Mary's baby;Book of the week

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Robin Buss traces how the Frankenstein story has influenced our thinking about science

FRANKENSTEIN'S FOOTSTEPS: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. By Jon Turney. Yale University Press pound;19.95.

The origin of the Frankenstein story can be precisely placed and dated. But that, as Jon Turney argues in this wide-ranging and absorbing study, does not make it less of a myth or weaken its hold on our minds.

There seems no reason to dispute Mary Shelley's later account of the waking vision that inspired the novel, one night towards the end of June, 1816. But we must understand that this image of "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing that he had put together" (as she described it much later in her preface) did not descend on her out of the air.

The daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the lover of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was no average 18-year-old, but someone singularly well-placed to assimilate the intellectual preoccupations of her time, while reflecting them through her own, feminine sensibility. Her vision of Frankenstein had been preceded by days of intense speculative discussion between Shelley and Byron about the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, Galvani and others, in the course of which Shelley was liable to run shrieking from the room, pursued by horrid visions of his own. There is a good deal of her future husband in Mary's "pale student of unhallowed arts".

This was not the first time a Faustian scholar had been shown exceeding legitimate bounds in his research, but earlier stories involved the intervention of magic or the devil. Frankenstein is recognisably a scientist, whose experiments seek to satisfy no craving except the desire for knowledge. He is interested in nothing so trivial as transmuting base metals into gold, still less selling his soul to indulge in pleasures of the flesh. He wants to unlock the secret of life itself - and his enterprise is all the more terrifying for its indifference to his own comfort and natural human feelings. Like the early anatomists, he is forced to rob graves and haunt charnel-houses, seeing no road to an understanding of the living organism except through the study of the dead.

Turney argues that Frankenstein was the source of a genuine modern myth partly because of its relevance to our own concerns and partly because of the story's capacity for change. The novel spawned many stage versions. By l910 the cinema was already showing signs of what would be an enduring fascination - one list mentions 120 films, another 400. The imprecision of the figures helps to establish Frankenstein as a myth, rather than some other kind of fiction. Subject to constant transformation, it turns up as horror, comedy, satire, science fiction and futuristic speculation, with the monster more or less distinctly present in generations of helots, robots and automata. And his creator provides the model for every mad scientist whose eyes ever glinted at the contents of a test-tube or the bubbling of a retort. These images of science and the way they colour our attitudes to biological advances are the subject of Turney's book.

More specifically, he says he set out to "trace where the vocabulary in which we conduct such debates comes from". A biochemist, who graduated in the mid-1970s, he found himself in a world where, more than ever, biological research raised issues of social and moral concern. This was the time of the DNA debate and the birth, in 1978, of Louise Brown, the first "test-tube baby". He went on to become science editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement and is now senior lecturer in science communication at University College London where, among other things, he teaches a course on popular responses to technology. He tells his students to look out for Frankenstein-related films on television during his 10-week course. So far, the schedulers have not disappointed them.

This does not mean our fears of science are irrational - we still live with the threat of nuclear destruction, and Frankenstein's Footsteps makes a detour to retread the history of radiation and the atomic bomb. But biological investigation arouses a particular kind of dread. We remember Dr Joseph Mengele, the epitome of Nazi science, with a horror we are unlikely to feel for rocket specialists or atomic physicists. So it is Mengele who enjoys fictional reincarnation as the recluse in the Amazon jungle, trying to clone Hitler, in Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil. Levin also wrote Rosemary's Baby, and knows readers won't be properly spooked by the threat of nuclear winter or a loose asteroid. Something far more intimately sinister has to be at work for the story to get under the skin.

So, now cloning is a reality (at least, on the level of Dolly the sheep), are our worst nightmares about to come true? The tabloids would like us to feel just a little chill as they tell us about the latest advances in the "unhallowed arts". What we need, Turney tells us, if we are to measure these developments and make proper judgments, including moral judgments about them, is "new stories, many new stories". Indeed, his analysis of this myth and its reverberations is one of those stories, a lucid account of our perceptions, over the past 150 years, of the scientific future and those who shape it.

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