Science Friction

David Leighton investigates the electrifying origin of Frankenstein’s Monster, appraising the science fiction genre and looking at what drives such imaginative narratives of science

David Leighton
26th October 2015

Technology has always fascinated the arts, permeating the imaginaries of artists throughout the centuries and culminating in the creation of an entire genre of work which seeks to examine what technology has already achieved, speculate upon what it could possibly achieve in the future, and largely express anxieties surrounding the possible ramifications of humankind’s steps into the unknown. Science fiction: a fundamental component of late 19th century literature, which has in the post-millennial moment transmogrified into a capitalist wet dream, an industry of dreams, fears and aspirations.

Sci-Fi’s matriarch, Mary Shelley, and her ‘hideous progeny’, Frankenstein, of course provide a stellar example of the genre; a cautionary tale written partly at a holiday retreat using the relatively innovative science of electricity to construct a story of monstrous proportions (geddit?). However, had Shelley’s magnum opus been written in the 60s, 70s or even 80s it is more than likely to have been concerned with a nuclear creature, rather than an electric one? Comic books follow suit: heroes introduced in the nuclear age often had powers of radiation, and indeed Spiderman’s powers have been given to him by many different breeds of genetically modified or radioactive arachnids. Further still the TMNT bunch have gone from being doused in suspicious purple ooze to be engineered by biochemists in order to become walking, talking, quipping bio-ninjas.

"These stories, however radically new they may tend to feel (I’m looking at you Ex Machina) are always underpinned by a nagging sense of worry, of imminent collapse or global catastrophe."

It’s a staple of any good book based on science, that the imaginative aspect always gravitates towards newer, less understood technologies, giving the author greater artistic license to envision what could happen. Of course there is always tension between the innovative and the ancient; Frankenstein for instance is hailed ‘The New Prometheus’. So named after the Titan who gave fire to us lowly humans, both unfortunate protagonists granted the world ‘technological advancement’. Sadly, both were rather harshly punished and if you listen really closely you can hear the shrieks of the fictitious proto-communist having his liver pecked out by crows every single day (apparently).

Which brings us to our next SciFi tenet: a cautionary element to the tale. These stories, however radically new they may tend to feel (I’m looking at you Ex Machina) they are always underpinned by a nagging sense of worry, of imminent collapse or global catastrophe. From Shelley’s original masterpiece to diluted reincarnations of overdone superheroes, technological advancement in the arts does usually come with a warning – a what if?

With that in mind, can we now begin to conceive of a productive relationship between the arts and science, or the consideration that it takes a creative mind to drive technological innovation? If this perhaps takes it too far, what it definitely does allow for is hypothetical questioning of what should, would and could happen if, and what is increasingly likely, when the technologies in question come to fruition. Science fiction then becomes a sort of collective cultural contemplation which allows us to question: do we really want people powered by negative energy, time paradoxes, or – best of all – superpowers?

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