Still alive: In Shelley's `Frankenstein,' it's not the monster that scares us

October 31, 2006|By Diane Cameron

One of the scariest moments in the horror movie genre is when the baby-sitter gets the telephone call telling her, "He's in the house with you!" The "he," of course, is the bad guy/murderer/monster.

The week leading up to today's celebration of Halloween has given us lots of spine chillers to entertain us. One of the classic scary bad-guy stories is Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. A best-seller in 1816 and rarely out of print since, Frankenstein is probably the most beautifully written of all scary books.

The messages of Shelley's monster classic are very much a part of our lives now. The questions that she raised so eloquently - What is life? What does it mean to be human? Where will science lead us? - are as perplexing now as they were at the dawn of the scientific era. The issue of scientific intrusion into life is at the heart of today's science news. We proclaim new ways to overcome disability, disease and death, but at what cost and to what limit? It might help us to look at Frankenstein in today's light, and take up the questions that 18-year-old Shelley was asking.

When we hear the name "Frankenstein," a common first response is the image of the lumbering, rivet-headed monster immortalized by Boris Karloff. We picture the creature assembled in the laboratory from body parts, a being so ugly that humans fainted at the sight of him. This common misidentification of Frankenstein tells us how easily we tend to blame the victim and how often we overlook the actual bad guy. In Mary Shelley's story, the large, disfigured man is named simply "the Creature." Frankenstein is not this sad man, a twisted product of medicine and technology, but rather the scientist: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

Shelley shows us in this story that the tragedy of Frankenstein and what led to tragic consequences was work done in isolated obsession. Her brilliant young scientist had no association with his peers, no life outside his laboratory, nothing to balance his work.

Does this seem too much an indictment of our times? Frankenstein confesses his dilemma: "In the year I created the Creature I had no intimacy, had not read a book, had a meal with friends, heard a concert or been to church." Maybe that seems a heavy-handed admonition against workaholism, but how much does market competition, confidentiality and speed drive this same isolation in science?

The second lesson in the Frankenstein story is that scientific experimentation is not wrong; the trouble lies in its separation from social discourse. The issue is not to prevent creation but to take responsibility for the results. That is, to take responsibility collectively and individually for the social and human cost of new technology. Shelley's point is subtle but important: Frankenstein is a tragic figure not for experimenting but for neglecting to take responsibility for his work.

The development of new technologies, particularly the integration of human and machine, is accelerating. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is a graduate program focusing on creation of "humachines." At the University of Toronto, a laboratory is dedicated to cyborg symbiosis. The Pentagon is working on human enhancements to allow soldiers to go without sleep and to heal their own wounds.

Should we be asking what these scientists are up to? Should we be asking ourselves what we want of them?

This isn't easy to dismiss with a simple, "Stop tinkering." Every day, we read about lifesaving breakthroughs in technology and medicine. Is there a line we would even think about drawing?

Frankenstein is the perfect myth for our time, raising the question of scientific inquiry outside of dialogue about the consequences. It's so easy to point a finger at science, but we find ourselves now, as consumers and patients, demanding better health care and cures for diseases that killed our ancestors.

We don't want scientific progress to stop. But we, too - not just the scientists - must ask these old questions: What is the value of human life? What's the cost and consequence of saving one? Of making one? And who's the monster now?

Mary Shelley gives us a clue: He's in the house with us.

Diane Cameron lives in Valatie, N.Y. Her e-mail is oklota@localnet.com.

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