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Literature / Dr. Franklin's Island

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Dr. Franklin's Island is a 2002 novel by Gwyneth Jones, writing as Ann Halam. Described by the author as "an argument" with H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, it hits many similar beats.

''What's it like to see your best friend transformed into a bird in front of your eyes?

What's it like to know it's your turn next?''

Semi, Miranda, and Arnie are part of a group of 50 British Young Conservationists on their way to a wildlife conservation station deep in the rain forests of Ecuador. After a terrifying mid-air disaster and subsequent crash, these three are the sole survivors, stranded together on a deserted tropical island. Or so they think. Semi, Miranda, and Arnie stumble into the hands of Dr. Franklin, a Mad Scientist who’s been waiting for them, eager to use them as specimens for his experiments in genetic engineering.


This series provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Brown: It's implied that all three teenagers are nonwhite, but only Semi has clear hints of her specific ethnicity, with an Arabic name and relatives in Jamaica.
  • And I Must Scream: Semirah is turned into a creature like a small manta ray. She's happy initially, but when she encounters Miranda and realizes how separated they are - can't breathe the same thing, no hands, no voice - she is horrified. For a while she's able to rely on her fish instincts to be relatively happy in a small pool, but that starts to crack. Arnie is turned into a giant snake and kept coiled up, unable to move, or speak, or read. He's in a bad state by the time he's found.
  • Animal Eyes: Inverted. Semi becomes a small manta ray with brown, human-looking eyes.
  • Animal Motifs: After the change Semi muses that Miranda is a "high flier". If she has something that can be done, something to be accomplished, she does well, like she did on the beach or while imprisoned. She herself is a "deep swimmer", happy to sit and think, more passive, better in situations like being abandoned in a cage. Also, Miranda calls Arnie a "snake" when furious with him, and it turns out that's what he became.
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  • Beware My Stinger Tail: Semi-the-fish has a sting in her tail and doesn't know if it's venomous or not, but wouldn't mind testing it. She never gets the chance.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Semi is shy, but when their first escape attempt is foiled the take-charge Miranda resorts to pleading and Semi goes berserk, biting a captor, trying to throw herself at an electric fence, punching and kicking and screaming until she's strapped into a straitjacket. Later, after the change, Semi and Miranda meet mentally in the "white space" where it's difficult to lie, and Semi is briefly furious seeing a Miranda who's afraid and unsure.
  • Blank White Void: Semi and Miranda are able to communicate through radio when they are animals, but in a white-void-like space where they both appear in their human forms.
  • Body Horror
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  • Blessed with Suck: Semi-the-fish is a small manta ray with humanlike eyes and two vaguely footlike back fins. When she's finished changing she's put in a swimming-pool-sized enclosure, and even if she could still breathe air, getting out would be difficult. Arnie-the-snake is a three-meter snake with nothing remotely human-looking about him. He also can't read, somehow. And instead of being put in an enclosure, he was left strapped to a bedframe when he finished changing.
  • Cowardly Lion: Miranda's some variant of this - she projects an image of great strength and confidence for as long as she can, and always tries to help Semi, but is deeply afraid and uncertain.
  • Creepy Physical: After being captured by the island's staff Semi and Miranda are examined in a very impersonal way, one of their first warning signs that they haven't been saved after all.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Miranda-the-bird's form seems much easier to live with than Semi-the-fish's or Arnie-the-snake's - she's lost her arms to wings, but can easily fly and her feet are constructed like hands, though scaled and taloned. She can't talk, though, and she starts losing her mind.
  • Designer Baby: Doctor Franklin mentions attempts to make a hybrid creature from scratch and dismisses them with a sneer, seeing transformation as more viable.
  • Dirty Coward: Semi and Miranda certainly think of Doctor Skinner this way. He's conflicted about his work and makes repeated attempts to defy his boss and help them, but he always folds the instant he's 'discovered' (or more likely Franklin knew all along and waits to confront him until dramatic moments) and then meekly continues to work for Franklin.
  • Dropped Glasses: Semi loses her glasses and contact lenses early in the book and never gets them back though when she becomes transgenic her eyesight improves. On the flip side, when that happens she's confined to a pool. Therefore she spends much of the book unable to see distant details, needing them described for her.
  • Eye Scream: Each of the three castaways, discovering the remains of those who didn't survive the plane crash, has one body that bothers them specifically. Arnie's is the legless body of a flight attendant whose eyes had been eaten before she washed up.
  • Feather Fingers: Miranda-the-bird's wingtips have a spread-finger look, but they are feathers and can't actually be used like hands.
  • Fingore: The body that disturbs Miranda is the Girl-Who-Waves, a corpse propped up in coral so waves move her arms and she looks like she's trying to beckon for help, and whose hands are a ruin of reddish 'fronds'.
  • Follow the Leader: After the success of Animorphs many books aimed at the same demographic were written about people turned into animals. Dr. Franklin's Island is among them.
  • Genetic Engineering is the New Nuke: Semi and Miranda have the impression that the Doctor wanted to make them into a girl who could breathe underwater and a girl who could fly, respectively. And once changed, they can. But they're almost completely animal-shaped and the doctor all but abandons them when they've finished changing, which gives them the impression that they are failed experiments. No, he's not done, and the physiological changes necessary would have meant being very inhuman-looking anyway.
  • Genre Shift: The desert island castaway story turns into something very different.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Turns out that when you can only talk to a couple of other people, but you end up too paranoid of someone spying on those conversations to actually talk, it does not help sanity.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Miranda becomes a kind of splice of birds, "human enough to horrify", not clearly identifiable as resembling any particular bird, but her beak is hooked and her talons are prominent, she eats "fruit and things", and she's quite capable of hurting people.
  • Holding Hands: Semi and Miranda become close enough to do this often when things are bad.
  • In-Series Nickname: Semirah is better known as "Semi". Before becoming familiar with Miranda she thought of her as "Very Cool Girl"; later she sometimes uses Semi-the-fish and Miranda-the-bird and Arnie-the-snake when describing things they're doing.
  • I Want Them Alive!: So they can be vivisected.
    No! Don't shoot to kill! Don't damage them! I want them alive! I haven't finished with them!
  • Just Think of the Potential!: Doctor Franklin likes to wax lyrical on this subject. For his part Doctor Skinner is very uneasy about the work but repeats some of those lines himself while trying to justify what he's helping with.
  • Laughing At Their Own Jokes: Doctor Franklin.
  • LEGO Genetics: When Doctor Franklin makes a creature transgenic he removes a sample of its bone marrow, doctors the cells with DNA from other species, and puts them back; soon enough all cells have that DNA and the creature starts to transform. It's always somewhat random and the new DNA isn't from just one thing. Semi and Miranda speculate that Semi's being dosed with her old human DNA and that is somehow replacing the fish-hybrid DNA and will turn her back. But they have no idea.
  • Little Bit Beastly: At the end of the book the three are more human but maintain some minor hybrid characteristics, most notably Miranda.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Franklin, obviously.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Miranda once tells Semi that the doctor's treatments can do things to their bodies, but not their minds... which is not true, but that's a good thing in some ways, too.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: The transgenic animals were all given human DNA. Some appear unchanged, but those that are changed are each species changed the same way - all altered pigs have human hands, bats have human legs, parrots have bare patches of skin and floppy excess flesh. The castaways are given mixtures of animal DNA and so even though Semi resembles a manta ray she has a sting in her tail, and Miranda doesn't closely resemble any given bird.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Doctor Franklin can be charming and personable but has a total, complete lack of interest in ethics. His assistant Doctor Skinner knows what they're doing is wrong and is uneasy about it, enough to try things now and then, but is too far in to effectively back out.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: After it looks like Semi is going to get to turn back and Miranda won't, Miranda starts having episodes of acting like just a smart bird, like she's lost her human mind, and doesn't answer radio hails. These get longer until it seems like she's gone - in fact she is slipping, but is still able to hold on to a purpose and formulate a plan.
  • Painful Transformation: Very much so. Miranda's expanding breastbone bursts through her skin at one point. Mercifully, the second-stage transformation, back into a humanlike form, is easier.
  • Professor Guinea Pig: In their early experiments transfusing animals with human genes, Franklin and Skinner used their own DNA, and then as staff and families came to the island they were used more and more. Franklin claims with a wistful tone that he wishes he was young enough to be implanted himself, but no one actually believes that.
  • Reluctant Mad Scientist: Doctor Skinner becomes reluctant only when they start testing on unwilling teenagers - and even then after a token effort to help them, he works with Doctor Franklin anyway.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Doctor Skinner's glasses repeatedly reflect light and make his eyes appear like "mad pennies". He's still got a conscience, but he's rather unstable.
  • Stepford Smiler: Miranda's relentless confident positivity covers her deep insecurity and fear of not being good enough.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Referred to in all but name. Semi and Miranda, particularly Miranda, have difficulty with this.
  • Superhuman Trafficking: Of a sort. Arnie overhears speculative plans to refine the process first tested on the girls into something that could be sold as two-week vacation packages: take some pills or a shot and wake up winged or gilled and spend a while exploring the Grand Canyon or a reef, then be turned back.
  • Talking Through Technique: After being transformed the girls become paranoid and gradually go from only talking about escape obliquely to not speaking out loud at all, communicating only through body language. Despite being a bird and a manta ray they're close enough to get some things across - though, this is limited and frustrating.
  • Tested on Humans: The logical next step after animal trials, after all. But the humans need to be quite young, and it's not like getting teenaged volunteers for this is feasible.
  • Theyd Cut You Up: After escaping, the three are mostly human again but not... quite. They fear that if anyone knows, they'll be put in another lab.
  • Threatening Shark: They live in the waters out around the beach. The characters only ever see one, but it's terrifying to Semi.
  • Transhuman: Doctor Franklin waxes eloquent about Semi and Miranda becoming the first transgenic humans, claiming they'll still be humans but more.
  • Transhuman Treachery: The doctor likes psychological games. One is: if Miranda is allowed to fly free, will she stay by poor pent-up Semi or try to escape and leave her behind?
  • Unreliable Narrator: Hints of it all over the place, though seemingly not intentional. When they compare stories after the plane crash, Semi and Miranda remember contradicting events leading up to it. The two keep a count of days which ends up quite off. Semi is nearsighted and has to rely on Miranda telling her what she sees at a distance until she becomes a fish - then, her eyesight is crystal clear, but she's confined to a pool and must still rely on Miranda.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: It's hinted at the end that there are certain triggers or things each teenager might be able to use to turn back.
  • Was Once A Teenaged Girl: Doctor Skinner is horrified when he goes to see Semi-the-fish, saying he remembers what she looked like, he thinks he saw her smile once.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Miranda hates snakes. She usually seems very together and competent, but screams and screams when one almost bites her.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: When she finally swims free off the coast of the island, Semi finds the ocean truly beautiful.