On the anniversary of Frankenstein’s creation, Mary Shelley’s tale of scientific hubris is strikingly relevant.
If anyone knew how to make the best out of bad cottage weather, it was Mary Shelley.
In 1816, the then-18-year-old Mary Godwin summered on Lac Leman in Switzerland with her married lover Percy Shelley, his pal Lord Byron, her stepsister and Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont, and physician and noted fifth wheel John William Polidori. Their holiday coincided with a volcanic eruption that had sparked such lousy weather, it has its own Snowmagedon-esque name: The Year Without A Summer.
Trapped indoors with a German ghost story collection, the bohemian fivesome committed to passing the time through a supernatural storytelling competition. The clear winner wasn’t either of the greats of Romantic poetry in the house, Shelley or Byron, but the young woman who would become Mrs. Percy Shelley, a.k.a. Mary Shelley, who sketched out the novel that would be published two years later as Frankenstein.
The story of a doctor who creates a man from spare body parts and a jolt of electricity was inspired by contemporary experiments in galvanism, a therapeutic application of electricity. Two-hundred-years after that rained-out vacation, the work is often celebrated as the first science-fiction novel.
“There are predecessors,” says Dan White, professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. “But I think Frankenstein is the first great example of a fully formed novel that takes actual contemporary science and applies it to imaginative ends.”
Its themes were inspired by a cultural climate of extraordinary scientific progress. Its enduring popularity may be because that progress has rarely slowed in the intervening decades.
“I think that people are always going to have a certain amount of anxiety, and some of it is very well founded, about scientific process,” says writer and Bard College literature professor Francine Prose, who wrote the introduction for a newly illustrated anniversary edition of the classic from Restless Books. “There are many aspects of science that still make us nervous, and with good reason.”
Robert Cook-Deegan, a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, was one of three organizers of last month’s Frankenstein’s Shadow, a symposium that returned to Lac Leman for the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s conception of the novel. The interdisciplinary conference explored Frankenstein’s ongoing influence.
“I hold it up as a cautionary tale about secrecy and arrogance and what can go wrong, especially with a living thing that you create in the lab,” he says. “I think it did tap into a lot of the angst about creating things you can’t completely control and human beings can’t always be trusted to be kind to the things that they produce.”
Frankenstein metaphors are used to criticize genetically modified food or neuroscience, Cook-Deegan says. “Franken- gets appended to anything that folks think is new and potentially scary,” he says. For example, transgenic salmon, which are genetically modified with eelpout DNA to grow at a 30 per cent faster rate than natural salmon, are labelled Frankenfish.
While Shelley is hailed for her innovative fusing of science with a creation myth, Frankenstein also owes much to his forebears. “Playing God has always been a subject for literature — when humans overstep the so-called bounds of what is permitted for human beings,” Prose says.
Ancient though its story may be, the appetite for stories of humanity’s fool-hearted hubris has yet to be sated. While writing the introduction, Prose watched the 2015 Alicia Vikander film Ex Machina, about an experiment in artificial intelligence.
“If that’s not a descendent of Frankenstein, what is?” she says. “You create a creature, and it turns against you. That’s the Frankenstein story.”