Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those wonderful stories that everyone knows and that no one has read, much like Dracula and War of the Worlds.
An epistolary Gothic novel, Frankenstein is largely considered one of the first pieces of science fiction. Shelley’s meditations on the power of science, the origins and development of humanity (and personhood), and how our minds treat the uncanny, sits at the center of so many science-fiction tropes it is difficult to summarize its range of influence.
The enormous cultural influence of Frankenstein is visible from the Universal Monster era (with his buddies, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, Dracula, and The Wolfman) through to Lurch from The Addams Family, Herman Munster, and even Frankenstein Wastes A Minute of our Time. But that’s not what makes Shelley’s masterwork important for transhumansim. It’s just why Frankenstein, the green, flatheadded, neck-bolted abomination is one of my favorite characters ever (though I do love the DeNiro version).
No, what makes Frankenstein relevant, nay, essential to transhumanism, and hence securing its position within The Canon, is that he is a monster of our own making in every sense of the word. The Monster did not ask to be created, nor did any of the various contributing members of his body ask to be reanimated. His existence is totally the result of an ambitious scientist who then, horrified and unprepared for what he had done, rejects his creation (see Caprica, Ghost in the Shell, and Metropolis). Without an intercessor, The Monster, thus labeled by both the author and the creator, goes out into the world and is equally reviled. Curiously, the function of science fiction is to introduce us to the new, and it is this very introduction that The Monster lacked. The Monster had no guide, no center, no introduction, no home.
The central message of Frankenstein is not that science is evil or that we dare not overstep our bounds, but that we are responsible for what we create. We must guide it, introduce it to society and society to it, nourish it and make sure it develops properly and is good. No technology may simply be released unaccompanied into the world, lest it turn on it’s creator and the world that creator inhabits.
UPDATE: I can’t believe I left out The Monster’s place in comedy. Yes, I mentioned his time wasting ability, but one of the funniest films of all time, Young Frankenstein, is built around just how preposterous the whole setup is. In YF, The Monster, played by Peter Boyle, is redeemed not by his personhood, but his, uh, shall we say his exceptional “manhood.” The other interesting part of YF is that it takes the most touching scene in the Frankenstein opus—dinner with the kind blind man—and somehow becomes more poignant in YF because The Monster has to tolerate Gene Hackman’s affable foibles in order to receive a modicum of kindness (the soup in the lap absolutely kills me). The Monster repeats this tolerance with the little girl who commands he sit on the see-saw. To socialize, and to forgive our fellow humans their quirks, is to be human. Young Frankenstein shows we’re all, perhaps, a little monstrous too.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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