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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 fifty 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 novel provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Brown: It's implied that all three teenagers are nonwhite and Semi and Miranda are described as brown-skinned, 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. Waking up like this she's dazed and oddly happy but when she encounters Miranda and realizes how separated they are — can't breathe the same thing, no hands, no voice — she is horrified and does indeed try to scream. 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.
  • An Arm and a Leg: During her transformation Semi's arms and legs go numb and unresponsive and she's unable to move them. After a couple of days she realizes that her mind has sort of 'dumped' her limbs, coming to regard them as unimportant and not really part of her.
  • Animal Eyes: Inverted. Semi becomes a small manta ray with brown, human-looking eyes.
  • Animal Motifs: Shy Semi wandering the airport and looking at the other teens amuses herself for a while by comparing them to animals. A big-eyed rich girl is a helpless baby seal, a stumbling teen is a young wildebeest, there's a boy that looks remarkably like a guinea pig, Miranda is clearly too cool and together to be an animal... 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.
  • Batman Gambit: Doctor Franklin is not worried about Doctor Skinner repeatedly betraying him, since either through cameras, other watchers, or just knowing the other man well enough he's very good at just showing up at a dramatic moment that prevents Skinner from actually helping the girls escape. Once caught he can easily cow Skinner into following his lead again.
  • 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. Later, Arnie-the-snake strikes with his tail as often as his head.
  • 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. When they call forcefully enough, they enter a white-void-like space where they both appear in their human forms.
  • Body Horror: The girls' slow transformations in the hotel room aren't described in detail except for Miranda's breastbone bursting through the skin of her chest but they sure are there.
  • 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.
  • Cave Behind the Falls: In the rock face behind the small, scenic waterfall that feeds the castaways' one source of fresh water there's a passage leading through to the other side of the caldera, right to the Island Base.
  • The Compliance Game: After Semi and Miranda become convinced that they can't escape Miranda tells her friend that they're going to pretend to be volunteers. Semi initially thinks that's insane but sees Miranda's point, that if they're going to die they don't have to die screaming. Conveniently, acting like volunteers means they're treated better, allowed to wait out the Slow Transformation in a replica hotel suite rather than in straitjackets in cells too far apart to let them talk to each other.
  • Cowardly Lion: Semi and Miranda both qualify. Miranda 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. Semi is more visibly scared and freezes up more readily in a bad situation, but has great reserves of defiance when things seem hopeless.
  • 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.
  • Deserted Island: The three castaways dedicate considerable effort to trying to discover if there's any sign of people on the island, even having debates over old garbage washed up on the beach. It's not, of course, but Doctor Franklin had his staff leave them alone until they were sure no one would plausibly find and rescue them, or find the wreck of the plane and wonder where they'd gone.
  • 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 a lot of details, needing them described for her.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • After they have a scare with a snake, Arnie taunts the girls; Miranda is coolly contemptuous when he tries to get at her by calling her a scaredy-cat, so he switches to laughing that Semi is almost Blind Without 'Em. Semi, who'd been pretending to see everything the others saw, runs away in tears. The other two catch up to her and Arnie not-quite-apologizes, saying he probably wouldn't have seen a grass-colored snake in grass bedding either.
    • Doctor Skinner, while he's perfectly fine with the idea of mutating animals and people, hates the psychological aspect and the games Doctor Franklin plays and makes some furtive attempts to help the girls.
  • Eye-Dentity Giveaway: When Miranda is taken away part of the way through her transformation into a bird monster, the only part of her that's still recognizable as her is her eyes, huge in her sunken face, though it seems they change with the rest of her. Semi's eyes still appear to be her brown human ones when she's a fish monster. Dr. Skinner is very disturbed looking into them.
  • 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.
  • Famed In-Story: Miranda has heard of Dr. Franklin through her parents and knows he's fabulously wealthy and had been a consultant for the American government, and that his public career ended when an employee blew the whistle on unethical experiments he was performing on chimpanzees.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Dr. Franklin is only ever polite and pleasant, at worst becoming exasperated, but it's clear to everyone that he doesn't really care about their opinions and sees the teen castaways as less than human even before he starts experimenting on them. He's quite jovial to Dr. Skinner despite the latter's multiple attempts to help the test subjects escape, and clearly understands how easily Dr. Skinner is cowed back into compliance.
  • 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'.
    • Miranda's fingers get long and stiff as she changes. She stops being able to use a pen, and as it progresses Semi says they can't hold hands anymore as Miranda no longer has them.
  • First-Name Basis: Doctor Franklin calls Doctor Skinner "Charlie" and is generally a bit condescending to him.
  • Fun Personified: Miranda, in a less 'fun' and more 'any kind of positivity' sense. Stranded on the beach she's always got her eyes open and keeps coming up with plans and games and projects to fill the castaways' time, including 'the tomorrow game', exchanging silly predictions about good things that will happen 'tomorrow'. The situation is worse when captured, when she starts grasping for even absurd and ridiculous hope to try and stave off despair. At a certain point Semi goes from relying on Miranda's coping mechanism to finding it delusional, but it's definitely a bad sign when Miranda stops.
  • 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 once Semi and Miranda look in the Cave Behind the Falls.
  • 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.
  • Handy Feet: Miranda-the-bird's feet resemble human hands. While she's lost the use of her actual hands, she can still hold and manipulate objects fairly well.
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: On a very tiny scale consisting of herself and Semi, once the girls are captured and find out what's going to be done to them Miranda insists they Cope by Pretending: focus on quality of life, don't talk about the awful things happening, and believe anything they can to be as happy as they're able.
  • 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.
  • Island Base: Doctor Franklin maintains quite a large one, complete with a zoo for his Hybrid Animals.
  • Island of Mystery: Much of the rest of the island is tangled jungle. Now and again a hybrid creature, such as the piglet with human hands that Semi discovers, escapes into it.
  • 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!
  • Jerkass: Arnie is intensely contrarian and will disagree with pretty much any statement. He steals and eats food and then lies about it, he picks fights, he taunts Semi for her poor eyesight, he commandeers hard-gathered resources and ruins them making a raft that plainly won't survive in the open ocean... Semi remarks that in all their time on the beach, Arnie was always her friend but she was never sure she liked him.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Arnie's a counterbalance to Miranda's willful optimism and so sometimes has insights she doesn't. Semi thinks it's nice sometimes to be around someone who's less determined to be positive and active, but is annoyed also because whenever she thinks that he goes and does something obnoxious and mean. It also appears that the three were dividing the food equally, and a large boy like Arnie requires somewhat more calories than a smaller girl.
  • 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.
  • Kick the Dog: After Arnie finds Doctor Franklin's people and tells them about the other two castaways, some of the men go and bring his raft back and then break it to pieces in front of Arnie.
  • Laughing at Your 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.
  • Light Is Not Good: Dr. Franklin's staff wear pale uniforms, some of them with labcoats over top.
  • Literally Laughable Question: The doctors tend to laugh when Miranda, soon after being captures, insists they contact the girls' parents and let them go.
  • Little Bit Beastly: At the end of the book the three are more human but maintain some minor hybrid characteristics, most notably Miranda.
  • Loony Fan: The three teenagers, and the unfortunate other kids on the plane with them, all won a trip to a conservation center in Ecuador, sponsored by an in-universe TV show called Planet Savers. Shy Semi, surrounded by strangers in the airport, reflects that she feels like she knows the hosts of the show thanks to having seen them, but she knows the difference between a parasocial relationship and a reciprocal one and refuses to approach them.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Franklin, obviously.
  • Menagerie of Misery: The 'freak zoo' in the compound smells strongly and contains most of the Mix-and-Match Critters in rather small exhibits. Burdened with unnatural, random transgenic human features, they seem quite miserable. None moreso than the small jungle cat who had had something happen to its brain and, with the death of its mate, spends quite a lot of its time covering its face with its paws and moaning. After their transformations, Miranda and Semi are relegated to the 'zoo' themselves, where they're both about as frustrated with the size of their enclosure as they were when locked into a three-room faux hotel suite.
  • 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. As animals they could be relatively happy if not for everything else that happens.
  • Mirthless Laughter: Doctor Skinner has a short, contemptuous-sounding nervous laugh that shows up three times as he's bringing the girls to Doctor Franklin.
  • 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 is very 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.
  • Mundane Luxury: After being castaways for over a month, Miranda and Semi luxuriate in showers and food.
  • Nobody Poops: Miranda and Semi are allowed to visit a bathroom before their Creepy Physical, but Semi is too nervous to pee.
  • No Periods, Period: While salvaging the wreck of the plane, the castaways find a bag that appears to have been invaded by a fluffy white sea creature — the tampons in it had absorbed seawater and expanded into a shaggy mass. The girls don't get their periods while stranded on the beach, which they speculate is the result of losing a lot of weight on the limited food they're able to find.
  • 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.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Arnie mentions that when he was captured and told what was about to happen to him, he escaped and actually managed to flee the compound into the part of the island where staff and staff families live. Unlike Semi and Miranda, he does know some Spanish and so was able to talk to a woman and beg for help — unfortunately as the staff regard Dr. Franklin with great respect, she locked Arnie into a bedroom and called for him to be taken back to the compound, where he was kept restrained.
  • Painful Transformation: Very much so. Miranda's expanding breastbone bursts through her skin at one point. She was achy before that point, but the doctors refused to give her pain medication as it might interfere with the process. Semi doesn't dwell on her own transformation as much but it becomes increasingly difficult and painful for her to breathe. Mercifully, the second-stage transformation, back into a humanlike form, is easier.
  • Parents as People: Miranda's parents had taken her all over the world when she was younger and packed her away to boarding school more recently. She tells Semi that they're so high-powered and intensely in love with each other that they don't have that much time or attention to spare for her.
  • Pseudo-Romantic Friendship: When they're stranded and alone after Arnie's disappearance, Semi and Miranda become intensely close, a bond that gets stronger when they're captured and experimented on and make it through by clinging to each other.
    Every day and every hour, I knew she was saving my life. And when Miranda needed me, when she broke down and cried, I was there. She wasn't always brave. She was just so much braver than me.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Semi and Miranda become so utterly paranoid of being spied on — and as time goes on increasingly clouded by animal thoughts — that they won't talk to each other about escape plans. They both know they've picked up on things that they absolutely can't convey obliquely, but nothing much comes out until the end.
  • 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 and easily cowed.
  • Shrinking Violet: Semi is shy and socially awkward. She doesn't believe herself to be unpopular and says people like her when they get to know her, but because she's a shy chubby nerd that often just doesn't happen. She also has a buried sense of resentment towards other people, which she's ashamed of.
  • The Sleepless: Doctor Skinner claims that his boss doesn't sleep and takes a break from work at midnight to check the compound thoroughly, so although night is still the best time to do something covert as most of the staff are gone, it's still not safe.
  • Slow Transformation: After having some bone marrow cells removed, doctored, and re-implanted in them, it takes ten days for either Semi or Miranda to actually start to feel any effect, and almost a month before those effects are visible, starting with one of Miranda's teeth falling out. Things speed up after that and in another ten days Miranda is twisted and unrecognizable and the doctors take her away from Semi to complete the transformation.
  • 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 as Dr. Franklin makes her his 'favorite' and praises her, but both girls note feeling a desperate desire for their captor's attention and approval.
  • 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 coral 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 emotionally close enough to get some things across — although, this is limited and frustrating.
    • Before the transformations, because the girls are cooperative they're put in rooms they compare to a hotel suite and told not to try to talk to the the orderlies cleaning the rooms and bringing them meals. After they're sternly warned that another attempt will have them put in straitjackets and imprisoned separately, they comply — except that whenever they're given food they really dislike they "mutilate" it with toothpaste and conditioner and the rejected food is not offered again. Since that's not conducive to escape or to suborning the staff, Doctor Franklin allows it.
  • 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.
  • They Would 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.
  • Transformation Horror: Starts with the sight of the doctor's uncomfortable-looking hybrid animals and his refusal to take no for an answer, continues with the Slow Transformation that gets painful and unsettling, and progresses into the struggle to function afterwards.
  • 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: the bond between the girls is very strong. Will it remain so? If Miranda is allowed to fly free, will she stay by poor caged-up Semi or try to escape and leave her behind?
  • Unreliable Narrator: Suggested all over the place. 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 others to tell her what happens in the world outside of what she can see poking her eyes above the water. Throughout the book she doesn't know how much to trust of anything that people are telling her.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: At the end the girls believe that there are certain triggers or things they may be able to use to turn back.
  • Was Once a Man: Doctor Skinner is horrified when he goes to see Semi-the-fish, saying that he remembers what she looked like, he thinks he saw her smile once.
  • Welcome Back, Traitor: Both times Franklin catches Skinner trying to help the girls escape his experiments and Skinner immediately stops resisting and resumes helping Franklin. The second time Franklin's holding a gun on him and condescendingly asks if Skinner had really thought he'd get away with it, then starts gushing about the things he's learned and says "Charlie, you are forgiven." Of course, the moment Miranda starts causing chaos Skinner is untying Semi and telling her to get back to the escape boat.
  • 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.
  • Would Hurt a Child: After they're captured and Dr. Franklin explains his plans, Miranda tries to talk him and his staff out of it. Are they really willing to do this to two children? They are, even if Dr. Skinner is conflicted. Semi reflects that it's probably them or the children of the staff, and she can't blame the staff for that choice.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Downplayed. Semi bashes her knee in the plane crash. She and her friends try to treat it with what medical supplies wash ashore and sometimes it seems okay, but they don't have much. It tends to give her trouble off and on, sometimes oozing pus, for her entire time on the beach, until they're captured and she's treated in time to pivot to Transformation Horror.