FRANKENSTEIN'S FOOTSTEPS: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture.

FRANKENSTEIN'S FOOTSTEPS: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture.

Edward Tenner

By Jon Turney. Yale Univ. Press. 276 pp. $30

Read Time:
2m 54sec

FRANKENSTEIN’S FOOTSTEPS: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. By Jon Turney. Yale Univ. Press. 276 pp. $30

When 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote a horror story for her companions one rainy summer day alongside Lake Geneva, none of them could have imagined what lay in store for her tale. Western thought had long known Prometheus, Faust, the Golem. Shelley’s story, and her expansion of it into a three-volume novel in 1818, warned of poisonous fruits in the garden of new scientific knowledge.

Just as the book Frankenstein marked a transition from gothic to science fiction genres, so its protagonist was an intermediate figure, an occultist turned science student putting new concepts in the service of ancient fantasies. As a dropout from the University of Ingolstadt, Victor Frankenstein was not a scientist in the later 19th-century sense but a wealthy gentlemanamateur who apparently had no intention of joint-stock monsterfarming. The historian of science James Secord has noted the period’s flourishing country-house hobby of attempting to create living things with electricity. Only a decade after the novel appeared, Justus Liebig’s laboratory at the University of Giessen began to show the industrial and agricultural potential of professionalized, organized science.

Shelley’s creation might have receded to a paragraph or two in Romantic literature survey texts, like other paleo-thrillers. The daunting original strikes many 20th-century readers as a stretched-out short story adorned with implausibly eloquent declamations by the monster. Yet the same fictional monster, minus soliloquies, has astonished the world. To adapt biologist Richard Dawkins’s much later concept, it has become a "memester," one of those cultural constructs spread so widely by word and picture that it has taken on a life of its own. While the story soon became a favorite of the London stage, it was, appropriately, new technology that gave the monster new life: James Whale’s 1931 film (based on a modern London theatrical revival), in which Boris Karloff created one of the century’s most persistent visual icons. The film also showed the money in monsters, earning the studio $12 million on an investment of $250,000.

Turney, who teaches in the University of London science studies program, fears that the pervasive image of the demented scientist or promoter who produces grotesque results (H.G. Wells and his Dr. Moreau, Michael Crichton and his sinister entrepreneur John Hammond) is far from benign alarmism. Turney traces the Frankenstein metaphor through generations of scientific research and imaginative literature on the future of genetics, including Karel Capek’s R.U.R. 1921 drama (which introduced the word robot into non-Slavic dictionaries), and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

Turney argues convincingly that the monster metaphor impedes clear thinking and debate on issues of biotechnology. And he cites a study by Michael Mulkay suggesting that science’s critics may no longer be the chief culprits. In the finest traditions of unintended consequences, scientists themselves now invoke the monster metaphor to chill discussion of risks by imputing vulgar fears to opponents and critics. The flesh-and-blood Creature is turning into a straw man.

Monsters are notoriously resilient, as viewers of horror film sequels will attest. Putting Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells out of mind is like the famous psychological experiment of not thinking about a white bear for 10 minutes. Only other vivid images can displace the unwanted one. Until they do, Turney’s impressively researched, well-argued book will be essential reading.

—Edward Tenner