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  KALTIO 1/2000: Juha K. Tapio - Frankenstein and his Monster

In English
The Destroyer of Economy, Science and Technology

Frankenstein –    
the Destroyer      
of Economy,        
Science and        



Kaltio 1/00

Finnish text: Juha K. Tapio
English translation: Anniina Vuori
Image: The Finnish Movie Archive


Location: the city of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. Time: sometime in the 18th century. In his laboratory a young scientist prepares to finish his great work. A success will secure him a place in the history of science. The work is – no more, no less – creating an artificial human being, breathing new life into dead material. The realisation of medieval alchemists' and 17th and 18th century natural philosophers' dream.

His hand shaking with excitement, Victor Frankenstein conducts the electric force through the large, lifeless human body lying on the table. The body jerks with the force. With the experiment over, the creature lies silently, unmoving. The scientist wipes sweat off his forehead. Has he failed? He goes to the creature and presses his ear against its chest. Yes, somewhere within the huge chest a heart is beating like a drum, echoing from the depths.

Unfortunately, the drum turned out to be that of a shaman, the ominous beat of which cast Frankenstein under its spell for the rest of his life. Which did not, however, last long after the creation of the monster.

This is not exactly how the English Mary Shelley described bringing the artificial creature into life in her 1818 "gothic horror novel" Frankenstein - The Modern Prometheus. Nevertheless, Victor Frankenstein manages to solve the secret of life and bring life into a creature he has put together from lifeless body parts. But, seeing the creature open its eyes, the scientist is horrified by its rough appearance, realises the creature is a monster, and escapes. Later on, when the creature complains about its loneliness, he refuses to build a life companion for it. He does not want to be responsible for the birth of a new, monstrous species.

Thus the scientist knows his responsibility in the eyes of future generations, but he refuses to take complete responsibility of the monster he has created. So the nameless creature becomes Nemesis, the avenger of gods who spreads destruction and finally manages to cause indirectly the death of its creator – an immature and imperfect godly being. The creature abandoned by its creator becomes Victor Frankenstein's own Shadow, the most cruel reverse side of his aspirations which, by intention, are basically good. (For in the Prometheus myth – which the novel refers to in its title – the titan Prometheus steals fire from gods for people to use. Zeus punishes him by tying him into a rock, where every morning a vulture arrives to peck on the hero's liver which grows back each night. Victor Frankenstein thus compares with Prometheus, who can be considered to be a benefactor of humankind in his role as the stealer of fire.)

The basic myth

Everyone has heard about Frankenstein's monster; not nearly as many have read Mary Shelley's novel. The book is definitely worth reading, for it is a living and appealing classic whose themes make it seem like it has been written for our time.

Mary Shelley was only eighteen years old when she got the idea for Frankenstein. Mary and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were just married and spending time by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Also the poet George Gordon Lord Byron – and his personal physician lived in the same mansion. One night Byron suggested that the four of them write a horror story which were very fashionable at the time. Of the stories created, only Mary's story caught wind and remains. The events of that summer, 1816, are well-documented in literary history, and a couple of movies have been made of the subject.

The story of a scientific-technological invention that turns against its inventor has since taken root as one of our time's popular myths. It still functions well as a symbol of the ability of science to create potential monstrosities. Our time knows many "Frankenstein's monsters": nuclear weapons, disturbances in embryonic development caused by chemicals like thalidomide, bacteriological warfare, spoiling of the environment, the greenhouse effect. Also the society can be given monstrous characteristics, of which the anti-utopias of the 20th century, the totalitarian states, are a good example. With endless variations, the Frankenstein story has become one of the arch myths of modern science fiction literature. Like Jung's collective unconscious or Freud's Oedipus complex, it can be regarded as one of the great stories penetrating the Modern consciousness. Many film and graphic novel versions have also been based on the subject; however, these rarely have much to do with the spirit of Shelley's original novel. 

Frankenstein's Tomatoes

Mary Shelley's novel feels especially topical when it focuses on the ethics of a scientist. This is why it has been considered the first true science fiction novel. For the problems with the ethics of science are those of our time; readers are probably familiar with recent conversations on genetic manipulation and the threats it poses. However, genetically modified tomatoes seem, at first glance, quite remote from Frankenstein's monster. Researchers (like Leena Palotie in Finland) assure us that there is no reason for the fear of monstrosities like creating a new super-race by improving human DNA with genetic manipulation. In most countries, it is illegal to manipulate gametes, to interfere with the so-called germ tract. But will this be the case in the future? And is the fear, after all, completely unfounded? A case where genetically modified food had caused serious changes in test animals was reported in England some time ago.

With this, I do not want to raise questions about the honesty of individual researchers or foment fear against science and its practice. But scientific-technological thinking has for long been characterised by a technological imperative: if an imaginable invention can be carried out, someone will do so before long. And even if the legislation of European states deemed cloning, for example, illegal, things could be opposite in developing countries. As the practices develop and become simpler, cloning and genetic manipulation will before long, with reasonable certainty, be at the reach of private experimenters and enthusiasts.

The discourse of artificiality

Frankenstein is modern also in another sense. With her narration, Mary Shelley consciously seems to dodge only one correct interpretation of the events. The events are described from several characters' points of view, and in the centre of the novel is the story told by the monster itself. In the epistolary novel the story is not presented as "the truth" like in realistic literature, but as a series of stories that people who have heard them pass on in letters (I seized this characteristic of Shelley's novel in my own novel Frankensteinin muistikirja, Frankenstein's Notebook, which continues the monster's story into 19th and 20th centuries). All this creates a sort of polemic style which does not even attempt to find only one truth but attempts to philosophically question the ultimate state of things.

Modern science fiction reflects the scientific-technological imperative in its own way, for its inventions and innovations do not seem to have an end as long as they are shown to belong rationally into the so-called scientific world image.

A sort of artificial discourse is characteristic of science fiction. This is why I might be, here, tempted to discuss artification (from the words artifice and artificial). One of the origins of artification can be seen in Frankenstein, but, strictly speaking, its roots are further in the past and lie deep in humankind's common mythical consciousness. The classical story of Pygmalion, the traditional Jewish legend of the Golem and the story of the Smith Ilmarinen forging a maiden out of brass are all examples of human's (inevitably defective) attempts to imitate the works of God. The robots and androids of today's sci-fi are often more human than the people in the same book. The basic trend seems to be that one cannot draw a clear line between "artificial" and "real" in today's world. For instance, in the Philip K. Dick novel We Can Build You an Abraham Lincoln robot is built, which, in addition to the looks, memory and small behavioural traits of the original, exhibits Lincoln's tendency for melancholy. In her novel, Mary Shelley does not dwell upon the question of whether the monster should never have been built; instead, she concentrates on the question of the creator's responsibility for his creation.

As Paavo Lehtonen states in his afterword to Frankenstein, today the heirs of the novel are dangerously intelligent and self-aware computers, robots and androids, rebelling against their human creators who have subjected them to their will for their own selfish benefit. The machines demand their rights – often with catastrophic consequences.

A classic of our time

When science fiction is about creating artificial life, it nowadays mainly refers to living organisms like the one mentioned above which have been constructed from scratch. The thought of assembling dead body parts together and breathing life into thus created thing seems now to us merely grotesque –precisely what gothic ghost romanticism must have felt like to Shelley's contemporary readers. But despite Frankenstein's "gothic" horror elements, it is precisely how Shelley, for the first time, brings ethics of science into discussion, which makes the novel a classic. It feels especially suitable for our postmodern times (or should we already talk about trans-, mutated or recycled modernism?) that do not believe in the almighty position of science or in the myth of progress – at least as naively as the past "modern" time.

We, the people of the new millennium, very much live in the world of science and technology (although nowadays you can talk about economy as the third great factor); these are the Grand Narratives used to control today's world. The 20th century, with its nuclear bombs and concentration camps, was to great extent the century of Faust; time will tell if the 21st century will be that of Frankenstein. Or perhaps, after all, that of the mythical titan Prometheus – without that infamous vulture?

Juha K. Tapio