Afraid of Frankenstein?

This is not Frankenstein, this is Frankenstein's monster.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.

 

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9 thoughts on “Afraid of Frankenstein?

  1. None of this is at root really fear of technology, it’s autophobia – fear of ourselves, and what we are capable of. Technology is just a lever that makes the good and bad that we do so much more effective. The Abolition of Man by C S Lewis is exactly about this (plus a bit of ranting about education). The nature of technology is to increase the power of those that use it. For Lewis, it was inevitable that increasing technology would lead to either a small elite controlling everything or, one generation fixing everything in stone for other generations.

    For me, the danger of technology and the allure of it is exactly the same – technology always makes life easier, and a lot of humans will always want something that makes life easy, but much of what makes life valuable is only achieved during struggle.

    My point is that it’s inevitable. It doesn’t matter how many people are afraid of Frankenstein – and there are plenty, the success of films like Avatar show our own self-loathing as humans – they will continue to make choices that prioritise ease over difficulty (as in fact, the Na’vi would have too – in real life, they would have been corrupted very quickly).

    1. Fear of technology would be fear of frankenstein’s monster. this is fear of our capacity to push technological limits in a way which dehumanises both ourselves and those around us. I seem to recall too, that Mary doesnt call the monster a ‘monster’ but a creature.

      1. Where’s this dehumanisation you’re talking about? Technology is a striving for a better world, it’s one of the central aspects of our shared humanity. It’s because it’s a central feature of humanity that I am confident when I say it’s inevitable.

        Who did the dehumanisation in Frankenstein? It wasn’t the technology, nor was it the pushing of the boundaries of technology, it was individuals who refused to love what they had created.

      2. technology is striving for a better world? Who defines what the better world is? Dr Oppenheimer? Human capacity for destruction and devastation is increased exponentially via technology, a kind of Moore’s law of death. This human desire to overreach him/herself is I think one of the central tenets of faith and philosophy, it may be Prometheus, or it may be Eve and the apple, its a central moral problem, the desire of humanity to become like God, this is the story of Frankenstein, of Babel, of Cyberpunk, of Eden, of countless wars and power plays – our unwillingness to accept the humility of humanity.

  2. > technology is striving for a better world? Who defines what the better world is? Dr Oppenheimer?

    Come on, this is just basic ethics. Next time you try to improve the world through a political or personal act should I query your right to decide that sweatshops or landmines or ecological devestation is wrong? Should I demand to know who you are to define that a world without torture is better than one with?

    Of course not. Generally speaking humanity shares enough morality to make most issues quite clear. There are issues on the periphery in technology, just as there are in politics or charity or religion, but I’m not going to stamp around saying ‘who are you to judge’, when the answer is obvious. The spiritual man makes judgements on all things [1 Corinthians 2:15].

    It’s the Christians responsibility to learn about the character of God through learning about nature. It’s the Christians responsibility to love truth. Since science is so far the best method we have for learning about nature and truth, it’s every Christians responsibility to persue science.

    Once you know something that can easily be used to help people, then you have a moral responsibility to exercise that knowledge. Not only is technology an inevitable characteristic of humanity, it’s an imperative for Christians.

    Fear of Frankenstein is actually just fear of the unknown, it’s a refusal to persue truth because it might hurt, or it might mean responsibilities that are difficult to evade (as Frankenstein tried to evade his responsibilities to his monster). It’s a refusal to learn about the nature of God.

    > This human desire to overreach him/herself is I think one of the central tenets of faith and philosophy, it may be Prometheus, or it may be Eve and the apple, its a central moral problem, the desire of humanity to become like God, this is the story of Frankenstein, of Babel, of Cyberpunk, of Eden, of countless wars and power plays – our unwillingness to accept the humility of humanity.

    Let me turn your question on you – who determines what is ‘overreach’ for man and what is not? We ‘participate in the divine nature’ [2 Peter 1:4], we ‘have the mind of Christ’ [1 Corinthians 2:16], seeking to be like Christ and the Father is exactly what we should be doing according to Christianity – “be perfect therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect”, “whatever the Father does the Son also does”.

    Fortunately, I don’t think many people really believe that the world would be a better place if there were no such thing as vaccines, or if Polio and Smallpox were still rampant, or that 30% of children should die before they are 5 (as they did before modern medicine). Few people think that we should give up control of fire (one of our earliest technologies), or baking, or bows and traps for animal hunting, or ploughs and scythes for farming. You won’t find many who wish that musical instruments had never been invented, or that people who contract trachoma (or any of a vast array of other diseases) should all go blind.

    To talk about the horror of what technology has made possible without talking about the lives it has saved (far, far, far more in crude numeric terms) is deceptive.

    1. I pointed out in the post that there is a nuance here, even the horrors of the guillotine brought about good, in the advancement of women’s suffrage amongst other things.
      However, to say ‘technology is striving for a better world’ is plainly nonsense – technology is a product of human invention and discovery. Much of the motivation for that invention and discovery comes from malign intent, greed, hatred and indeed fear.
      We should certainly be wary of the human capacity to create monsters, and in that sense I think it very important to retain a healthy fear of Frankenstein.

  3. > However, to say ‘technology is striving for a better world’ is plainly nonsense – technology is a product of human invention and discovery.

    That’s literally what I consider the definition of ‘technology’ to be. The application of knowledge to solve problems. That is what it means to strive for a better world – to use what you have to improve things.

    That some people (and I think ‘much’ is an exaggeration) have worried about improving things for themselves and not others is human nature, and it’s little to do with technology. Genghis Khan killed more than the First World War and Stalin combined, despite the relatively simple technology available to him (and this at a time when the population of the world was 7% of what it is now).

    The human capacity to ‘create monsters’ is miniscule compared to the human capacity to be monsters. That’s where our fear should be directed.

    1. “The human capacity to ‘create monsters’ is miniscule compared to the human capacity to be monsters. That’s where our fear should be directed.”

      What we agree on is that in this story as in others, its the human protagonist who is truly horrifying – and in the wider story its humanity’s capacity for evil, greed and destruction which is to be feared.

      I would say that this manifests itself in technology – not always, much technology is good, and even that which is used for malign purposes has goodness, I like to cut paper with a guillotine after all.

      I’m with Mary Shelley though, Victor Frankenstein worries me, much more than his monster.

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