Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: Mary Shelley): conservative message about scientific responsibility delivered

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: Mary Shelley)” (2011)

This episode revolves around Mary Godwin-Shelley’s famous novel “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus” and the circumstances in which it was inspired and written, and the scientific ideas and innovations the novel generated. Mary Shelley was the product of the English Enlightenment: her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was a famous feminist who died partly as a result of giving birth to her and her father William Godwin was a philosopher who educated his daughter; as indicated by the documentary, much of Mary Shelley’s early childhood focussed on finding out as much about her dead mother as the girl possibly could, reading all the mother’s writings and visiting her grave often. As a teenager, Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley and in the summer of 1816, affected by the atmospheric fallout of Mount Tambora’s eruption in Indonesia the year before, the two wound up at a place near Geneva in Switzerland with various friends who included the English poet Lord Byron. Byron set all the friends a fun task to see who could write the best horror story and after thinking about a possible plotline for some weeks, the idea came to Mary during a dream in which a scientist creates a new life from dead flesh and becomes terrified and disgusted by what he has done. “Frankenstein …” was born.

Using a mix, often fast-moving and bewildering at times, of animation, CGI animation, dramatised re-enactments, excerpts from the 1994 film “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” made by Kenneth Branagh and snippets of interviews with fiction writers, scientists, computer experts and others, the film makes a plausible case that the novel has inspired and even foretold many scientific, medical and engineering concepts and innovations. The use of electrical impulses to stimulate dead or damaged tissue or parts of the spinal cord cut off from the brain through accident is portrayed in an impressive way with the example of paraplegic Rob Summers undergoing tests conducted by Professor V Reggie Edgerton of the University of California (LA); other innovations investigated include human genome research and engineering, artificial intelligence and transplants of organs and limbs.

Interestingly the film addresses the issue of scientific ethics and responsibility with regard to how the results of research and experimentation should be used, and how scientific research itself should be conducted. The interviewees themselves suggest that scientific inquiry should never be hobbled although it’s possible their words were edited in such a way that they come across as self-interested and a little arrogant about the role of science in society that they never intended. There’s nothing about how science and scientists can be compromised and forced by their employers, whether public or private, to fudge results or lie about them, or to run experiments and conduct research based on dubious assumptions and questionable ethics as in the case of German and Japanese scientists who ran hideously sadistic medical experiments on prisoners of war and civilians during the Second World War.

The film does rush through Mary Shelley’s biography and the various ideas, concepts and issues raised by her novel, trying to cram as much information as it can into 40 minutes of TV viewing time. A message about being responsible for and owning the work you do and its results, and for science to serve the needs of humanity and benefit it, comes through quite clearly but it’s a limited, conservative one that says very little about the very real problems scientists often face today in thinking and behaving ethically in a world that’s becoming increasingly hostile towards scientific inquiry and the original Enlightenment quest for truth, objectivity, accountability and accuracy.

A brief tour of the novel’s influence on literature and popular culture comes at the very end of the documentary almost as an after-thought. Perhaps this part of the documentary should have been reserved for a separate episode on the influence of novels such as this, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” on pop culture products such as Hollywood movies, pop music, youth subcultures and computer games.


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