The suggestion that Mary Shelley sought primarily to warn of the perils of scientific meddling is insulting to a complex and ambiguous textby Philip Ball / January 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published 200 years ago, has become the exemplar of art-science crossover work. In light of the anniversary, the pages of literary supplements are full of praise for, and marvel at, the enduring power of this book written by a woman still in her teens, an accomplishment done ample justice by Fiona Sampson’s new biography In Search of Mary Shelley.
But the science press is having a field day too. Science magazine has published a special issue exploring the book’s legacy for science and society; the MIT Press last year published a new edition of the novel “annotated for scientists and engineers,” including another collection of essays on what Frankenstein means for scientific ethics and responsibilities today. And science writer Kathryn Harkup’s new book Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary’s Shelley’s Frankenstein does an excellent job of reviewing the scientific advances and debates of the early nineteenth century that informed the precocious author’s extraordinary creation.
You can see why the scientists are all over it. This story of a young man who makes a living being from dead body parts scavenged from “vaults and charnel houses,” only to bring calamity on his family, friends and lover when the creature runs amok, is commonly seen today as a warning about what happens when hubristic scientists fail to think through or take responsibility for what they invent and create.