In 1818 a short novel was published by an anonymous writer. Subtitled ‘the Modern Prometheus’ the book ‘Frankenstein’ was a hit, and went on to become a defining piece of literature – often known as the first ever piece of Science Fiction.
A couple of years later, the same book was republished in France, and this time it bore the name of its author, Mary Shelley.
Shelley, the mistress turned wife of romantic poet Percy Bysse Shelley, and daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstencraft, both early feminists and political radicals, was at the forefront of the Romantic movement, an elite group of thinkers and artists who were keen to revive the perceived mystery and beauty of the times before the age of ‘Enlightenment’ and rationalism.
In some ways, with his pale callour and gothic surroundings, Victor Frankenstein was the romantic hero, but in other ways he was the embodiment of rationalism. Here was a man who harnessed science to create life – the very act which had previously been ascribed to God alone. Of course Victor’s actions are famously doomed – his attempt to ‘steal the fire of the Gods’ a la Prometheus are destined to cause great misery and heartbreak with his poor doomed creature becoming the other romantic hero of the story.
While the initial spur for the creation of this story was a ‘competition’ among friends to come up with a ghost story, there is something much deeper in the Frankenstein story, which reveals something fundamental about Human nature – and perhaps explains more than we might realise about the our collective reaction to the onward march of technology.
In 1789 there began in France a huge revolution. It lasted for ten years and saw the slaughter by mechansised Guillotines of tens of thousands of people – some estimate up to 40,000 were killed during ‘The Terror’. It was a simple device and originally conceived as an egalitarian form of punishment – as appropriate for a common man as for a king. So it indeed proved – famously used to behead the French aristocracy as France underwent the most radical political transformation of its time.
The guillotine then ushered in the modern age, its mechanisation and egalitarianism somehow perfectly symbolising the irrepresible onward march of technology. By the time Mary Shelley, a daughter of the enlightenment but a kind of devotee of the romantic movement found herself holed up in a lakeside house with Percy, Lord Byron and others to write a ghost story, the horrors of her childhood were scarcely faded from the public conciousness.
Mary’s political and philosophic leanings were complex. She was the daughter of political radicals and in Mary Wollstencraft had for a mother one of the earliest and most ardent feminists. Mary Shelley, its no suprise to learn, went on to carry the torch of feminism too – despite being part of a movement which was far from feminist. The Romantic movement yearned for a return to simpler times, when men were either gnarled or visionary and women were winsome.
She was both supported and inspired by the political and philosophical changes which had begun to occur in the years prior to her birth, and at the same time was part of a movement which rebelled against them.
Just as Prometheus brought the fire of the gods to the earth (and paid the price for it), she saw the way that technology and modern advances were bringing power and strength to the populous, whilst also recognising in horror the way that it could cause huge pain and suffering.
Mary was situated in the mid/late modern era – if we take the elightenment as having begun in the mid seventeenth century and the industrial revolution kicking in around the end of the eighteenth, Mary was, at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the midst of the most extraordinary shake up of ideas and practical ways of life that society had ever known. It is no wonder she found in it both incredible inspiration, and dread horror.
In 1984 William Gibson published his debut novel – a sci-fi epic called Neuromancer. Unlike Shelley’s book, there was no classical subtitle – but within the name there is a whole range of meaning.
Neuro, Neu, Romance, Necromancy – which ever way you choose to look at the title there is a reference somehow to the gothic, the new,and the mind. But its the contents of the novel which were so revolutionary.
William Gibson is credited – correctly I would say – with the creation of the concept of ‘cyberspace’. His book appearing as a prophecy of the internet which began to open up scant years after the publishing of Neuromancer, but which had already been conceived as a military and scientific tool. Gibson’s dystopic vision saw again the immense potential, for good and ill, of such technology.
In the same way as Mary Shelley he was, I believe, both enraptured and repulsed by his vision. He could see the incredible advances it offered, but feared the destructive power.
Why am I writing about this, on a sunny day in 2011? Because I believe that for anyone interested in culture and development needs to take a similarly nuanced approach to Frankenstein. Before we simply swallow the advances that technology offers us, we need to recognise that much of it is built on blood. Without that blood being shed, the advances would not have been made. Without the french revolution one might suggest, feminism may never have advanced – certainly the ‘great’ war of 1914 – 1918, an almost unimaginable hell like vision of mechanised destruction was the defining moment in the realisation of women’s suffrage.
Gibsons dystopia, like Shelley’s was a prophetic imagining of a feared and desired future. We have Gibson’s future, if not in whole, certainly in part. We have Shelley’s future, if not in whole, certainly in part.
As we witness the advance of technology, with chips made from precious minerals and with the mass production of handsets and tablets and who knows what else by factory workers in far away lands, from whom we are alienated by all things except facebook and blood, we need to recapture that fear of Frankenstein.
In the pale and hanted figure of Victor Frankenstein is the face of every man or woman who pushes the technological envelope – the pioneer who thinks the unthinkable. Their results are of benefit to many of us, but are they truly worth the horror they spawn?
Afraid of Frankenstein? I am, a bit.