By some accounts, science fiction was born 200 years ago this year with the publication of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s romantic, florid novel of a grasping young scientist in over his head and his surprisingly chatty creation. The story has (a dead man’s) legs, and with good reason. To celebrate, Arizona State University created the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, which includes the publication of a new critical edition of the novel with a specific, modern focus: Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.
The problem with Victor Frankenstein as a scientist and human being was never that he did it—that is, defied god and nature by creating life—or even how (galvanism was such “A Thing” back then), but that he denied any responsibility for what he had done. His lesson is that the great pitfall of creation is moral cowardice. And like the productivity, invention, and technology that fueled the upheaval of Shelley’s time, our creations are both existential threats and our last hopes for salvation from the world we together have corrupted.
One reason—beyond Boris Karloff in a blazer—that Frankenstein has stayed so popular is that it never fails to seem relevant. Take the parallels between the Industrial Revolution that helped inspire Shelley and the Information Age. One was belching and sooty, the other immaterial and omnipresent, but both set the world on edge with anxiety and hope. Our new generation of human-made monsters—synthetic biology, rogue AI, defiantly opaque social networks, a climate that seems to have a will of its own—are the monsters we deserve.
The new edition of the novel, through all-new essays and footnotes, wrests the text from English majors and hands it to STEMers, but also brings the concerns of literature—moral weight, literary device, creativity—to readers at risk of underestimating their importance. There are pieces of necessary context, about the state of science at the time, the history of mummies, the nature of sympathy, the structure and purpose of epistolary writing. But most prominently the essays and annotations offer lessons for scientists—on hubris, intellectual property, mentorship, isolation, and the temptations of pursuing technical elegance above all else. It’s an interesting way to revisit a story we will keep telling over and over again—in part because it tells us why we do.
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