This segment is part of our winter Book Club conversation about Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or call our special voicemail at 567-243-2456.
You read Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old novel Frankenstein. You mulled over bioethics, science, and Victor Frankenstein’s choices. You pondered Silicon Valley, modern Frankenstein’s monsters, and the real science of Shelley’s era. You called our voicemail. (Oh, did you ever call our voicemail.)
Five weeks and one novel later, the Science Friday Book Club gathers ‘round to close the book on Mary Shelley’s classic work of science fiction and horror. Bioethicist Josephine Johnston, science fiction and fantasy author Elizabeth Bear, and Science Friday Book Club captain Christie Taylor join Ira to chat about the book’s fabulous origins (Mary Shelley was just 18 when she wrote Frankenstein!) and lingering influence on modern science fiction. They contemplate one last question: What modern monsters can we avoid by learning a thing or two from Victor’s mistakes?
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And for all those New York-area bookworms, we have a treat for you! We’ve created a monster—a monster party that is! We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of the novel with FRANKENFEST, a Frankenstein variety show. We’ll have comedy, music, storytelling from Story Collider, and lots of freaky science.
Join us Monday, March 5th at 7pm at Caveat in New York. Tickets and info are available here.
On science today versus in Frankenstein:
Josephine Johnston: [Frankenstein] acts alone, and that is so different from how modern science really goes forward. Science is a collaborative undertaking, primarily so that’s a huge difference. And also he does it in secret, and he does it without very much knowledge. And then of course I knew the same before he doesn’t have any funding so he steals body parts. So it’s just pretty different from might think how science is done today.
On shifting sympathies:
Elizabeth Bear: Frankenstein himself is described as beautiful, and is a horrible human being and gets a certain amount of latitude from the people around him because he is attractive, despite his self-absorption and the terrible things he does. Whereas the monster, who starts off trying to find a way to educate himself and become a part of society and find [community] is rejected over and over again, first by Frankenstein and then by everybody else.
Josephine Johnston: One of the things I think is so disappointing is that the way [the monster] looks is such a focus of why people spurned him. I don’t know what people were thinking about in the early-1800s, but I think today we’re conscious of just how misleading that kind of thing can be, and we’re very conscious of not trying to judge people on the way they look and not being repulsed by people who are different or have some sort of physical difference. When I was reading, my heart broke for [the monster].
On whether Dr. Frankenstein really is the “modern Prometheus”:
Elizabeth Bear: The difference between Prometheus and Frankenstein is that Prometheus steals something from the gods that is of unequivocal benefit to humankind, and then is punished by the gods for it. Victor Frankenstein does sort of arrogate something for himself without peer review…I think the ending would have been different if he’d taken responsibility for the monster and protected it. It would have involved some public shaming for him but he would have been protecting his offspring and the offspring would have not felt entirely abandoned in the world.
On the portrayal of science:
Josephine Bear: There’s this idea in science fiction of the singularity, which is the idea that we will reach a point where computers will become so much faster and smarter than human beings… and then we will have a sort of logarithmic, rampant artificial intelligence that will use up all the resources in the galaxy and eat us… I find myself sort of asking, “Why are we assuming that an artificial intelligence, which theoretically we can design to have ethical parameters, is even going to want the same sort of resources that we want as meat organisms who need groceries and a place to sleep?”
Elizabeth Bear: The problem here is not a problem of science. It’s not a failure of science. It’s a failure of responsibility. It’s bad parenting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Josephine Johnston is a bioethicist and the Director of Research at The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York.
Elizabeth Bear is author of Ancestral Night (July 2018, Saga Press). She’s based in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Find your seats, everybody, the Science Friday book club is now convening. And we can’t promise your coffee and cake– you can supply that on your own. But we’ve got some great conversation, because if you’ve been following along– even if you’ve not been following– we’ve been reading Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein for the past five weeks.
It’s the heartwarming tale of a young scientist who digs up body parts to create a new kind of life which he abandons, and which eventually destroys everything he loves. Very heartwarming. And here to take the rest of the way it Christie Taylor, our book club captain and office frankenmaven. Take it away, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey there, Ira. So thanks for finishing your reading. First of all, this has been a wonderful five week adventure, and we have done a lot with Frankenstein in that time. We’ve talked about Silicon Valley Frankensteins, we met a classroom that’s reading Frankenstein and thinking about how the book relates to their modern lives, we invited our listeners to chime in on whether Frankenstein is a good scientist, what modern equivalents we might have to Frankenstein’s monster, and just a hint, gene editing is just one.
So today we’re bringing all of Frankenstein to a conclusion. As we’ve said, there are a lot of big questions to explore, and we’re going to spend some time chewing on this. And to help us out, Ira, we have a couple of other guests as well. With us in New York, we have Josephine Johnston, Director of Research and bio-ethicist at the Hastings Center in Garrison New York.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: Hi. Thanks for having me.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And in Massachusetts, we have Elizabeth Bear, author of numerous works of science fiction and fantasy. She has a book forthcoming in July called, Ancestral Night, that is tackling some of these issues of AI and ethics.
ELIZABETH BEAR: Hi. How are you?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Doing all right. And we want to hear from our listeners too. What was your favorite insight from reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or what do you have as a question about it? Give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us at @scifri.
So since we have all heard a lot of pop culture versions of Frankenstein– seen the Herman Munster version maybe in The Munsters.
IRA FLATOW: Or the Gene Wilder version in–
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Or the Gene Wilder version. in
IRA FLATOW: Young Frankenstein
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I think that’s actually, maybe the version I best know. I think it’s very prudent that we maybe summarize Mary Shelley’s version first. Which, as Ira said, it’s quite heartwarming. We have a passionate young scientist who decides to find out how to instill life in dead body parts, digs some up, puts them together, creates a monster. It’s ugly, so he’s horrified.
And surprise, as he abandons his monster, the monster has to make its way in the world, figure out what reading, and writing, and thinking, and loving all are. Which he does, to his credit. And then he’s rejected by humanity for being ugly, basically.
So he goes back to Victor. He says, hey, make me a friend– make me a bride– then we’ll at least be ugly together. And Victor at first starts to, and then he changes his mind and doesn’t. And the monster kills everyone he loves. And it ends with this sort of face-off in the Arctic, where Frankenstein dies. And the monster, sated at last, goes off to set himself on fire and destroy the evidence that he ever live.
IRA FLATOW: Spoiler alert. Spoiler alert
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Spoiler alert. So, for me, I think the biggest surprise in reading this was just how relatable the monster is. And I think we should start there in terms of what we really take away from the story. Josie, I think this is a monster that actually seems to be more sympathetic than Frankenstein himself, right?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: I think that’s where many of us end up as we go through the book. Although, at the beginning, we’re all probably sympathizing or empathizing with the creator. And then are so disappointed in his actions in abandoning his monster and really he’s sort of hopeless. He reminds me a little bit of Hamlet.
He’s just floating around at some point in a lake, in a sort of fever of despair, but unable to actually do anything to remedy the situation. So we become, I think, frustrated with him and much more on this side of the monster, which is an interesting flip.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Elizabeth?
ELIZABETH BEAR: I absolutely agree. One of the things that I find very interesting about Victor Frankenstein is that he is a complete narcissist. And I think there’s a little feminist subtext in there in some of the things we see, especially the female characters he encounters. And I’m particularly annoyed by his relationship with his fiance.
The way she becomes profoundly depressed as people around her start dying, and he likes her better because she has less agency.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Which is a little messed up. That’s for sure.
ELIZABETH BEAR: Yeah.
Yeah. I like you much better now that you’re emotionally crushed is not a healthy relationship.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Ira, what surprised– you were reading this book for the first time in a long time.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Or ever, even.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It’s actually the first time, because I saw all the movies, right?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: And what surprised me, right at the beginning, is that it’s nothing like– the real book is nothing like the movies. I mean, this is a really intelligent creature. He goes on page after page talking about his life. They agree, he’s absolutely articulate, well-spoken.
And that, to me, was the most surprising thing. We just see the movies– he just grunts, and groans, and attacks people. And that’s not– the attacking people, OK, that happens, but we understand what’s going on. We understand the deeper plot, and we understand how intelligent he was built to be.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: One of the things I think, maybe, at least to our eyes and ears, that’s so disappointing is that the way he looks is such a focus of why people spurn him. And I don’t know what people were thinking about in the early 1800s, but I think today we’re conscious of just how misleading that kind of thing can be, and that we’re very conscious of not trying to judge people on the way they look and not being repulsed by people who are different or have some sort of physical difference.
And so, I think that’s extremely disappointing, at least to me when I was reading. I’ve really had my heart broke for him.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Do you think, Mary Shelley was trying to tell us something about the way people are, or the way people should be when she was making the whole problem with his monster his appearance?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: It’s got to be that she was–
ELIZABETH BEAR: May I?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: Yeah, go for it.
ELIZABETH BEAR: OK. I think it’s specifically called out in the text, because Frankenstein himself is described as beautiful, and is a horrible human being, and gets, basically, a certain amount of latitude from the people around him because he is attractive, despite his self-absorption and the terrible things he does. Whereas, the monster, who starts off trying to find a way to educate himself, and become a part of society, and find a– family is not quite the right word– but find a community, is rejected over and over again. First by Frankenstein, and then by everybody else he meets, just because he’s a walking mummy stitched together out of dead people.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Which is such a surprise that something you make out of dead people doesn’t look so great.
ELIZABETH BEAR: Such a surprise. Yeah. I wonder about the preservation techniques.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: It’s almost an argument for why he should have done– he just needed a but of more funding for his science. If he’d had more funding, he would have been that would create a more attractive monster.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, and going back to that science, another surprise I had from the book is just that we don’t actually see the secret of how he re-animates the dead in the first place. There’s like a slight allusion to electricity, but a lot of what we see in the movies seems to have been spun out of thin air. He just alludes to this spark of life.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: Yeah. I wonder if we’re more interested in the intricacies of, and how exactly would you have done it? Than she was. I mean, she’s interested in electricity. She’s certainly influenced by the science of the time, but she’s not so obsessed with how exactly it happened, but with everything that it meant for him and everyone around him. I don’t know if that’s a more modern way of thinking, that we’re so interested in how we might have done it.
IRA FLATOW: I’m reading a great annotated version, and they go into this about the science of the times was the galvanic response that she talks about in the book. And it was a time where batteries were being invented in experiments with twitching frogs legs. And she naturally came up with that idea having been exposed to all of this research.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And we actually have a really good layout of that science on our website right now. Lauren young, one of our producers, did a great piece on that. It’s up at sciencefriday.com/electricity if you want to go to take a look. She has some really great photos from historic medical book collection.
ELIZABETH BEAR: There’s a terrible writer secret here too, by the way– tricks of the trade. If you don’t know how to do something, be vague about it.
It was much harder to google in 1816 than it is today.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of tricks of the trade, we have our phone number. It’s 844-724-8255 if you would like to join us. And you can tweet us at @scifri. The phones are busy. Let’s go to our first phone call from Florida in Naples. Andrew, welcome to Science Friday.
ANDREW: Hi. It’s good to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks. What’s on your mind?
ANDREW: Well, as you were talking about the themes and flaws of the novel, I remember from my own reading of it high school, how the reason that Victor Frankenstein discontinued the construction of his monster’s companion was because of paranoia that mankind would be overwhelmed and replaced by these monsters as they Multiplied. And I thought that that’s very interesting, because it sort of preface a lot of the fears that 20th century literature has about the creation of new forms of life. That when mankind creates a successor race if you will, that we will ultimately be replaced by it– that we won’t be able to live side-by-side with our metaphysical children, if you will. That we will be locked in a zero-sum game with them.
And I thought that that’s a very interesting point worth talking about, especially as we enter an age where artificial intelligence’s role in our society is something that serious academics are talking about very seriously.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Josie, I know you have a lot of thoughts on pretty much everything that Andrew just covered. So do you want to start with, he alluded to gene editing and replacing ourselves.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: Right. He’s absolutely right that modern science gene editing and artificial intelligence sort of being the most obvious examples right now are raising this fear of not just that we might lose control of the science, but that it actually might turn on us, specifically. And some people refer to this as existential risk. The idea that these technologies could actually not wipe out the planet necessarily, but get rid of us, especially if they came to see us as a threat or as a resource that they would want to use up rather than preserve.
So that’s a very sort of far-off concern. I mean, it’s sort of the ultimate concern, I guess, that people who are talking about AI will refer to. And then there are these much sort of nearer versions of that, like if we’re going to design a driverless car, what kind of moral system do we give it so that if it has a choice between harming one of us and harming three of us, does it choose the owner of the car or does it respond to the group. And so, those are like that sort of intermediate versions of that larger existential concern.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And Elizabeth, I know you’ve talked about how this book plugs into maybe the anxieties of Shelley’s time, but also what modern science fiction takes away from the story of Frankenstein.
ELIZABETH BEAR: Oh, absolutely. And I agree very much with Jodie– Josie, I’m sorry. Some of what we’re doing in modern science fiction, when we talk about our fears of our created descendants, for lack of a better term– there’s this idea in science fiction of the singularity, which is the idea that we will reach a point where computers will become so much faster and smarter than human beings that they will create even faster and smarter computers which will create even faster and smarter computers, and then we will have a sort of logarithmic rampant artificial intelligence that will use up all the resources in the galaxy and eat us. Or use us as batteries. Which is a terrible idea, we’re awful batteries.
But– I think that is an anxiety, because I find myself sort of asking, why are we assuming that an artificial intelligence, which, theoretically we can design to have ethical parameters, is even going to want the same sort of resources that we want as meat organisms who need groceries and a place to sleep.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. We’re talking about Frankenstein this hour with Josephine Johnson, Elizabeth Bear, and Christie Taylor. Christie, you mind I go to the phones, because we have–
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Go ahead, we want to hear from you.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Jacob in Seldon, New York. Hi, Jacob.
JACOB: Hi. How’s it going?
IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.
JACOB: So I kind of enjoyed Frankenstein. However, I don’t think it’s fair to call it a science fiction novel, because any relative science that kind of deals with the Frankenstein’s Monster itself is kind of skipped over. And it’s more just a story about someone who has, like, self-conscious problems and [INAUDIBLE] society. So it has inspired a lot of science fiction in our modern day, but I think if you take away any science fiction from the novel, it’s really nothing special.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: You could say– I think it’s much more a Gothic horror, actually. There’s a whole lot of lightning and rain, and you go in the mountains.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Lots of ice too. And everything’s gory. And so, yeah, genre-wise, you might be right on about that.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I really want to actually bring in, we had a listener who called into our voicemail– we set up a special after hours voicemail to let people call in when we weren’t on the show– and a little bit of a positive spin on this story. This is a listener named Marguerita, who had a really beautiful poem about her heart transplant.
MARGUERITA: I am the monster. I died and I was brought back to life. My life supported by machines that required complex upkeep. And I went on living until they found someone else’s organ. A heart, that today makes me who I am, this kind, [INAUDIBLE], monster.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Marguerita is identifying with the monster, but she’s also, I think, making a pretty good point about not all the consequences of innovation are necessarily scary, right? We still do have all these good things happening. And so, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater maybe? Josie do any thoughts on that?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: I do you think that there is that one immediate reading of the book, where it’s like, oh, no, we could create, through science, some really scary things that would be terrible. We’ve got to stop and think about this. Maybe we shouldn’t even do it.
And then there’s another reading of the book that says, it’s just that we have to do it well. And there are better and worse ways to do it. And at the end of the book actually, Victor Frankenstein, as he’s dying, says to the explorer on who’s ship he was sort of rescued, that maybe someone else can do a better job than he did.
And I definitely think Mary Shelley was fascinated by science. She was not anti-science. You know. It’s funny, I think we’re sorry trained to think that something is either for or against, that we’re immediately like, this is an anti-science book or something. But actually, if you think about it a bit more, you can say there’s fascination. And I think it’s actually a book that makes an argument for a kind of good science that’s thoughtful and certainly not done in secret by some young kid who doesn’t have any responsibilities or ways to think through problems.
IRA FLATOW: And certainly one about taking responsibility as a scientist for the things that you create. And the listener was right in the sense that everything is just window dressing on that theme, you know? If you take away all that science fiction, that’s what you’re left with.
ELIZABETH BEAR: The problem here is not a problem of science– it’s not a failure of science– it’s a failure of responsibility. It’s bad parenting, essentially.
IRA FLATOW: I’m going to leave it there, because we have to take a break. And then, when we come back, we’re going to talk more with author Elizabeth Bear, bio-ethicist Josephine Johnston, and our SciFri book maven, Christie Taylor, about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When we come back, more. We just started the talk. More on the lessons this story holds for modern scientists and everyone else.
Please join us 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us at @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. We’ll be back with the SciFri book club after this break for milk and cookies. Stay with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, here with producer Christie Taylor, who’s been running our Frankenstein book club this winter, and has gathered us to talk about Mary Shelley’s work one last time. I have one tweet I want to get to before we go right back to our guests. And it’s from Priscilla, who writes, Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge came out last week. It’s a remarkable graphic novel that is filled with Mary’s stories, and how and why she wrote the book.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, this is– so one of the things we didn’t talk about when we got started, is this is the 200th anniversary of the year that Mary Shelley published Frankenstein. She wrote it when she was just 18, published it a couple of years later, and this is a year where a lot of people are celebrating Frankenstein’s influence, or contemplating it– using it as a time to think more deeply on the issues that it presents. And Elizabeth, one of the things that, again, let’s go back to, Mary was 18 when she wrote this book. What possibly possessed her?
ELIZABETH BEAR: Well, there’s a funny story about that involving being reigned in with her husband, George Gordon and a certain Dr. Polidori–
In a vacation house where they were trapped, apparently, by, basically, monsoon rains. So they all decided to write ghost stories to entertain each other. And Mary and Polidori were actually the only ones who finished their novels. The two professional writers buggered off
So that that’s how it came to be. It was a dare.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, we had a couple of tweets, and people reminding us too, this was kind of a strange year in the world. It was the year without a summer, and it was very dreary. They’d gone on vacation without a summer, meaning it was raining and not very warm. And later, people figured out it was because of this volcano that had gone off. I think in Indonesia?
And so, it wasn’t really a great time to have any kind of outdoor activity. So instead, they were sort of cooped up writing.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: She was also– she was really young, but she had already had a child, and had that child die in infancy at 11 days. Her child was born fairly premature, and she lived only for 11 days. So her first child had already died. She had already had a second child.
She had run away with the writer, Percy Shelley, who was very famous. When she wrote the story, I don’t think she was actually married to him yet. So she was still– they were sort of scandalous. He was already married. She was really living in a very tumultuous life of her own, and had had this terrible tragedy. And ultimately, would have four children, three of whom died.
So she herself had suffered a lot, and had a lot of– her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an extremely influential and important feminist writer in the late 1700s who died right after Mary Shelley was born. So she never knew her own mother, but she read her works often on her mother’s grave. So this is someone who is really quite an extraordinary person, who had already at this point in her life gone through rather a lot.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, you make a point about parenthood here, and one of the big critiques we have ethically for Victor is that he just sort of leaves his creation alone to fend for itself. Is there a parallel between– is she reproaching Victor for making a choice that she clearly would not have had she been privileged to keep that child that she lost?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: Yeah. And her own mother published a book called thoughts on the education of daughters. And she made a really strong case for a moral imperative for us to really look after and attend to the welfare of all of our offspring. And that would be why you would educate your daughters and not just your sons. So I think she she’s definitely influenced– she has strong views, I think, about our responsibilities to our children. And therefore, you can kind of read that into this character that she sets up, who is just the opposite of responsible.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: One of the things, going back to the very specific ethical quandaries we have with Victor Frankenstein, we’ve talked about how he didn’t really consider the consequences of what he’s doing– his abandonment of his creation. But what would it have looked like if he had done this experiment, maybe by modern standards, correctly? Would have had peer review? Would he have had an IRB? What would he have done differently?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: So the first thing is that he would not have done it alone. So he acts alone. And that is really, I think, so different from how modern science really goes forward. I mean, people get Nobel prizes. Often, individual scientists can become very well known, but science is a collaborative undertaking primarily. So that’s a huge difference.
And also, he does it in secret. Again, not something that we see a lot of in modern science, hopefully. And he does it without very much knowledge. There’s a little part at the beginning of the book where he sort of talks about how boring his classes, and he’s not really that interested, and he finds an older scientist’s work who he finds interesting. So you don’t get the feeling that he’s done a whole lot of research and really knows what he’s doing.
And then, of course, I was saying before, he doesn’t have any funding, so he steals body parts. So it’s just pretty different from, I think, how science is done today, not to meet in the lake of ethics review.
IRA FLATOW: A couple of good tweets coming in before we run out of time to get to them, A tweet from Mark, who says– I mentioned myself that science is often window dressing– of course it is, a lot of great science fiction from Asimov to Bradbury to Sagan are more often commenting on us than about the science. Richard says, will you address the Promethean aspects of Frankenstein–
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I’m so glad he asked.
IRA FLATOW: And implication that has for doing science in our present-day secular society.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, I know, Elizabeth, you’re all about the Promethean connection. And just to remind people, the subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus. Which, I don’t know, Elizabeth, I start out assuming she’s trying to say this about Victor, and then I am a little bit more confused. But what’s your take on Prometheus and Frankenstein.
ELIZABETH BEAR: I wonder if– speaking from writer inside baseball– she kind of got hooked on a clever title and then never quite let it go when she thematically diverged from her original intent. The difference between Prometheus and Frankenstein is that Prometheus steals something from the Gods that is of unequivocal benefit to humankind, and then is punished by the Gods for it. Victor Frankenstein does sort of arrogate something for himself without peer review, as Josie mentioned.
And it is easier to ethically, legally get cadavers these days though. So there is that. And he punishes himself for it through, what, if I were reading this as a Greek tragedy, I would call his hamartia– his tragic flaw– in that he consistently refuses to step up and take responsibility. And I’ve compared him in conversation to a hit-and-run driver. The problem is not the accident, the problem is that he drives away from it.
And to sort of return to your original question, I think the ending would have been different if he’d taken responsibility for the monster and protected it. It would have involved some certainly public shaming for him. But he would have been protecting his offspring, and the offspring would have not felt entirely abandoned in the world.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I also noticed too, that even though Victor Frankenstein we’re seeing maybe this implied comparison to Prometheus, the monster is the one that’s doing all the things with fire. So he stumbles off into the wilderness, he discovers fire and that it’s good for him. Then he learns how to make it. Then he burns down his friends cottage with fire. And then he kills himself with fire.
So if we’re seeing a Promethean connection, maybe is the monster a failed Prometheus? Or a would-have-been Prometheus if only he’d been allowed to Prosper? I don’t know.
ELIZABETH BEAR: I like that read a lot.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I’m going to move on, because one of the things that our listeners have also been sending our way, is this one very well-known Jeff Goldblum quote from the movie Jurassic Park. This idea– and we’ll give the full quote in just a second– the short version is, your scientists were so wrapped up in whether they could, that they didn’t stop to consider whether they should. But the whole dialogue from there is actually a little bit more nuanced.
JEFF GOLDBLUM: It didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You know, you read what others had done, and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could. And before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.
And now you’re selling it. You’re going to sell it.
RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientist have done things which nobody has ever done before.
JEFF GOLDBLUM: Yeah. Yeah! But your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So, Josie, as the bio-ethicist in the house, does all of that Jurassic Park comparison ring true for you? Or this idea that maybe discipline was also part of the equation?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: I think that– So I’m not sure if the Jurassic quote is supposed to be a fair sort of assessment of science today, or scientists today. Because I do think that many scientists today are really aware of the context in which they’re working and the implications of their work. And that goes all the way from junior scientists I meet and talk to, all the way up to some of the most famous scientists working today.
And I think, Jennifer Doudna is a really amazing example of a scientist who was one of the people who invented CRISPR– the new gene editing technology– And who then immediately went on to ask for help in thinking through its uses, who was part of a group that called for a moratorium on its use in humans until more of the safety and some of the ethical and moral questions had been worked out. So there are so many scientists today who are absolutely engaged with their work and its implications in the world, and how we can all together be involved in figuring out how to use it well
So I don’t think that the scientists are irresponsible, sort of, as a big group. It’s a lot of people, and there’s always these stories of someone who does something. But, I think, overall, we see much more responsible science today than in Jurassic Park.
IRA FLATOW: But it’s hammered home in the book so often. I mean, she takes every chance she can using the characters to talk about the irresponsibility. And he admits it himself after a while.
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: Yeah. But do you think she was trying to say something about science? That’s what I kind of doubt. I think she was trying to say something about people. Maybe she was trying to say something about powerful men or privileged mean.
I’m just not sure that she was trying to go after science and scientists as a sort of group. And we can’t really know that, but we think of science and scientists as this sort of whole thing today, that I just don’t know if it was functioning that way for her.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, and that actually takes me to another question, which is, how do modern scientists feel about this work as a whole? I mean, we have words like frankenfood out there that don’t speak well of the subject they’re referring to. But does this mean scientists cringe whenever they see Frankenstein?
IRA FLATOW: And before you answer that, let me just jump in, as I always rudely do, and say, this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Let me just let you take a breath and just remind everybody about that we’re talking with Elizabeth Bear and Josephine Johnston about Frankenstein, and Christine Taylor, who has been shepherding their book club for the last five weeks.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. So how do those modern scientists feel about Frankenstein, Josie?
JOSEPHINE JOHNSTON: Oh, I definitely have meet some scientists who you do cringe at the word Frankenstein. I don’t it’s because of the novel per se, but because of all of the cultural afterlife of the book. And this, as we discussed early, on the distance that separates this book from the sort of representations that many of us have encountered in other film, and cartoons, and television, et cetera.
So it definitely does have that. And then the term “franken” was just so nice to have to plop on top of other words. But there’s an interesting article in Science. The magazine Science published a few essays in January around this book. And one of those points out that some scientists actually use the word “franken” in their own work on purpose, almost, I think, as a joke, or like as a way of kind of you drawing attention to what they’re doing. So it’s not always used in a pejorative way.
And so I think it must be much more of a mix. But, yeah. It can feel like an accusation to some people.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Elizabeth, I want to go back to you. So Mary Shelley wrote this book. We’re talking about how stories of science fiction often help us navigate times of change or anxiety. If you were writing a modern Frankenstein story, what would be the anxieties you would want to play up in a story like that.
ELIZABETH BEAR: It’s interesting actually, especially on the heels of the Jurassic Park conversation, because Jurassic Park is sort of a modern Frankenstein. It’s a story of somebody taking– it’s not that the science is bad, it’s that inadequate responsibility is taken for the results of the science and for taking care of it. If I were writing a– there is a grand tradition in science fiction of the cautionary tale. The “if this goes on” story is what we refer to them as.
If I were writing one today, I think it would probably have to deal the unintended consequences of political divisions in a time when some anthropogenic and potentially natural disasters are a much bigger threat to the health and well-being of the human species around the globe than where your neighbor goes to church.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a big [INAUDIBLE].
ELIZABETH BEAR: Was that sufficiently vague?
IRA FLATOW: I think that wasn’t.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Coming to a bookshop near you.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of vague, I’m going to take over and go to the phones here. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Noel in Sacramento. Hi, Noel. Quickly.
NOEL: Hi, it’s Noel. I have been portraying Mary Shelley through a living history program for the better part of a decade. And I have to say thank you for getting more the word out that it was written by a woman. It surprises me every time I go out and play her how many people have heard of Frankenstein, how few people know it was written by a woman.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And one of the things that other people may not know, is that when we’re talking about Frankenstein, we’re really talking about Victor Frankenstein. I think one of my favorite little quips that helps, I think, highlight this in a lot of ways is just, knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster, but wisdom is knowing that perhaps he is.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow.
ELIZABETH BEAR: Oh, that’s beautiful.
IRA FLATOW: That’s great.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You’re getting very judgy.
IRA FLATOW: I’m writing that down right now.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. And as we wrap up, I guess I want to really quickly ask all of you, would this all have been a happy story if the monster had just gotten a hug?
IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll leave everybody to contemplate that, because we’ve run out of time. It’s time, as all good things must come to an end, we have to adjourn our meeting of the book club. I want to thank our guests so much for joining us today– Elizabeth Bear, Josephine Johnston, and, of course, Christie Taylor. Thank you.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: And if want to get one last set of franken resources from us, or hear about future book clubs, please subscribe to our special book club newsletter. That’s sciencefriday.com/frankenstein. We’ll be picking up a new book, maybe with your help, before too long. Sciencefriday.com/frankenstein to sign up.
And before we go, if you’re not done with Frankenstein, we’ve created a monster for you– a monster party that is. We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic with a Frankenfest– a Frankenstein variety show. We have a comedy and music storytelling from Story Collider. That’s march 7th at 7 PM at Caveat in New York. Tickets and info are available at sciencefriday.com/frankenfest, sciencefriday.com/frankenfest. That will be March 5 at 7 PM in Caveat.