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.
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