Book Reviews

Frankenstein at 200

By Renee Anderson
Sunday, July 28, 2019, 6:30 PM

Review of Mary Shelley, “'Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds,’ ed. David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert.” (MIT Press, 2018)

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Last year marked the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Given the book’s extraordinary influence across a swathe of cultural and scholarly fields, the outpouring of books, articles, symposia, exhibitions, films, television and more celebrating this bicentennial—not only the novel but also Frankenstein as a remarkably durable cultural icon all its own, quite independent of the novel—is anything but surprising. The book under review, “Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds,” is part of that celebration, offering a new critical edition of “Frankenstein,” with the twist in that this edition is intended for—well, the audience named in the title: scientists, engineers and “creators of all kinds.“

The list of critical editions of “Frankenstein” is not short, and it’s fair to ask whether the “scientists” and “engineers” of the title is more than just a marketing gimmick by MIT Press. Does it really offer explanatory background usefully and specially directed to a readership envisioned to be the STEM community? The critical essays accompanying the text are eclectic, cross-disciplinary, and incisive, and they include contributions from beyond the academy, such as the essays by science fiction authors Elizabeth Bear and Cory Doctorow. The book’s “Introduction” (by renowned Frankenstein scholar Charles E. Robinson) is authoritative, yet accessible, and firmly situates both Shelley and her novel in relation to our contemporary tech-oriented age.

But the most important way in which this new edition undertakes its outreach to the STEM community is through the many “annotations” appearing as footnotes in the text. Far more than the usual quick factual explanations for students, this volume’s annotations are authored by researchers, scholars and commentators from many different fields. These annotations often raise novel questions about technology and society, extrapolating from the technological conditions suggested by the novel into terms that might emerge today, alongside the more usual role of explanatory footnotes in a student text.

The volume’s editors (Arizona State University’s David H. Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert) explain in their preface that they intend this volume to contribute to the growing movement to educate the tech community regarding social and ethical issues raised by today’s emerging technologies—framing some of these contemporary questions through the lens of this classic novel of technology gone awry. It’s an admirable and timely ambition—consider, for example, Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s shocking announcement in late 2018 that, with little or no ethical or legal oversight, he had edited a heritable gene in two embryos and implanted them in the mother. Or consider examples from other areas of emerging technologies: the many ethical questions now coming to the fore regarding artificial intelligence, machine learning and complex algorithms; the many and increasingly urgent privacy and surveillance issues of the digital and internet age; and the profound risks to essential civilian infrastructure, such as power grids, that might arise in uncontained cyberwarfare. One could go on. The need for ethical reflection among the “creators” of today’s emerging technologies is clear.

I

“Frankenstein” was composed in the years 1816-1818—a time of accelerating economic, social and cultural change for Britain (and Western Europe broadly). The Industrial Revolution was taking off, and it both drew upon and sparked advances in science and technology. Shelley’s novel explicitly used these exciting new ideas; Robinson’s introductory essay lucidly describes their deployment in the novel. Shelley’s own life stretched from 1797 to 1851, straddling the transitional decades from the preindustrial world to the industrialized, technological modern world that we still inhabit today. She wrote from a privileged historical vantage point in the transition from one world to another.

Moreover, Frankenstein as an enduring cultural icon—independent of the novel, imbued with a life of its own—had taken firm root in broader popular culture by the 1820s, driven by enormously popular 19th century stage versions of the story and many “penny dreadfuls” (Shelley received no remuneration from these pirated versions). The cultural figure of Frankenstein emerges in part to give expression to anxieties that peculiarly accompany what is sometimes called the “birth of the modern.” It is an important part of what gives “Frankenstein” its enduring hold on our contemporary imagination: Both the novel and the cultural icon derive their special pathos from what Heather E. Douglas’s critical essay shrewdly calls the “bitter aftertaste of technical sweetness”—tragedy set in the distinctly modern conditions of secular science and technology.

Even at a mere 18 years of age, the author of “Frankenstein” brought prodigious intellectual gifts and an exceptional education to its writing. Her mother was the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the celebrated “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), among other important works of political philosophy; she died of complications from childbirth, however, shortly after Shelley’s birth in 1797. The young Shelley was raised by her father (the political radical and freethinker William Godwin), who provided her with an expansive home education. It encompassed moral and political philosophy as well as literature and the classics. During the writing of “Frankenstein,” for example, Shelley was reading John Locke and his theory of the human infant as “tabula rasa,” the so-called empty slate, which comes to be filled through environmental and social influences.

If “Frankenstein” (as science fiction writers Bear and Doctorow both observe in their critical essays) is among the first “science fiction” novels—even perhaps the first—this is not merely because it frames cause and effect entirely within secular science. It is also because it imagines the social consequences of theories of human behavior and human nature that might follow from new scientific or technological advances—including the socialization of an infant or a newly animated creature. Conjectures of this kind were possible for Shelley in part because her education encompassed the humanities—literature, philosophy and classics—providing her with an intellectual framework for her fictional narrative.

But Shelley’s conjectures were also made possible because her education had exposed her to the sciences of the day, which were then inching forward to define distinct fields of chemistry, biology and physics, and which were also beginning to grapple with the mysteries of electricity and magnetism. ]This exposure included attending lectures by leading “natural philosophers” and becoming personally acquainted with some, including, for example, the scientist and inventor William Nicholson, pioneer in principles of chemistry. Robinson’s introductory essay further recounts that, as Shelley composed the first chapters of “Frankenstein,” she was also reading Sir Humphry Davy’s 1812 book, “Elements of Chemical Philosophy.”

Of particular relevance to this novel, Shelley was also well aware of experiments over previous decades by Galvin and others using electricity to stimulate muscle twitches in dead animals. She knew of the famous demonstration of “galvinism” that took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1802, when a primitive battery and wires were attached to the body of a recently executed murderer, producing grotesque muscular responses (including the opening of an eye and movements of the arms and legs). At the time of the novel’s writing, certainly, it did not seem beyond imagining or reason that electricity, being an elemental force, might provide the spark of life to reanimate the dead or, at least, to reanimate dead tissue.

II

In 1814, at age 16, Shelley eloped and ran away to the continent with the young Romantic poet, Percy Bysse Shelley (who was already married with one child and another on the way). The couple eventually settled for a season—the cold and rainy summer of 1816—near Geneva, where the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron and his friend, the physician John William Poldori, were also residing. One evening, the company was gathered together for conversation and came up with the idea of a ghost-story-writing contest. The other three quickly lost interest, but for Mary Shelley this proved the seed that germinated into “Frankenstein.” She began writing in 1816 and finished her novel in 1817. “Frankenstein” was published in its first edition in 1818; a much-revised edition appeared in 1831.

Nearly everyone has absorbed at least some version (whether from the novel or popular culture) of the essential scenes that motivate contemporary debates over the ethics of science and technology. Victor Frankenstein, a young and ambitious scientist, experiments with the astonishing powers of electricity, seeking to reanimate dead tissue. He experiments with human organs and body parts, collecting them from the “dissecting room and slaughter-houses” and even through grave-robbing. Piecing together parts taken from different corpses, he produces a composite body. Through some mechanism of science (never explained in the book), electricity serves to reanimate the dead human flesh: Victor has made a living creature in human form. (The creature is referred to in the text as “it” or “he” but is never given an actual name.)

Victor’s motives in undertaking these experiments in reanimation are partly to advance knowledge for its own sake—pure scientific discovery (with, as Bear observes, more than a dollop of glory for himself as a scientist). He wants to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” His motives are also, however, at least partly altruistic and humanitarian; he believes his discovery of the principle of reanimation might eventually be used to “banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death.”

One might think this ambition enough. Yet Victor additionally seeks to unite human limbs, organs, and parts culled from different human corpses in such a way as to produce a creature with its “limbs in proportion” and possessed of genuinely “beautiful” physical features. In this, Victor evinces a peculiar psychological contradiction. On the one hand, the creature’s grotesque physical appearance was evident to Victor as he made it, even before he reanimated it: “I had gazed on him,” Victor says, “while unfinished; he was ugly then.” On the other hand, despite the evidence of his eyes of the grotesqueness of the creature he was making, he held onto the conviction that animation would render his creation physically beautiful.

The physical details of the moment of reanimation have had a long fictional life of their own (e.g., very recently in Ian McEwan’s new novel, “Machines Like Me,” which in its own animation scene pays careful homage to the original text). At the moment of reanimation, the body shudders into life, and the creature opens “watery eyes” that seem “almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set.” Victor beholds “the dull yellow eye of the creature,” while it “breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” Its horrifying, frightening appearance is nothing like what he had imagined. The “beauty of the dream vanished,” he says, “and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” He goes in an instant, one might say, from excess to excess—from an exaggerated expectation of the creature’s sublime beauty to an equally exaggerated conviction that it is nothing but monstrous.

Yet this is a creature whose heart Victor himself had “fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy.” Even so, Victor seems incapable of perceiving that his creature, true to its design, seeks love and sympathy. The creature’s maker cannot conceive that, beneath the creature’s surface appearance, there is something—someone—in need of love, and who, in the course of its development, could gradually learn to love in return. Unable to accept or act on the possibility that this creature is exactly what he wanted it to be—human—Victor rejects it utterly. Though the creature is his creation—as the creature will come to remind him—he refuses to give it the love and nurturance that any human needs.

Escaping confinement, the creature comes to live a miserable existence hiding in the forest. Tormented by questions as to who and what he is, he is wracked by loneliness. He has passions and feelings, and above all he has the human need for others. Denied those most basic human requirements—not just by Victor but later by anyone seeing his horrifying appearance—rejection and loneliness over time turn his passions into anger and hatred, leading him to strike out at his maker. The creature kills Victor’s fiancée and flees. Victor goes after him, intending to kill him, and eventually pursues him to the Arctic; having fallen gravely ill on the journey, however, Victor dies before he, the creator, is able to destroy his creation. The creature, in turn, resolves to kill himself and sets forth alone on an ice floe, finally disappearing on the sea, lost “in darkness and distance.”

III

“Frankenstein” is most obviously a cautionary tale—actually, multiple cautionary tales. Their differences remain strikingly salient in today’s debates over the ethics of emerging technologies. Most obviously, the story is a caution against the hubris of scientists and engineers, playing with powers they do not understand and cannot control. Victor makes the point himself:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.

This reading of “Frankenstein” is supported particularly by the final, revised edition of “Frankenstein,” which appeared in 1831. Shelley was by then a middle-aged widow who supported herself and her one surviving child through her writing. She was long past the radical passions of her youth, and social respectability for the sake of her son was important. She vigorously revised the novel in the 1831 version to scrub out of it nearly anything that might suggest a conclusion to the story not firmly within the conventional Christian morality of the day. The 1831 “Frankenstein” rewrote the original story into a melodrama with a brightly lit, unmistakable moral at its end: The pride and presumption of an overreaching scientist leads him to create something that an upright, virtuous person would have understood from the outset must necessarily be evil. That the creature acts in accordance with its evil nature is not a surprise, given its unnatural origins, and it is also no surprise that it must finally be destroyed. The morally unheedful scientist, for his part, receives his just deserts, comes to recognize his sin of pride, and repents for what he has done. It is this 1831 version of the “Frankenstein” story that primarily supplies the reference point for the “cautionary moral tale” of overreaching science; it is also the version that has largely fueled the Frankenstein of popular culture.

The original 1818 version, by contrast, is altogether darker in tone, with no clear moral lesson drawn by the end (a matter that deeply troubled the novel’s first readers and reviewers, as Robinson’s introduction points out), let alone a conventionally “Christian” one. It is shorter, rawer, and deeply ambiguous. Its moral psychology and theory of human nature could not be more different from the 1831 version. In the 1818 version, the creature is presented through a quasi-Lockean lens of “tabula rasa” (the creature possessing, however, a natural inclination to respond to goodness with goodness). The 1831 version sweeps this psychology away in favor of a creature that is necessarily evil because of its unnatural creation. What the 1831 version sweeps away, indeed, is the centrality of seeing beyond surface appearances, because the inherently evil nature of the creature is simply assumed. The 1818 version, in contrast, makes no such assumption and instead locates a significant part of the story’s tragedy in Victor’s inability to see past the creature’s surface appearances to its underlying nature.

Yet in either version, the essential pathos of the story is that the creature is not merely a “thing,” as Jane Maienschein and Kate MacCord’s critical essay observes, locating “Frankenstein” within the larger history of the idea of human nature. It is not a “thing”; it is a “creature” who is self-aware, purposive and social, and who has social needs. This is true even if the creature’s nature is somehow “inherently” evil on account of its genesis (as in the 1831 version), or instead because it has learned to do and to be evil (as in the 1818 version). The novel as a cautionary tale of the consequences of reaching to forbidden knowledge, however, draws profoundly upon a core text underlying (both versions of) “Frankenstein”—John Milton’s monumental poem, “Paradise Lost” (1674).

Pointing out “Frankenstein’s” deep roots in “Paradise Lost” is not a mere nod to some dead literary past, without relevance to contemporary debates on the ethics of technology as frequently explored in contemporary science fiction. On the contrary, Milton’s poem has been a direct cultural influence on the development of science fiction in the modern world, and not just as an indirect influence through “Frankenstein.” (Cf. Neil Stephenson’s brand-new novel—explicitly Miltonian and aptly titled “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.” Or Star Trek’s “Wrath of Khan.” Or even Gilfoyle in the “Silicon Valley” series—a coder who is also a Satanist who characterizes his Satan as a metaphor for rebellion against unjust tyranny.)

“Paradise Lost” imaginatively expands on the Bible’s brief references to a “war in Heaven.” Lucifer, the angel later named “Satan,” rebels against God and seeks to overthrow him. He and his followers are cast out of Heaven and into the deep pit of Hell. Satan eventually finds his way out of Hell to the Garden of Eden, where he enters into the body of the serpent and tempts Eve into eating of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Adam later also eats of the fruit, and so death and sin enter the world. God announces that they have become “like one of us ... to know both Good and Evil.” And lest they also reach out to the fruit of the “Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever,” God expels mankind from the Garden.

There are many ways to read “Frankenstein” through “Paradise Lost,” and indeed the characters (including the creature, who has closely read the poem in his self-education while hiding in the wilderness) propose several of them. Victor can be seen as Satan, rebelling against God by reaching to take God’s powers. The creature sometimes sees himself as the fallen angel, Satan, unjustly and cruelly cast out by his creator. But the creature can also be understood as a new Adam, father to a new kind of creation—and yet in need of his maker, Victor, to fashion him an Eve.

Common to these readings, however, is the theme of reaching out to take divine knowledge that belongs to God alone and is forbidden to others—whether Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit or Lucifer in Heaven reaching out in rebellion to take the powers of God. Victor reaches to exercise these powers of creation, with their promise of eternal life. He, and those he loves, inevitably pay the price. Yet ultimately it is the creature who pays the greatest price for Victor’s exercise of powers of creation that ultimately do not belong to human beings. The famous epigraph to “Frankenstein” consists of three lines from “Paradise Lost” that stand as a practically unanswerable rebuke by the creature against his creator:

Did I request Thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man? Did I solicit Thee

From darkness to promote me?

IV

The warning against taking forbidden knowledge is most explicit in the 1831 “Frankenstein,” in part because that version endorses it in conventional moral terms that implicitly come to this conclusion: Only God is allowed to create in God’s own image. There is another kind of cautionary tale to be drawn from “Frankenstein,” however, one rooted far more in the original 1818 version of the story. It draws especially on the Greek myth of Prometheus; the novel’s full title, after all, is “Frankenstein, or, the New Prometheus.” Zeus had tasked Prometheus and his brother, with (re-) populating the earth by forming men and beasts from river clay. Prometheus modeled his human beings in the form of the gods. But his humans were miserable, lacking the comforts afforded to the gods, who alone possessed the sacred fire. Humans shivered with cold and were at the mercy of the beasts, and they lacked the ability to cook their food, as the gods do. Seeing the suffering of those he made, Prometheus resolved to steal the sacred fire from the gods and give it to mortal human beings.

Prometheus acted from the most altruistic and noble of motives, but he nonetheless acted against the gods and took (though on behalf of others) the prerogatives of the gods. For his violations of the laws of the gods, he suffered the punishment of being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten every day by an eagle; every night it grew back, only to be eaten again. If the myth of Prometheus, with its theme of altruistic rebellion against unjust authority, held special fascination for the Romantic movement, Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus” reimagines the myth for a modern and secular age. Victor, like Prometheus, acts (partly) from noble and altruistic motives when he makes his creature. And, in the 1818 “Frankenstein,” his creature is not the inherently evil monster of the 1831 version. Rather, the creature of the 1818 version is brought to life mentally and morally child-like, a “tabula rasa.” It is helpless and confused, rather than bloodthirsty and murderous. Its original nature is not vicious; nonetheless, things go horribly wrong for it.

There is indeed moral fault here, and it lies not with the creature, but with its creator; from here forward, morally speaking, Victor and Prometheus diverge. Leave aside the question (that of the 1831 version) of whether he should have created the creature at all—once having created it, Victor’s fault lies in refusing to be the creature’s creator. Refusing, that is, to love it as its creator, as its parent, as both its mother and its father; and this refusal arising from being unwilling to see past the surface of its physical form to the creature’s sympathetic nature.

On this point, Bear’s critical essay is sharply observant and aptly titled, “The Trouble with Prometheus.” Victor, she says, is morally culpable for not taking responsibility for his creation and for his refusal to acknowledge his responsibility because he cannot see it for what it is. He runs away from it and refuses to engage with it. He refuses to engage with the creature and flees, and he does so because he is not able to see its essential nature, its needs and his part in their fulfilment—and that, Bear says, is on account of his monstrous “narcissism, this inability to engage with other creatures” as creatures like himself.

This is another kind of cautionary moral tale, distinctly different from the Miltonian one, and it is one that connects directly with Prometheus. Prometheus, after all, is a creator, just as is Victor. In contemporary tech terms, Prometheus, like Victor, can be described as a “maker,” an engineer, even as a bioengineer. But unlike Victor (Bear’s essay rather acerbically points out), Prometheus also loves. He loves and affirmatively takes responsibility for the work of his hands. Having created “creatures” rather than mere “things,” Prometheus takes responsibility for their welfare—and thus answers the terrible charge of Milton’s three lines by sacrificing himself for their sake. Victor does no such thing.

V

We can thus discern two kinds of cautionary tales in “Frankenstein” (there are others): one Miltonian and the other Promethean. The former is a warning to “creators”—scientists, engineers and what this new edition of “Frankenstein” calls “creators of all kinds”—of the risks of hubris: reaching to exercise knowledge and powers that are not fully understood, whose consequences cannot be predicted and which cannot be controlled. The latter, however—the Promethean—is a warning to these same creators that, when they do exercise that knowledge and power, they must be willing to take responsibility for the things they create, for the work of their hands, which is what Prometheus did and what Victor failed to do.

Caution does not mean we should not create, innovate, invent or take risks, however. Warnings are not necessarily prohibitions. Shelley herself (as the editors’ preface to this volume notes) was not hostile to the advance of technology and knowledge. Far from it. Questions of forbidden knowledge and prohibited applications of technology have always been with us, as Milton’s retelling of Adam and Eve in the Garden, and Prometheus stealing the heavenly fire, both show. With “Frankenstein,” however, those questions take their distinctly modern form—the form still with us today, 200 years on.

The moral and ethical questions posed by “Frankenstein” do not arise from a world defined by magic, by the supernatural or the divine, but instead from technologies engineered from secular science. In our modern world, such ethical questions are not susceptible to resolution by recourse to divine authority or religious edict—although one may benefit from asking why our ancestors felt certain powers and knowledge were reserved to divinity. Whatever answers we decide to give to such questions, however, the modern, secular framing of such questions—the social and ethical issues of today’s emerging technologies—begins, but does not end, with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

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