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How Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' questioned ethics and morality in the science-fiction genre

In 1818, a 19-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein while engaging in a friendly gothic horror writing contest with her peers. Her story, later published as a novel, subsequently became the cornerstone to the science fiction genre, dubbing Shelley as the creator of the same. Although the term was popularised much later in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback. Curious and bright, Shelley was always intrigued by the intricacies of science and was way ahead of her time while writing the novel. While Frankenstein has been reworked and republished several times, it remains a synthesis of a tragic romance, a gothic horror story, a cautionary parable and a deep exploration of the nuances of science, setting the premise for modern-day scientific developments. 

While some have read the story as a deviant one that usurps the womb, others have interpreted it in several ways, including in terms of class relations, the feminist critique of the inherent “maleness”, exploration of the human psyche and a homoerotic account among others. Shelley’s story sees the quintessential “mad scientist” who rejects the hindrances caused by nature and uses his knowledge of natural philosophy to create a monster by resurrecting the dead. He abhors his creation and rejects it, causing the scary and terrifying monster to resent its creator, leading to the classic face-off between a creator and his creation. As the monster becomes aware of how he is the Other and subsequently becomes erudite and philosophical (having read John Milton’s Paradise Lost), he exists as the vengeful creation who is gripped with rage after being rejected by the creator. 

While the first-ever film adaptation was created in 1910 by Thomas Alva Edison’s studio, Frankenstein’s monster was immortalised by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 eponymous not-so-faithful adaptation of the novel. Shelley wanted to write a story that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror”. While it essentially bode a warning against men who try to assume the position of God, Shelley was seen transcending the common tropes of incest, violence and occult horror as seen in gothic works. She even published her novel later as Frankenstein or Modern Prometheus to emphasise the idea of  ‘playing God’ besides driving in the tropes of abandonment by the creator and societal rejection.

Shelley did not want to write a futuristic work. Instead, she employed the prevalent scientific discoveries that fascinated her. At that time, after the works of Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta, Giovani Aldini wanted to experiment with the resurrection of the dead by using electricity to satiate his scientific enquiry. His most notorious demonstration included one where he used electricity to jolt a murderer, George Foster’s body, making many believe that Foster had come back to life. As a transgression to the laws of nature, Shelley was intrigued by the idea and employed the same in her novel where the scientist, Victor Frankenstein says, “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet”. 

Although Victor’s intentions of usurping God mirrors that of a diabolical gothic villain, he no longer believes in alchemy (to him, it is now an innocent delusion) or the uncanny for his creation but looks to modern science to help him in his experimentation. Shelley’s character breaks down the walls that gatekeep supernatural forces. Instead, she uses the tropes already in existence to create something even more sinister and horrifying that constantly questions the morality and ethics embedded within the knowledge of science. It is via the evolution of Victor’s psyche that science and Enlightenment come into being, within the novel. The anxieties adorning scientific curiosities have, since then, been an integral part of the sci-fi genre. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi films and shows have, since time immemorial, borne the idea of a monstrous creation that ultimately begins to rebel against the creator. Frankenstein’s monster has also sparked the creation of both superheroes and supervillains, both that pose a threat to the complete eradication of humanity and ones that are perceived as the Other in society.

Mary Shelley’s commentary on the consequences of the male hubris where Victor’s creation and subsequent abandonment of the monster lead to disastrous outcomes, therefore, lay the foundation of the morality and ethics omnipresent in the sci-fi genre that often makes one question the threshold of modern science.

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