, , , , , , , , , , ,

Another of my Cognitive Mapping series. This one first appeared in Vector 198, March-April 1998.

I entered the cabin, where lay the remains of my ill-fated and admirable friend. Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe; gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions. As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended, in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy. When he heard the sound of my approach, he ceased to utter exclamations of grief and horror, and sprung towards the window. Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome, yet appalling hideousness.
Frankenstein (1818)
Mary Shelley

‘The point I was leading up to,’ he said, addressing his plate, ‘is that if you fiddle with the design in one area, there may be other changes along the chains of integration. Do fabricants feel the same emotions in the same way that humans do? I don’t know. Their brains are different; it’s possible that the way they interpret emotions is different as well. One side affect of my language capability is that I don’t have a dominant hemisphere. I’m truly ambidextrous. That in itself has no particular significance, but I believe the designers themselves don’t know to the last detail what effects other alterations might ultimately have.’
That chilled me. ‘Frankenstein and his monster, hmm?’ He stopped eating. ‘I don’t think it’s quite that drastic,’ he said quietly and looked me straight in the eye. ‘Do I seem like a monster to you?’
Looking for the Mahdi (1996)
N. Lee Wood

Mary Shelley did not invent the notion of man creating other men; there was Talos, the man of bronze made by Hephaestus in Greek mythology, and the golem raised from clay by Jewish mystics. What was new about Frankenstein was two-fold: in the first place she made the story Gothic, in the second she made it science fiction.

What made Frankenstein Gothic was that it concentrated not upon the creation of a mechanical or chthonic slave, but on the cost of playing God. Ancient legend and contemporary scientific ideas (notably galvanism) are brought together, but the result is a tale about the defiance of nature. In the numerous film versions of the novel, Dr Frankenstein generally brings his creature to life by harnessing an electric storm; an attempt to tame the forces of nature that is doomed to failure. Although such a spark of life is not explicit in the book, many of the key scenes are played out against the sort of untamed and untameable landscape beloved of the romantic Gothic imagination: from Alpine peaks to Arctic wastes.

What made Frankenstein science fiction, or rather (to sidestep the question of whether it was indeed the first sf novel) what it has contributed to the history of science fiction, is the question of what it is to be human. What is the unique characteristic that makes us what we are? Throughout the history of the genre, science fiction writers have been pitting humans against other beings — intelligent apes, robots, aliens, neanderthals, beings from the future, cyborgs, doppelgangers, AIs and a host of others — in an attempt to find humanity in something other than ourselves. Logically, whatever is in them cannot be unique to humans — or it will mean that they are human too?

By this light, the whole history of science fiction is a sort of extended Turing Test, seeking not intelligence but humanity. But like the Turing Test, the outcome can be dependent upon the observer — how do we recognise humanity in others if we are not sure what it is in ourselves? Dr Frankenstein set out to create a thing of beauty, but turned his back upon the creature when he saw it was ugly. Even when the rationalist discovers the creature leaning over Frankenstein’s coffin, he notices the ‘appalling hideousness’ and so misses the humanity suggested by its ‘exclamations of grief and horror’.

This dichotomy between appearance and feeling, between the humane and the monstrous, first explored by Mary Shelley has become one of the most significant themes in science fiction. If we cannot recognise the human within the uncouth and distorted proportions of Frankenstein’s creature, can we recognise the monstrous within the couth and even proportions of civilised man in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)? Still more, how can any of us know what might be hidden by such a being as H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1896)? Throughout the history of the genre, scientists have been creating others, or experimenting upon themselves to drastic effect, precisely to ask such questions of humanity.

Sometimes a person is physically separated from humanity, as with the man transformed into physical monster to fit life on Mars in Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) or the scientist given a featureless metal head and a consequent lack of identity in Who? (1958) by Algis Budrys, though generally in such cases they cling to some element of humanity. Others happily abandon it, if they already feel themselves to be an outcast they are usually more ready to become something other than human, as the woman transformed into machine in James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ (1973) and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang (1969). Nevertheless, to abandon that last gasp of humanity is to surrender to something truly monstrous and ultimately catastrophic, as Greg Bear demonstrates in Blood Music (1985).

Sometimes, the monstrous is itself transformed into something humane by the acquisition of some human skill, whether it is the neanderthal who learns to express his feelings in Michael Bishop’s Ancient of Days (1985) or the robot who becomes human by dying in Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Bicentennial Man’ (1976), though often enough self-awareness is sufficient to bring some level of humanity, as the computer that writes its autobiography in R.A. Lafferty’s Arrive at Easterwine (1971) or the space-probe AI that evolves into full independent consciousness in Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels (1990).

More often, the question is unresolved. Michael Bishop made Frankenstein’s creature into an immortal, and brought him back to play minor league baseball in Brittle Innings (1994). He served as a means of bringing out the humanity of the other characters in the book, but the immortality was one more point of separation and in the end he simply disappeared without really resolving the question of how human he had become.

In the end, appearance is a large part of it: it’s easier to accept as human something that looks human. Frankenstein wanted his creation to be beautiful, and it was ugliness that made him first turn against it. So N. Lee Wood’s ‘fabricant’ is beautiful and can ask: ‘Do I seem like a monster?’ But appearance alone is not enough, and when all is said and done we still don’t know by how much or how little we can change the basic pattern of mankind and still have a human being at the end. As Wood’s fabricant says, each small change can have countless unknown knock-on effects. Where along the line would this creature start to be human? And what, exactly, would that mean?