel, she imagines having that feeling with her friend Miranda, the two of them on some planet “with an ocean of heavy air, where I can swim and she can fly, where we can be the marvelous creatures that we became; and be free together, with no bars between us. I wonder if it exists, somewhere, out there….” It’s a dream of togetherness which might resonate with those sitting at home, separate, not touching, but still part of a natural world which connects everyone.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics (Rutgers University Press).