Technology presuming to recreate humanity is central to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. It is more relevant today than ever.
Can we imagine a scenario in which the different anxieties aroused by George Romero’s horror film Night of the Living Dead and Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi dystopia 2001: A Space Odyssey merge?
How might a monster that combined our fear of becoming something less than human with our fear of increasingly “intelligent” machines appear to us and what might it say?
There is one work – of both horror and science fiction – that imagines such a monster. Published almost exactly 150 years before Romero and Kubrick released their movies, it is a book in which physical deformity and technological mutiny coalesce, creating a monster that is both a zombie and AI, or something in between the two. A gothic fiction, it is also described by some literary historians as the first science-fiction novel. Its title is Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.
Mary Shelley’s dark Romantic masterpiece was conceived and written on Lake Geneva in the fabled “year without a summer” 1816 – when volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia shrouded the Earth – and provides a matchless metaphor for the intersection of science, technology, hubris and shortsighted ambition that characterises the present moment.
The titular Victor Frankenstein is a young scientist who develops a secret technique to impart life to non-living matter and his ambition leads him to use that technique to assemble an entire human being, one anatomical feature at a time, from the bodies of dead humans and animals. Horrified at the results of this experiment, he abandons the newly reanimated creature, whose appearance and size condemn him to a life of lonely, loveless misery. The creature swears revenge on Victor and pursues him through what remains of the novel, punishing the scientist’s friends for his crimes and demanding a companion, upon pain of more carnage.
It is a book in which physical deformity and technological mutiny coalesce, creating a monster that is zombie and AI
It is a story drenched not in blood and gore but in unbearable longing and desolation. Taking care to piece his creation together so that everything functions as it should, Victor neglects to consider the thing that makes a being fully human: participation in a community that, whatever its injustices and distortions, affords the possibility of acceptance, companionship, understanding and love.
Not unusually for a literary creation that captures the popular imagination, Shelley’s sensitive, anguished creature has undergone a significant makeover in its journey from character to archetype. The popular image of Frankenstein’s monster is of a towering, heavy-set, undead-like figure with greenish skin and an angular head. The intelligence and athletic agility of Shelley’s creation are no longer in evidence. Instead, the monster is as dull and rigid as any post-Romero zombie.
The template for this representation is Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the monster in James Whale’s 1931 movie Frankenstein, which also played a major role in transforming another aspect of the Frankenstein story: the character of the monster’s creator. For while Shelley’s Victor is undoubtedly hubristic, he bears little resemblance to the mad scientist that appears in so many interpretations of the novel and in many other stories besides. That is a modern characterisation and a key reason Frankenstein, or the Frankenstein story, no longer has the resonance it deserves.
So when a technoscientific innovation – a new genetic intervention, say, in agriculture or medicine – is described by its critics as “Frankenscience”, there tends to be a collective rolling of eyes. Invocations of monstrosity are met in a spirit of amused indulgence. It’s almost as if the Frankenstein story, in its extra-literary iterations, is allegorically self-defeating – a warning not against scientific hubris, but against the accusation of such. Oh, don’t be daft, say the scientists to their critics. It’s just a cheesy fantasy with Herman Munster in the starring role!
But this overlooks that Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of imagination focused not on some single calamity or experimental step too far, but on the broader hubris that presumes to treat being as a material fact like any other, to be made or modified at will. It is the dramatic encapsulation of a mindset, not the literary equivalent of a disaster movie.
Shelley and her literary coterie (which included Lord Byron and her lover, Percy Shelley) were deeply interested in the new techniques emerging from “natural philosophy”: in Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning and conductivity, and in the scientific ideas of Erasmus Darwin, whom they believed (erroneously) to have vivified a piece of vermicelli noodle using a technique called galvanism – the chemical generation of an electrical current.skip past newsletter promotion
But for Shelley, such knowledge cannot be treated in isolation from its human context and that is why she depicts Victor Frankenstein as the product of an incomplete education – as a man whose analytic tendencies, unanchored in philosophy or the arts, cause him to take a mechanistic and reductive view of humanity. Like the Prometheus with whom he shares the book’s title – the Titan trickster who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity – he is guilty of insufficient humility in the face of our multifaceted nature. He is not a mad scientist, but a blinkered one.
Frankenstein is a work of imagination focused not on some single calamity or experimental ‘step too far’
Read in this way, Frankenstein is more relevant today than ever.
In our technoscientific era, the fundamental elements of nature are manipulated in a spirit of Promethean progress and a reductive and mechanistic idea of humanity is central to that project. The part of Victor is taken by a composite of corporations, governments, the military and the modern university, now largely denuded of its humanistic ethos. And while many of its schemes may turn out to be as fanciful as breathing life into a mouldering cadaver, the mindset that gives rise to those schemes will only go from strength to strength unless we begin, like Shelley, to question the ignorance and arrogance at its core.
Some of the interventions entertained in Silicon Valley or the biotech sector would be dangerous if they came to fruition. But more dangerous still is the ideological climate that allows them to be entertained at all.
Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, writes: “Our generation is like Dr Frankenstein standing over a table of miscellaneous limbs and organs, only we’re on the table, too.” Asma suggests that we interrogate technological developments as incubators of the worldview that allows technoscientific hubris to reproduce and spread. His point is that, to some degree, we are all suffering from Victor’s delusion, because we are all encouraged to see nature in mechanistic terms, as something that can be bent to our will, even at the risk of bending it out of shape.
The danger is … that we begin to see ourselves and others as something less than fully human
This attitude runs so deep it is barely recognisable as an attitude at all. Convincing ourselves that recent developments in computing or genetic engineering are no different from any other kinds of innovations, we acquiesce in the myth of progress that drives the technosciences forward.
But this is to misunderstand the effect that technoscience is having and will have – not only on “the natural world” but also on our humanity.
The danger is not that we create a monster that runs amok, or a plague of zombies, or a rogue AI – or a planet of the apes, for that matter – but that we begin to see ourselves and others as something less than fully human, as machines to be rewired or recalibrated in line with the dominant ideological worldview. In that case, we would already have arrived at a perilous situation – a situation where our perception of ourselves as bounded by and connected through nature had given way to the post-humanist view that humans are fleshy automata, subject to endless modification.
Denuded of the ancient idea that humans are deserving of dignity by dint of being humans, we would have entered the liminal realm of the uncanny.
This is an edited extract from Here be Monsters by Richard King, published on 1 May by Monash University Publishing.
The Guardian – April 30, 2023