Victor Frankenstein’s Bad Habits

  • Themes: Culture, Technology

Mary Shelley's legendary creation Victor Frankenstein symbolises modernity’s overweening ambition and potential for self-destruction.

Victor Frankenstein confronting the monster he has created.
Victor Frankenstein confronting the monster he has created. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Science fiction’s most famous character first appeared in print just over 200 years ago. Since then, Victor Frankenstein has become so familiar that — like Sherlock Holmes — he almost seems  a real person. His teenage creator, Mary Shelley, explicitly based her anti-hero on the Greek god Prometheus, a reckless opportunist who angered his divine superiors by stealing fire and giving life to inert clay. Enraged by his transgression, Zeus exacted revenge by providing a female partner, the beautiful maiden Pandora  — but when she lifted the lid of her jar, a host of evils spread out across the earth. Only Hope remained inside.

Aspiring to discover the secret of life, Frankenstein fashioned an artificial creature who was born innocent, but learnt from his human mentors how to behave like a monster. The power of Shelley’s book lies in its ambiguities, in her refusal to spell out exactly what happened. Perpetually hovering on the edge of feasibility, her original story has lent itself to multiple reinterpretations.

Many critics  were appalled by Frankenstein’s unethical behaviour, but a perceptive reviewer in the Edinburgh Magazine (1818) penetrated its moral maze to reveal Frankenstein’s solid scientific foundations. Shelley’s extraordinary fantasy has, he remarked, ‘an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite passions and projects of the time’. He was referring to contemporary endeavours, such as using electricity to isolate new elements, or embarking on hazardous Arctic voyages to discover a sea passage across the American continent. But as further ‘passions and projects’ arose, Frankenstein was repeatedly recruited to denounce controversial inventions ranging from atomic energy to genetically modified foods. And now he is being reformulated yet again as the evil genius behind the Anthropocene Age.

Ambitious scientists seem guilty of emulating Frankenstein’s hubris. Implementing their innovations under the banner of progress, technophiles have successfully achieved immediate gains, but at the expense of exacerbating long-term problems. The exploitation of fossil fuels boosted industrial productivity and facilitated high-speed travel — but also contributed to global warming. Genetic engineering has the potential to eliminate some terrible diseases, but alarm bells are ringing about its eugenic implications and irreversible effects. One rather shady biotech company in New York, Darwin Life, chose to advertise its services with the slogan ‘Changing Science Fiction into Science Fact’. Perhaps that should be regarded as a threat rather than a promise.

One particularly alarming example is artificial intelligence (AI), the unseen Fat Controller that coordinates modern life but might one day make a bid for domination by eliminating its human progenitors. Like an invisible, proliferating organism, AI techniques have gradually infiltrated themselves into every aspect of human existence. Often unnoticed and uncelebrated, they have brought massive improvements. They routinely monitor medical data; analyse agricultural conditions; detect aberrant behaviour patterns; and resolve tricky financial questions. More ominously, they have become so fine-tuned to our individual quirks that they routinely personalise our web access, regulate our domestic equipment, superintend our children’s education and even write their essays for them. AI devices are programmed to be supersmart: what will happen when they outsmart their inventors and set out their own lists of aims and objectives?

The Anthropocene has not yet been officially adopted as the name of our current geological epoch, but it neatly sums up the deleterious impact of prioritising human interests without paying sufficient attention to other living creatures and our shared environment. Fifty years ago, the artist Saul Steinberg evoked this monolithic, self-centred outlook in his ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’, a cover illustration that demotes the vast Pacific Ocean into a distant narrow strip dwarfed by Manhattan tower blocks. The British philosopher Frank Ramsey had already expressed the same concept in words: ‘My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as threepenny bits.’

Shelley’s Frankenstein offers a very different vantage point for thinking about the world and its inhabitants. She divided her book into five sections, each told by one of three different narrators, but reserving its crucial core for voicing the creature’s non-anthropocentric point of view. Born with infantile ignorance, he gradually explores his surroundings, first revelling in the beauties of nature — birdsong, sunlight — and then rejoicing when he encounters the warmth of a fire and the comforts of a cottage. In the next phase of his existence, the unnamed creature gratefully seizes the opportunity to acquire language by eavesdropping on the lessons of an elderly man who is blind, and hence undeterred by his intelligent pupil’s malformed appearance. Under his guidance, the creature enthusiastically undergoes the equivalent of an Enlightenment crash course in western civilisation; to express his gratitude, he secretly uses his superior strength to assist his human hosts.

But what starts as a mutually beneficial situation turns sour. Reviled by most people he encounters, the creature decides that in the interests of self-preservation, he must formulate his own objectives and behave more selfishly. Frankenstein had created an innocent being devoid of evil, but this progeny realises that he must resort to violence and murder if he wants to ensure his own survival. First he kills Frankenstein’s little brother, and then he strangles his creator’s bride on their wedding night.

A firm believer in John Locke’s ideas about education, Shelley explained that Frankenstein had endowed his creature with a mind like a blank slate, a pristine wax block that would be moulded by experience. It was only later, on the basis of what he observed and felt, that the creature began to think and act independently. Similarly, computers operate according to what they have been programmed to do. But the latest AI devices are different – they are deliberately designed to learn so that they can develop their own strategies for improvement. As for their future, might that one day include exterminating their human creators?  After all, children are taught to surpass their competitors and see further by climbing onto the shoulders of giants.

Shelley reworked the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus to create an iconic figure for her own turbulent times. Two centuries later, her now-legendary Victor Frankenstein symbolises modernity’s overweening ambition and potential for self-destruction.


Patricia Fara