In 1818, a young woman called Mary Shelley published the first work of science fiction: Frankenstein. I suspect every scientist and engineer (including me) needs to read it.
Tl;dr? Just read this, you’ll get the gist.
A Reanimated Discussion
Frankenstein is a story about the danger of creating something without grokking the consequences. The main character, Dr Victor Frankenstein, works to discover the secret of restoring life to dead flesh and finally does so, only to abandon the man he’s brought to life because he’s no looker. What a dick. Who’d do that?
The book describes the chase across Europe of the doctor by the reanimated corpse. On the one hand, he’s a murderous stalker; on the other, a surprisingly sympathetic character who knows he should be able to do better than Dr F, but has already had some problems in that department (let’s just say, literal tinder was involved).
The monster’s hunt is partly in revenge for being ghosted by F, but primarily to force Frankenstein to face up to his actions.
Shelley’s book reflects on the ethics and responsibilities of creating something — or someone — and her work is a great example of using a novel to explore a complex idea. As a science fiction writer with an interest in tech ethics, I drew on Frankenstein for my new book Denizen 43 and used the somewhat idiotic doctor as the basis of one of my side characters.
Unburying the Truth (Spoilers Coming!)
At the beginning, our protagonist is obsessed with scientific discovery but fails to fully consider the implications of reanimating a huge corpse. Who can blame him? It’s an easy mistake to make. When he finally wakes up and smells the rotting flesh, Dr F runs away.
From then on, the themes of the book are the moral dangers of blind pursuit of a goal, and the long-term maintenance issues associated with creating a giant, pissed-off zombie, which might be indestructible.
In the second part of the book, the young Doctor tries to ignore the whole thing and doesn’t tell his pals about said zombie, which is clearly now gunning for them.
As the bodies pile up, our hero gets an opportunity to atone. Hurray! The monster offers him the chance to become its companion, ending its rampage. Dr F rejects the deal, which seemed fairly reasonable to me. Boo! He really is an idiot.
Once everyone’s dead, Frankenstein decides it’s time to act!
So what is Shelley saying?
Mary Shelley was clearly asking scientists two questions: what technology should you bring into the world, and what are your responsibilities for it afterwards?
She was demanding we put a little thought into what we’re creating in advance. If we miss an implication, she’s suggesting we tell folk rather than hush it up, and take responsibility rather than run away. All remarkably good advice.
Better Safe than Sorry?
Admittedly, if it wasn’t for the idea of scientists inventing crazy things without thinking them through, we’d have no SciFi thrillers and I’d be out of a job. So it’s not all bad. However, I’d prefer my Gothic horror to remain fictional.
If we don’t want it to stray into reality, perhaps in the tech industry we should take another look at Mary Shelley’s advice on science and creation and think implications through in advance, take personal responsibility for what we make, and speak up when something goes wrong. If we don’t, like Dr Frankenstein we might come to regret it.
NOTE: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein twice: once in 1818, when it didn’t become famous, and again in 1835 when it became one of the best selling books of all time. What was the difference?
The 1835 edition had less about Dr F’s character in it — in the first version he constantly makes poor decisions, in the second he is just a victim of fate. If that was why it was more successful second time round then that’s kind of annoying. The good news is, I suspect it was more successful in 1835 because Mary was more famous by then as the widow of Percy Shelley. I’ll admit, that’s just differently depressing, but it’s fairly believable ;-)
About the Author
As well as being an engineer for 25 years, Anne Currie is the author of a series of post-apocalyptic scifi novels about AI, surveillance, climate change and new forms of society.
“Utopia 5 asks the big questions about privacy, surveillance and free will in a networked society. All wrapped up in a page-turning thriller”