“Why FRANKENSTEIN?” Part 2: How Mary Shelley’s Novel Is Cutting-Edge Science Fiction *NOW*

One of the primary difficulties filmmakers and others encounter in trying to update the story of Frankenstein and place it in a modern setting is that the very rationale for Victor Frankenstein’s experiment now seems obsolete. Not only does the technology itself seem dated–we know now that zapping a corpse with electricity will cause it to twitch but won’t bring it to life–but there are now so many more expedient options for creating an autonomous being. If Victor Frankenstein were a current researcher, he might focus on genetic engineering to engender the perfect human, or perhaps build an android with artificial intelligence, but would probably not be stitching pieces of dead bodies together. For this reason, the most successful dramatic adaptations of Frankenstein are either period pieces (the classic Peter Cushing Hammer Horror movies come to mind) or campy contemporary comedies such as the Re-Animator series.

Yet it is precisely because technology has surpassed Mary Shelley’s wildest nightmares that her cautionary tale is more timely than ever. In genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and other fields, science is now on the verge of accomplishing Victor Frankenstein’s aim of creating new life forms in ways no one in the nineteenth century could have imagined. And it was Mary Shelley’s genius to have anticipated ethical dilemmas in medicine and scientific research that are only now arising, two centuries later, as we begin to manipulate the building blocks of our own being. In this respect, she has become the Cassandra of the new millennium.

In an age of global warming, biological weapons, and nuclear meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima, we have little trouble seeing that technological advancement is a double-edged sword. But Shelley was writing shortly after the Enlightenment, an era in which the intelligentsia viewed science as a beacon that would banish ignorance and superstition and give humanity mastery over the harsh vicissitudes of Nature. At the time, there was little talk of “some things man was not meant to know,” to paraphrase a cliché from many a science-fiction B-movie.

On the contrary, the secrets of the cosmos were ours by divine right, bequeathed to us by the Creator himself. “The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation,” Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason. “It is as if He had said to the inhabitants of this globe that we call ours, ‘I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, and learn from my munificence to all to be kind to each other.'” Clearly, the Enlightenment viewed science as an almost sacred force for good in the world, for it had yet to unleash the potentially apocalyptic devastation of which we now know it to be capable.

By the Romantic era, however, the downside of technological innovation had just begun to creep into the public consciousness. From 1811 to 1816–right before Shelley wrote Frankenstein–English textile workers protested the incursion of mill modernization and automation that reduced the need for human labor. The protestors took the name “Luddites” after Ned Ludd, a mill worker who supposedly destroyed a couple of stocking frame weaving machines in a fit of rage. The epithet Luddite is still used to describe an individual who resists adopting new technology.

Science has always been viewed with suspicion by those who fear (correctly) that it may overturn prevailing religious beliefs or social order. Mary Shelley’s concern differed, however. She did not object to the acquisition of knowledge through scientific discovery, per se. She worried more about what humanity would do with that knowledge once they had it. “Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world,” she wrote when speculating upon the results of irresponsible use of divine forces.

Hence, the subtitle of her book, “The Modern Prometheus,” in which she explicitly compared Victor Frankenstein to the mythical Greek titan who stole the sacred fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humankind. In this regard, she introduces a uniquely modern morality for scientific endeavor: that scientists themselves are culpable for how their discoveries are ultimately used by humanity. This sense of responsibility has since haunted scientists and inventors ranging from Alfred Nobel to Albert Einstein to Robert Oppenheimer, even though they have little control over the actions of those who abuse the power these researchers have revealed. Like Victor Frankenstein, these scientists have each attempted to rein in the exploitation of their achievements, only to find that the monster has taken on a life of its own.

There is a reason the adjective “Frankensteinian” still applies to any product of scientific experimentation that seems misbegotten and unnatural. When we get queasy at the thought of genetically-engineered “Frankenfood,” or of a goat whose genes have been spliced with those of a spider to give silk in its milk, or of a rabbit bred to glow in the dark just to show such a thing can be done, we think of Victor Frankenstein and wonder if we, too, will lose control of our own creations. And perhaps the most frightening realization is that, like Mary Shelley’s audience in the nineteenth century, we have yet to see all the potential horrors that science may eventually let fly from its Pandora’s box.

That’s why Frankenstein, Shelley’s parable of scientific hubris, will remain one of science fiction’s most relevant classics for as long as human beings seek to understand, manipulate, and alter their reality.

If you’ve enjoyed this two-part essay, please Like and Share it with your fellow Frankenstein freaks, and Follow this blog for further Franken-fun! If you have not already done so, I hope you’ll also check out FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, my own humble homage to Mary Shelley, here on Amazon:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Order Page on Amazon

If you like the novel, please share your enthusiasm by posting a review on Amazon and by recommending the book to your friends.

Thanks again for reading!

 

 

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“Why FRANKENSTEIN?” Part 1: How Mary Shelley’s Novel Was Cutting-Edge Science Fiction *Then*

I could not have picked a more appropriate year to publish my new book FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, as it is the 200th anniversary of the conception of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel. On a fittingly dark and stormy night in June of 1816, Mary, then only 18 years old, had a nightmare that would not only inspire one the most iconic characters of all time–it would serve as the progenitor of an entirely new branch of literature, a genre that would not even have a name until the 1920’s, when Amazing Stories founder Hugo Gernsback dubbed it “scientifiction” or science fiction.

In researching the original novel while writing FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, I was struck even more forcefully by the visionary aspect of Shelley’s work. Nowadays, many critics will credit Shelley with giving Victor Frankenstein a scientific rather than a supernatural origin for his creation, but will dismiss the science she describes as little more than hand-waving necromancy. While the notion of fashioning a being from parts of dead bodies and then bringing it to life with lightning may still seem far-fetched and fanciful, it actually synthesizes several prescient speculative concepts that have since become scientific realities.

To recognize how perceptive Frankenstein really was in its scientific speculation, one must keep in mind the historical context. When Mary Shelley sat down to pen the story in 1816, electricity was still a little-understood force of Nature. Its effects had been observed in magnets, in electric eels, and in static electricity generated by the rubbing of wool or amber, but the underlying mechanism behind these varied manifestations had not been explained. It had only been 64 years since Benjamin Franklin had demonstrated that lightning was another form of electricity, and a mere 17 years since Alessandro Volta invented the voltaic pile, a battery capable of chemically creating a weak electric current. The idea that electricity could serve any useful purpose–to say nothing of raising the dead–was a novel one.

Mary Shelley’s ingenious extrapolation that electric current might be able to somehow reawaken dead flesh derived from another revolutionary–and relatively recent–discovery. In 1780, Italian physician and biologist Luigi Galvani found that he could cause a severed frog’s leg to twitch as if alive by passing a small electric current through it. The phenomenon, which we now call bioelectricity, was dubbed galvanism in his honor.

The scientist’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, went on to do a spectacular demonstration of the principle at Newgate Prison in London in 1803. He ran an electric current through the corpse of George Forster, a convict hanged for the murders of his wife and child, and the results of the experiment were, quite literally, shocking. “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver,” according to an account published in the notorious prison bulletin The Newgate Calendar, “and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”

Although it is unlikely that Mary Shelley witnessed this spectacle herself, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and his physician friend Dr. John Polidori would probably have mentioned it during their enthusiastic discussions of galvanism, which provided a key inspiration for Mary’s vision of Victor Frankenstein’s medical research. The idea that the same mysterious power inherent in a thunderbolt also energized the nervous system of human beings and all living things must have seemed a revelation to Mary, proof of a unifying force that bound together all animate and inanimate things in the universe…which it was.

One must also remember that the science of modern medicine was still in its infancy, its progress held back by society’s ongoing taboo against using cadavers for anatomical dissection. In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein himself had to plunder churchyards to obtain the raw materials for his creation. “Resurrectionists,” or grave-robbers, did a thriving business supplying medical students with fresh corpses; ten years after the publication of Frankenstein, William Burke and William Hare would be tried for murder when they decided to skip digging in the graveyard and go for fresh, living meat when procuring bodies for sale.

But the idea of taking pieces of dead bodies and attaching them to a living being went far beyond the taboo of dismembering corpses. To readers of the early nineteenth century, it would have seemed like black magic. From our perspective, however, we can see that Shelley clearly prefigured the organ transplantation and limb grafting that have become an essential part of modern surgery. It is coincidental but significant that 1818, the year the original version of Frankenstein was published, was also the year in which British obstetrician James Blundell performed the first successful human-to-human blood transfusion, a necessary precursor to all the subsequent transplantation procedures that have evolved in the succeeding two centuries.

Yet Mary Shelley goes beyond even the prospect of simply grafting human flesh. In her novel, Victor Frankenstein actually fabricates some of his monster’s gargantuan limbs rather than using existing pieces of corpses, for the practical reason that bigger parts are easier to work on. (Any mechanical engineer would understand and empathize.) “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed,” he says, “I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large.” His plan, of course, backfires badly, for he ends up creating a murderous behemoth with the strength of a dozen men. But, although Shelley never really describes how Frankenstein manufactures his monster’s enormous frame, the simple fact that he makes a human figure from scratch, as ’twere, presages the prosthetic limbs, artificial hearts, and cloned organs of contemporary medicine.

And that is precisely why Frankenstein is still a cutting-edge science fiction novel today, a topic I shall address in Part II. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you have not already done so, I hope you’ll check out FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN here on its Amazon order page:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Order Page on Amazon

If you enjoy the novel as much as I believe you will, please post a review on Amazon and recommend the book to your friends.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

FRAULEIN Welcomes You to Castle Frankenstein!

As we enter the month of October, FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN is preparing for the ultimate Halloween Monster Bash. She invites you to enter the ancient medieval fortress where she was brought to life–Castle Frankenstein!

The accompanying photo shows the real Burg Frankenstein in Darmstadt, Germany, ancestral home of a line of barons that can trace its heritage back to the tenth century A.D. A bas-relief in a nearby church depicts one of the illustrious barons, Georg von Frankenstein, in full armor, victoriously trampling a serpent-like creature underfoot, so the family has had a special connection to monsters throughout the ages. Although the true-life Castle Frankenstein does not appear in Mary Shelley’s original story, some scholars believe that Shelley visited the castle as she traveled the Continent prior to writing the novel and that it provided her the legendary name of the title character .

When writing FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, I thought it would be fun to have FRAULEIN born in her namesake castle, and so I researched Burg Frankenstein and Darmstadt and set much of the book in that vicinity. I hope this real-world detail will give adventurous readers a visceral “you are there” Gothic ambience!

The ebook of the novel is now available from Kindle Press for the bargain price of only $2.99. Here’s the link to the order page on Amazon:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Order Page on Amazon

Please Like and Share this post to let any fellow monster mavens know about the book. For those who’ve received advanced copies, I hope that you are enjoying the story and will share your enthusiasm with other readers by posting a brief review on Amazon and by recommending the novel to your friends online. Thanks again for all your support, and let’s get ready for a Mad Monster Par-tay!