Mary Shelley’s first novel, Frankenstein was published in January 1818, making this month its 200th anniversary. Although generally thought of as gothic horror, Frankenstein can also be thought of as probably the world’s first science fiction novel.
Science is, clearly, at the heart of the story. Some elements of the novel may well reflect societal misgivings about science. In 1791, Luigi Galvani published the results of his experiments involving applying electric current to muscle tissue, and in the early 19th century, experiments to investigate the effects of electrical shocks on the recently deceased were conducted. No doubt these experiments with electricity were being discussed in intellectual circles at the time, and this is probably where Mary Shelley got the idea of using electricity to bring the creature to life in her novel. Giving life to the dead was a power than human beings hadn’t before possessed, but the harnessing of electricity, and the effects the electricity produced on organic tissue, meant that it was a distinct possibility. How would such power be used? While the science behind Frankenstein might have seemed unsettling to 19th century society, the real science question that the novel asks is about scientists’ responsibilities.
Frankenstein isn’t just a story about science, however. It is also a novel about the human spirit. Central to the story is the importance of human relationships, and the risks associated with arrogance and the search for perfection. The young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He attempts to develop his knowledge through experimentation – the making of the creature. The search for knowledge is not, in itself, a bad thing. Nor is scientific endeavour. But Frankenstein allows his obsession with his work corrupt his relationship with his love, Elizabeth and then, having made his creature and given it life, he rejects it, because it is not the beautiful and perfect creature he set out to create. Because his creator hates him and others fear him, the creature comes to hate himself and, ultimately, turns that hatred outward, becoming a killer. Victor Frankenstein himself is, in the end, damaged by the damage that he has done to those around him.
It is with good reason that Frankenstein has become a classic. It deserves its place on our bookshelves. Not only does it give us a window into the concerns of its day, it raises many questions that we should be asking in our own time. We now have the power to create life from scratch, through synthetic biology. We can also alter the basic building blocks of existing life, using genetic modification. One of the questions that Frankenstein raises, and one that we should also ask is the question of responsibility. Is a scientist/engineer/inventor still responsible for the (unforeseen) consequences of his or her work once it is out in the world? Naturally, none of us can be responsible for how someone else uses our work. But what of the work itself? If someone creates an autonomous robot, and that robot behaves in a way that causes a loss of life, even if through an unforeseen malfunction, how much responsibility rests with its creator? If someone creates synthetic bacteria that then has a negative knock-on effect on an ecosystem, is the creator responsible? Do people working in these areas have a responsibility to consider even the most unlikely ‘what if’ scenarios before beginning their work? If they do, will we become so frightened of what might happen that scientific progress will be brought to an end?
Perhaps more important even than these questions, are the questions of human relationships that are central to the novel. What happens when we reject those who are different? What does it do to someone to be judged and rejected because of their appearance instead of being loved and accepted for their character? What becomes of the unloved individual?