Book Review

The Monster and the Thinking Machine

March 28, 2018

Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace "Frankenstein," by Mary Shelley

‏WTF is up with this? Mary Shelley, 18, invented the Science Fiction genre in a single night, writing what would be the origins of "Frankenstein" in an evening parlor game led by Lord Byron; About 27 years later, a daughter of Byron's, Ada Lovelace, published the world's first computer program.

Both acts, which arguably modern civilization rests upon as much as anything, were, in a manner of speaking, influenced by Byron. A fearsome and fearful influence, he turned out to be.

At least in part, Lord Byron served as an inspiration for Dr. Frankenstein, through his ability to conjure and potentially reject the life he created, something Mary Shelley witnessed in her step-sister's anxious adulation of the poet.

Byron also instilled anxiety into Ada Lovelace's mother, who "fearing that the girl might grow up to become a poet, as mad and bad as her father [Lord Byron], raised her, instead, to be a mathematician," according to The New Yorker.

I Am Made of You

"As candlelight flickered within the house and lightning flashed across the surface of the lake outside," Lord Byron urged "that those present should turn their hands to the writing of ghost stories," wrote Greg Buzwell, for the British Library.

This might be a good place to point out that as a gentle reminder that the monster in Shelley's story was not called Frankenstein; the name of the book comes from the doctor who created the creature, Dr. Frankenstein. The monster itself did not have a name. "This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good," Shelley remarked about the creature's subsequent theatrical billing as a nameless entity.

Over the past two centures, the nameless creature has served as a tabula rasa upon which the fears of the day could be projected. It has come to be a symbol of Silicon Valley technology run amuck, an interpretation derived largely from the dramatically-heightened movie and stage versions rather than from the book itself, the New Yorker pointed out.

This view, it should be noted, strips out all the female aspects of the novel, particularly around sex and birth, the New Yorker notes, adding that, in the 1970s, feminist literary critics referred to "Frankenstein" as the "female gothic" that led to the birth of science fiction.

Muriel Spark "working closely with Shelley's diaries and paying careful attention to the author's eight years of near-constant pregnancy and loss, argued that 'Frankenstein' was no minor piece of genre fiction but a literary work of striking originality," according the NYer.

Shelley, in wondering how such a creature would live, in effect invented science fiction, which makes it its business to examine tough philosophical questions through the invention (or prediction) of new technology. Shelley's question here was, if it would be possible to create life, as God did, how would it effect the creator, and society? The SciFi author lets these events play out in a constructed universe. And Shelley found that, as Dr. Frankenstein had the hubris to create life, the life he created took the lives of all who loved him and, ultimately, the life of Dr. Frankenstein himself.

QUOTES from Frankenstein:

"My Lieutenant, for instance, is a man of wonderful courage and enterprise. He is madly desirous of glory, or rather, to word my phrase more characteristically, of advancement in his profession."

"There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand."

"My men are bold and apparently firm of purpose. Nor do the floating sheets of ice that continually pass us, indicating the dangers of the region towards which we are advancing, appear to dismay them."