BOOK REVIEW: A Maverick of Electrical Science

By on December 11th, 2018 in Book Reviews, Entries, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds
Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert. Managing Editors:
Joey Eschrich and Mary Drago. M.I.T. Press 2017, Corrected text of the 1818 edition.

 

In 2018 much attention was paid to the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of the most popular novels in the English language, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her achievement is the more remarkable in that it occurred when there were very few known English female authors.

Indeed, when the book appeared it carried no author’s name. Popular from the start, it went through several editions and revisions — the writer was revealed to the public in the second edition. She was the wife of the renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and had started writing the book at age 18; it came out two years later. It’s interesting that the first major science fiction novel was written by a woman and perhaps significant that it presents a dark vision of scientific experimentation.

In The Modern Prometheus, Immanuel Kant cautions against experimentation that might corrupt the natural order of things.

That M.I.T. has chosen to bring out a new heavily annotated edition at this moment in history is both appropriate and not surprising. We are in an age of hyper-sensitivity to issues of technological hubris as well as fear of the unintended consequences of technology. Who hasn’t heard of “Frankenfood” — genetically modified nourishment, which in our more paranoid moments, we imagine having been created by mad scientists in industrial laboratories who are poisoning our bodies and environment. And our present concern over the possibility of “designer babies” has close parallels in the novel’s plot.

Virtually every other page of this edition carries footnotes, which were provided by a team of around 30 professors, grad students, sci-fi writers, and post docs. In addition, the book concludes with seven critical essays — some of them quite provocative — which will be an aid to any professor who chooses to assign this book designed for classroom study by undergraduates in STEM courses. Strange to say, despite its publisher and subject matter none of the contributors is from M.I.T. The three principal editors are at Arizona State University. There are now several other 200th anniversary editions in print, including one from Literary Folio that includes facsimiles of the 1818 and 1831 editions.

Before setting out my opinions, I’ll review the plot. First — this shouldn’t have to be said — Frankenstein is not the name of the monster of the story. The hideous creature you may have seen in movie posters — think of Boris Karloff in the 1931 film — isn’t Frankenstein.

The story is related via the contents of a series of letters, many written by a ship’s captain who has come to know Victor Frankenstein and who is present at Victor’s death. As a Swiss science student in Germany, Frankenstein aspired to create a living creature. Gathering up human and animal body parts through nefarious and ugly means, some involving animal torture, and applying his skills in electricity, chemistry and alchemy he strives to create “a new species [which] would bless me as its creator and source…” He labors for two years and upon applying the “spark of being, “is horrified at the result.” Notice the spark — suggestive of electrical apparatus. The enormous “miserable monster” is eight feet tall, with yellow eyes, shriveled skin, and black lips. Victor flees from his creation and makes no attempt to track him or to notify a soul of his existence.

By observing from afar a family living near the woods the creature learns to speak, and educates himself with their books that he secretly reads. He manages to befriend a blind member of the family; seeing a reflection of himself in the water he comes to realize his own hideousness — his standards of appearance have been shaped by the family. The rest of the family sees him and run in horror.

The creature learns where Victor’s family lives and kills Victor’s brother, William. William’s nanny is suspected of the crime because of evidence planted by the monster. She is hanged for the murder; Victor is present for the trial and despite knowing the likely murderer fails to intervene.

Reconnecting with Victor, the creature demands that his progenitor create a female counterpart for himself. He promises Victor that he and the mate will flee to South America. Victor agrees to the demand when the creature threatens that the rest of Victor’s family will be killed if he fails to comply.

Victor becomes engaged to be married. He moves to the Orkney Islands where he begins to work on the female mate but suspects that the creature is following him. Victor becomes fearful that the creature and his female might breed a race of monsters, and abandons his work. In a confrontation over the broken vow, the creature promises Victor that he will “be with [him] on his wedding night” which Victor sees as a death threat to be executed at his moment of happiness. And indeed, shortly after the wedding the creature strangles the bride when she is briefly left alone in her room. I’ve left off a subplot in which the monster has already murdered Victor’s best friend.

In the finale to the story, Victor, seeking to kill the monster, boards a ship bound for the North Pole where he had learned the creature is headed. The monster is glimpsed but the ship becomes trapped in the ice. Some crewmen die but Victor seeks to convince the Captain and crew to press on. The Captain wisely heads south, fearing the loss of more men. Weak from exposure and his pursuit, Victor dies on board. The monster enters the ship and views Victor’s body and tells the Captain that this ending has brought him no peace and that his crimes have filled him with nothing but grief. He exits the ship and drifts away on a sheet of ice.

Shelley complicates our understanding of her intentions with her sub-title: The Modern Prometheus. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan (not a mortal but less than a God); he is credited with creating man from clay, but equally germane is that he stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man. For this, he is punished eternally: Zeus ties him to a rock. Each day an eagle comes to eat the Titan’s liver. It grows back overnight, and the process starts again the next day. Is Victor the modern Prometheus in that he sought to create a living creature or because he introduced a technology? After reading this edition I found the question unresolved. Surely fire was a gift to man. Most likely Shelley means both.

In 1775 Immanuel Kant published an essay The Modern Prometheus in which he cautions against experimentation that might corrupt the natural order of things, citing Benjamin Franklin,

“…the Prometheus of recent times Mr. Franklin, who wanted to disarm the thunder…”

Not only is Shelley referencing Kant, it seems likely that the name she assigns to her villain is derived from an American founding father who in his lifetime was famous in Europe for his electrical experiments, especially those involving atmospheric electricity. This connection is pointed out in one of the helpful footnotes.

The numerous annotations to the book make it obvious that the editors were seeking to propagate a message to its students: you have a responsibility for the work you do and its possible consequences for humanity. Not surprisingly, the name of J. Robert Oppenheimer surfaces: the thoughtful, troubled head of the Los Alamos bomb project who worked so tirelessly to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The final essay included in the book, by Heather Douglas, which is well placed, deals with the complicated feelings of scientists, including Oppenheimer, who worked on the bomb, which at first seemed like a project that was “technically sweet.” Frankenstein must have shared that feeling of sweetness.

We are in an age of hyper-sensitivity to issues of technological hubris as well as fear of the unintended consequences of technology.

In seeking to convey their message, the editors allow too many footnotes of a similar and redundant nature. On page 51 we have from Nicole Piemonte, “It is only in hindsight that Victor recognizes the consequences of engaging in unreflective “natural philosophy” or scientific study. Had he seriously considered the ethical consequences of making his creature, and had these considerations outweighed his hubris and desire for personal success, it is unlikely he would have proceeded. This healthy fear of unchecked scientific progress (that Victor develops too late) highlights the need for attention to the scientist’s personal and professional development as well as the need for scientists to engage in self-reflection to consider ethical issues before they commence scientific studies.”

This is true and well put, but on page 78 we find “It is therefore incumbent on scientists and engineers to think about how their work is embodied in the world and how the world is changed as a result.” I could cite at least 6 other examples. At some point the STEM student begins to feel the book is patronizing: the readers are so dim-witted that the point must be mentioned repeatedly.

Many of the footnotes are illuminating. There is a nice one appended to the page in which the creature sees his reflection for the first time and concludes that he is ugly because he doesn’t look like all the people he has seen up to that moment. This has broad racial implications for the present, conveying how members of minority groups are perceived as “the other” and how they could feel that they are less attractive than the dominant group, especially as perceived in advertising or television. There is a vast cosmetic and surgery industry tied to this impulse.

The seven essays at the back of the book all are worthwhile and if I were teaching a class from this text I would most certainly assign Frankenstein, Gender and Mother Nature by Anne K. Mellor who is a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at UCLA. For most engineering and science students this may be their only exposure to feminist literature and this is a fine example. Mellor sees the novel in part as a disquisition, written by a woman, on the question “what happens when a man attempts to have a baby without a woman?”

She makes the interesting observation: “Victor’s usurpation of the natural mode of human reproduction implies a kind of destruction of the female.” Is this so? It is a nice topic for a class discussion. Warming to her thesis Mellor proclaims, “Victor’s scientific project — to be the sole creator of a superior human being — supports a patriarchal denial of women and of female sexuality.” Most interesting is her discussion of why Frankenstein won’t create a mate for his creature. Victor fears that she might be “ten thousand more times more malignant than her mate… they [she and the creature] might even hate each other …. She might even turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man.”

As for his fear that she might prefer to mate with ordinary human males, Mellor remarks: “implicit here is Frankenstein’s horror that given this female’s gigantic strength, she would have the ability to seize and even rape a man she might choose.” I confess that in several readings of the book this never occurred to me, but it looks like another great topic for class discussion. I wish I could teach a course out of this book.

Author Information
A. David Wunsch is book review editor of this magazine. He is Professor Emeritus in the ECE Department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His email address is A_Wunsch@uml.edu.