Dr. Franklin’s Island, a young adult science fiction novel by Ann Halam, is a contemporary rewrite of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. (“Ann Halam” is the pseudonym used by the British SF writer Gwyneth Jones for her YA fiction. There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere recently, initially spurred by John Scalzi, about the virtues and limitations of fiction written for “young adults,” i.e. teenagers. I agree with Scalzi that there is a lot of interesting speculative fiction being written for teens nowadays. I am not sure what the reasons are. But works by Halam, and by Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfeld, M. T. Anderson, and others, are as interesting as any of the adult SF that has been published recently. Writers like China Mieville and Cory Doctorow have also recently published excellent YA books).
Dr. Franklin’s Island tells the story of three teenagers marooned after a plane crash on an island off the coast of Ecuador. At first, the island seems to be uninhabited. But it turns out that the island contains a large research facility, hidden in the middle of the island, in the caldera of an extinct volcano. Here Doctor Franklin secretly pursues transgenic experiments. He has an odd menagerie of animals whose DNA has been altered to give them incongruous and disturbing human traits (bats with human legs, pigs with human faces instead of snouts, and so on). The teenagers are captured and imprisoned by Dr. Franklin, who uses them (without their consent) as test subjects for transgenic experiments in the reverse direction: he grafts them with various animal traits. Semirah, the narrator, is transformed into a fish, something like a manta ray; her friends become, respectively, a bird and a snake. (it’s significant, I think, that Dr. Franklin not only dehumanizes them, but de-mammalizes them as well. Turning the teens into dogs or tigers, or even rats or pigs, would not be alien, and alienating, enough).
There are several noteworthy things about Halam’s treatment of the story. The book expresses the wonder, as well as the horror, of metamorphosis. Semirah is kidnapped, imprisoned, and forced against her will to be the subject of grotesque and dangerous medical experiments. She finds this both horrific and depressing. The psychological and physical stress of the experience creates feelings of abject dependency, and pushes her or tempts her into something like the Stockholm Syndrome. Yet she never fully succumbs to these feelings; she retains a strong desire to escape from her confinement, and to return to her original human form. Yet at the same time, there is something wondrous about her transformation into a fish. Her body has a new form, with new sorts of perceptions, and new powers to affect and to be affected; and she finds a certain joy in discovering all the things that her fish-body can do, and in exercising her new powers to the fullest. She retains her human consciousness and perceptions, alongside her new fishy consciousness and perceptions. These do not become fused, but they also do not line up against each other in any sort of dualistic split. Rather, within limits, she is able to flip back and forth between fish-awareness and human-awareness, translating each into the terms of the other. She cannot speak, as her lungs and larynx have been altered, but the speech centers of her brain are intact, and (thanks to an implanted microchip) she can converse “telepathically” with her friends in the forms of bird and snake. There is always a slippage back and forth between the human and animal poles of the teens’ mentality; but they never slip entirely to the animal pole, despite Dr. Franklin’s expectation that this might happen. Animal genes have been inserted into their bodies’ cells, alongside the human genes they previously possessed; but there is no certainty as to which genes will be expressed, and which will be turned off or blocked from functioning. At the end of the book, the teens escape and regain their human forms; but they return to “normal” life knowing that they are different, that the genetic potential for animal metamorphosis is still present in their bodies, and could be triggered again given the right circumstances (and, hopefully, only when they are willing for this to happen).
It is hard to think radical metamorphosis, because once I undergo such an experience, I am no longer the same “I” that I was before the metamorphosis happened. What does it mean to “will” something that changes the very nature of the one who wills? Halam is deeply sensitive to this problem, as she differentiates unequivocally — and on firm ethical grounds — between coercion and consent, while at the same time she shows how slippery and uncertain “consent” can be. The book expresses the preciousness of being human, and of being able to speak as we alone are able to do; but it also expresses the preciousness of fish-being or bird-being, the sense of life-possibilities which need not be confined to the human. Or, to put this in another way: the book takes embodiment seriously. All thought is embodied, and it differs as its embodiment differs. At best, the transgenic is also a transductive and transversal experience: it doesn’t fuse different modes of being, but continually puts one in relation to the other, transports feelings and things from one to the other as it moves back and forth and in between. (Writing of Proust, Deleuze compares transversality to looking out of different windows of a moving train; Halam perhaps creates a more radically apt metaphor for the process). In any case, nothing would be more wrong than to read Dr. Franklin’s Island as a tale of liberating deterritorialization followed by a sad return to all too human reterritorialization. For both becoming-animal and becoming-human-again are simultaneously both re- and de- territorializations; the point is the moving-between. Semirah is glad to escape from confinement, and to return to human form and to her family; but on the very last page she continues to dream about “breathing water and swimming through the music of the ocean… having a skeleton of supple cartilage instead of brittle bone… feeling my whole body as one soaring, gliding, sweeping wing.” This could never be the dream of a manta ray, nor of an entirely territorialized and domesticated human being; but only the dream of a transgenic being, a human-become-fish-become human hybrid entity. Dr. Franklin’s Island expresses this dream and this beauty, at the same time that it recounts the terror of a technoscience that seeks absolute domination, and that instrumentally treats human beings only as “experimental subjects.”
It should also be noted, in this regard, that Dr. Franklin is not portrayed as a maniac, or a raving. megalomaniacal dictator, or a traditional “mad scientist.” It is rather precisely his cold rationality that makes him creepy (and evil). Even when the teens try to escape, or when underlings deceive and even betray him, he never breaks out into a rage. Rather, he sees this behavior as a new source of experimental data, as more useful fodder for his research. He absorbs challenges to his mastery by reasserting that mastery on a meta-level. In a certain sense, this makes him more “inhuman” than any of his victims. Even as a lone experimenter, he is technoscience or bureaucratic, corporate science personified (in much the same way that Marx sees an individual capitalist as Capital personified). Indeed, it turns out, in one of the book’s most brilliant ironies, that Dr. Franklin is utterly devoid of any Nietzschean or extropian fantasies of transcending the human. Rather, he hopes to sell his transgenic formula “to an exotic holiday company… Imagine it. You take a pill, or a couple of injections. Like being vaccinated… You wake up in a five-star underwater hotel, on your ocean safari. Or in some kind of luxury cliffside flying lodge, on the wall of the Grand Canyon. Spend two weeks exploring the deep ocean, or flying like a bird, then go through the same thing in reverse” (170-171). The real opposition in the book isn’t between human and animal, or even between freedom and containment. It’s between desire and technoscience, or between the dream of metamorphosis and the commodification of all possible experience in the form of a business plan.