Mary Shelley spent the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland with her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their close friend Lord Byron “watching the rain come down, while they all told each other ghost stories.” Thomas Pynchon says that by that December Mary Shelley was working on Chapter Four of her famous novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
It was the challenge of writing ghost stories to amuse each other that set Mary upon the idea of a different kind of horror story – one not based in the supernatural, but in science.
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. 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.
Thus was something entirely new born.
My doctoral dissertation devoted considerable attention to what I called The Frankenstein Complex. I took my cues from Mary Shelley’s iconic novel because of how effectively it signified “society’s persistent fear of scientific hubris. Few questions remain as to the inventive power of the human mind,” I argued, “but many critics suggest that a widening gap between knowledge and morality plagues technological development in the West.” In other words, our technologists have this habit of doing things because they can, sometimes without sufficient attention to whether doing it is actually a good idea.
Progress for the sake of progress. Neal Postman called it technopoly – the technophilic mission has transcended, transplanted and become the society’s moral apparatus. We see the phenomenon in science fiction over and over again. Jurassic Park was Frankenstein with dinosaurs. TRON, War Games, William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy, Max Headroom, Blade Runner, Brazil, RoboCop, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, A Clockwork Orange, Planet of the Apes, Terminator, Real Genius, The Matrix. Dozens, even hundreds more. Time and time again we are presented with what amount to twists on Mary Shelley’s epic scenario: somebody does something because they can do it without regard for the consequences.
As Paul Alkon and others note, Mary Shelley invented science fiction. And today, science fiction (SF) is often about the only tool coherent society has for critiquing technical development (technologists themselves aren’t exactly stomping on the brakes and our religious institutions can’t tear themselves free of millennias-old tribal war-god dogma to participate in a credible debate). While there’s no indication she intended to write a Luddite novel, per se, Thomas Pynchon says “if there were such a genre, [Frankenstein], warning of what can happen when technology, and those who practice it, get out of hand, would be the first and among the best.” Shelley was well aware of England’s bloody Luddite revolt and the social issues that fueled it, and it’s also likely she was at least sympathetic to the rebels, given that the movement’s allies included Byron.
The significance of this particular moment in literary history cannot be overstated, because in Frankenstein Mary Shelley helped establish one of the most important ideological safe harbors in Western cultural history. At the date of the novel’s publication in 1818, England was a mere six years removed from the violent put-down of the Luddite uprising, and the wounds were still fresh. The government was in no mood to argue the future of technological development, which, then as now, probably seemed like the most profitable course to steer. SF, though, represented a safe outlet for the expression of anti-technological reservations – while the state wouldn’t tolerate the breaking of looms, it wasn’t likely to mobilize troops against a horror story, even if it did detect a subversive thematic bent.
Shelley first determined to build the tale on as firm a scientific foundation as can be managed, basing her novel on what she believed to be the most up-to-date scientific theories. To the extent that her narrative is consistent with, and a logical extension of, existing scientific cognition, it is an example of science fiction in the most rigorous sense of the word. Alkon explains that Shelley didn’t intend that scientific theory (drawn from the lectures and experiments of Erasmus Darwin) should be taken for medical reality, but the bulk of SF since has assumed that scientifically grounded thinking is the appropriate jumping off point for credible fictive speculation.
Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, reflected her desire to depict not only scientific plausibility, but also scientific rigor. Victor was nothing if not enraptured by the power of science:
It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in the highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.
The importance of technical plausibility ultimately serves a cultural, not scientific, purpose. Alkon, again, explains that Shelley’s attention to theory isn’t intended as a treatise on the science of resurrection, reanimation, and the creation of life. Instead, it affords a novel perspective on the consideration of the human condition in an increasingly technicized society.
Aside from its entertainment value, then, SF should be understood as providing a space where speculation about technological development can be carried out free of the threat of retribution by the technocratic majority.
A caution, though: it’s perhaps too easy to see the message of Frankenstein as being anti-technological, in much the same way it has become too easy to dismiss Luddites as simply hating progress. Just as the Luddites weren’t anti-technology per se, neither was Shelley – her novel comprises a complex, yet clearly articulated set of cultural concerns relating to scientific responsibility. Victor Frankenstein’s monster does not signify that science is automatically bad – rather, science is corrupted when divorced from society’s moral context. The monster’s abandonment symbolizes moral decontextualization, a step out of Postman’s tool-using paradigm and into the technocratic. Scientific creation is possessed with the predisposition for good until corrupted by society, says Theodore Ziolkowski, but its potential goodness depends on its harmonious integration within the ethical framework of the culture.
The blame for science run amok falls on society generally, but the bulk of the fault, Shelley suggests, lies directly with the scientist himself. Driven by the same dynamic Arnold Pacey describes as the “mainspring of technological misdirection,” – the “impulse to go on inventing, developing and producing regardless of society’s needs” – Victor never reflects during the process of planning and researching his grand experiment as to whether he ought to carry on. The thing should be done if it can be done. When he finally beholds the horror of his creation, his mind recoils. Victor’s blind pursuit of scientific achievement had led him to consider (and prepare for) only two possible outcomes – technical success, which would mark him as the greatest scientist of his time, or technical failure, which would presumably send him back to the drawing board. The possibility that technical success could result in a moral failure never occurred to him, despite Shelley’s matter-of-fact belief, expressed in her introduction to the novel, that “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
His rejection of the monster is instantaneous, instinctive, and irrevocable. Moral abdication leads Victor to loose his monster upon an uncomprehending world, and is the direct cause of all the terror that ensues.
It would be inconsistent with everything we know about European romanticism to think that Mary Shelley meant her novel as a blanket indictment of the pursuit of knowledge per se. Instead, as Ziolkowski notes, it is a cautionary tale against science divorced from ethical responsibility. Laura Kranzler, in Frankenstein and the Technological Future, points out that SF isn’t just a warning for the reader – authorities would do well to take note, too. Noting the novel’s proximity to the Luddite uprisings, she says Frankenstein “is a direct warning in reference to these riots, and seems particularly proleptic in the modern world.”
Put another way, in an environment where rampant technological development was threatening people’s lives and culture, and where the government had shown itself willing to turn the military loose on protesters, Shelley’s novel might be read as a revolutionary text, one with a warning for the society and a veiled threat to the system.
Victor Frankenstein’s monster stood at the crossroads of the West’s increasingly pressing technological question and its malevolently advanced heirs stand there today. The monster brilliantly reflects the subtleties of the Luddite reaction, condemning not technology itself but technology engendered without moral counsel; he embodies the complexities of Romanticism, at once natural, divine, intellectual, and innately prone to transcendence; and he marks the founding of a literary genre which has made possible a widespread consideration of technical development in the popular mind.
In these ways Shelley’s singular literary accomplishment insisted on asking of science the ethical question that, in its rage for secularization, it all too often did not want to hear. That question, of course, is the same one critics like Pacey, Clifford Stoll, Kirkpatrick Sale and Mark Slouka are still asking today.