01/05/2018

The SciFri Book Club: ‘Frankenstein’

8:34 minutes

green frankenstein face
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A brilliant young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, creates life out of a jumble of body parts—only to turn his back on his bewildered creation and leave it to fend for itself. Are the murders that ensue Dr. Frankenstein’s fault? Both Frankenstein and his monster tell their stories in the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the #SciFriBookClub’s winter book pick. Join Ira and the SciFri team as we read Mary Shelley’s spooky science fiction tale this month, and ask what it means to be human.

[The future of human gene editing is promising—but still uncertain.]

First published in 1818, Shelley’s book drew inspiration from the electricity experiments of Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta in the late 1700s. Now, in the story of a creator abandoning its creation, which then wreaks havoc upon the world, many see ethical equivalents in conversations around CRISPR, self-driving cars, and even big data. We’ll read and discuss questions like this all month long. And we want to hear from you! (Your comments may be played on the air.)

do you see any parallels between frankenstein and science today? call u567-243-2456

Want to get in on the SciFri Book Club conversation? Here’s how to participate:

  1. Grab a copy of the book and start reading! Our drawing for a free copy of the novel has closed, but the story is free to the public online in a number of places. Check out Frankenbook.org, where the story is annotated by contemporary scientists and comes with several essays about its modern relevance. Still not sure if you want to jump in? Start with this excerpt, in which the monster first confronts his creator.
  2. Sign up for our SciFri Book Club newsletter to stay updated on extra reading suggestions, discussion questions, and events related to the Book Club.
  3. Take part in our wrap-up discussion of the Book Club by calling in to the broadcast on Friday, February 9. Discuss the book with Ira and our special guest readers, speculative fiction author Elizabeth Bear, and Hastings Center bioethicist Josephine Johnston.
  4. Can’t wait to join the conversation? Join the #SciFriBookClub discussion on Twitter, or leave us a voicemail! We want to know: Do you see any parallels between Frankenstein and science today? Give us a ring at 567-243-2456. Your comments may be played on the air.
  5. Keep checking back here over the next five weeks! There’s much more Frankenstein to come.

Questions about the Club? Post ‘em in the comments below or email bookclub@sciencefriday.com. Happy reading!


Stay up to speed with the SciFri Book Club Newsletter!

Segment Guests

Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they happen to have an audio recording of their research findings.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: OK, so you’ve been spending your winter curled up with various good books. You might want to consider adding another to your shelf, because the sci-fi book club is getting back together, and we’ve got a monster– get it? You’ll see where I’m going. A tale for you here, featuring the original mad scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

That’s right. We’re reading Mary Shelley’s classic science fiction novel about a man who creates a monster. And nothing personal, we want you to join us. Sci-fi radio producer and book club captain, Christie Taylor, is with me to tell you more about this month’s book club and how you can join in. Hey there, Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, Ira. How’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Frankenstein– you might be wondering why we picked this. Well, the timing is actually very good. It is a nice, round anniversary for the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. She wrote it in 1816 when she was 18 years old, one rainy summer at Lake Geneva. And it was published on January 1st of 1818, so 200 years old and still looking great.

IRA FLATOW: So, OK. So it’s the 200th anniversary. There’s got to be a science reason why we’re reading this one.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure! Well, as you might remember from the story, it involves reanimating a corpse with– at least as we’re seeing in the movies– lightning. This is about the time that Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta were fighting about why, if you ran electricity through a frog leg, it twitched. A dead frog leg. They had a big fight about this in the late 1700s. Long story short, we got to reanimating a monster with some lightning bolts.

It’s also actually really timely in a lot of other ways, because it brings us to these really interesting conversations about the ethics of creating life, if you’re not going to actually maybe make sure it’s successful or even well-balanced. In the book at least, we see that the monster– as we hear it referred to– maybe could have been a better guy, if he’d had a little bit more nurturing. And this has some ties to maybe CRISPR, AI, even big data if you ask some of the people that think about this kind of stuff.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you mentioned the monster, and we were talking about this earlier. If you just think that the book is like the films, the monster is not at all like the film, right? Like we’ve seen in both films. Gene Wilder in the original, Boris Karloff–

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Right, and that famous, it’s alive, it’s alive. Which we don’t actually see in the book.

IRA FLATOW: It’s not in the book.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: He doesn’t say anything. Well, if he said anything, we don’t know. He’s just very excitedly writing about it. But yeah, the monster is still very big, still very ugly. That’s sort of its biggest crime is being ugly. But there’s no bolts in the neck, no scar on the forehead as far as we know. And he has pretty good hair, apparently lustrous black hair that just makes his sallow face look a little bit more disturbing.

And he’s also very articulate. We actually hear a lot from him in the book. He tells us his life story, which is pretty interesting because he goes off exploring. And there’s this really beautiful scene, actually, right in the very beginning, where we have this image. A ship captain is talking about being stuck in the Arctic among the icebergs. And he looks out one night, and he sees this giant, hulking figure on a dog sled going through the night across the ice. And that’s not something you get to see in the movies.

IRA FLATOW: No, because there’s the lightning storm in the movie. So that would be summer time. OK, so we’re sold on doing the book. How do we get copies of the book?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, the first thing you need to remember in all of this is our web site sciencefriday.com/bookclub. That’s going to be your one stop shop for pretty much everything related to playing along. And for starters, we are giving away 20 free copies that will be shipped to you for free on our website. This is a copy that was put out by MIT Press in collaboration with Arizona State University last year. It is annotated, with all sorts of helpful information from modern scientists and thinkers to people who have studied Mary Shelley herself. So you get a lot of the historical context, as well as some questions to think about moving forward.

And that is on our web site sciencefriday.com/bookclub. That form to enter will close at 10:00 PM Sunday night so we can catch our weekend listeners. But the good news is, if you don’t get one of those copies, this is a story that is in the public domain. It’s available for free online in a lot of different places. That annotated version is also for free online at frankenbook.org if that piques your interest.

And then, we have an excerpt to get you started– if you’re still on the fence– at our web site sciencefriday.com/bookclub.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, this is science. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Christie Taylor, associate producer and also honcho of this book club for Frankenstein. OK, so once we’re reading, how do we play along at home, Christie?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well Ira, there are a few options. We’re launching a weekly newsletter, first of all– this is all new for this book club– where you will get some discussion questions if you want to feel like you’re in high school English again. Discussion questions, some articles. There are a lot of people writing and thinking about Frankenstein this year because of this handy anniversary, so we’re going to try to hook you up with all of that great conversation that’s happening on the web and in the world.

And then, we also– if you’re on Twitter– have a hashtag, #scifibookclub, so you can play along all week long for the next five weeks. And then, you can even call our off air voicemail. So this is not the same as our call in number. It is (567) 243-2456. Again, (567) 243-2456 if you want to leave a comment, a thought, a reflection. And we’re going to play some of those on the air each week leading up to a final wrap up conversation with two readers who have been reading and thinking about this book for a while, Elizabeth Bayer, speculative and science fiction author, and Josephine Johnston, a bio-ethicist with the Hastings Center.

IRA FLATOW: And what date are we going to do that?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Oh, that is on February 9th, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: February 9th.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: Both of these readers have spent a ton of time thinking about the story. And we’re going to have you read it and let you give us comments. If you want a comment that will play on the air, the number again that Christie gave out is (567) 243-2456. We don’t want a tome that you send. I mean, in both senses of the word, Frankenstein. We want it just to be a little short question or a comment.

Now, you know I’m a big fan of the movie and Gene Wilder’s funny take on it. You already mentioned a lot of the things that are in the movies, and both movies are not in the book. And one key thing to remember that everybody confuses is, the monster is not Frankenstein, right?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Correct. This is a thing that, I think, people can get maybe a little too pedantic about. But yeah. Victor Frankenstein is your scientist. And he actually doesn’t have a name in the book. Victor Frankenstein called the monster a lot of different, kind of mean names, the creature, the demon. I think he calls him the abortion at one point.

But I think, also, it’s worth reflecting on whether maybe– you know, as we read the book– perhaps Victor Frankenstein himself has some qualities that might not be considered monstrous along the way. So maybe, the monster is Frankenstein.

IRA FLATOW: Or Frankensteen.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: (LAUGHS)

IRA FLATOW: (LAUGHS) Have you started reading? I’m very excited.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, I’m actually only about halfway through, because I’m savoring every page. And I have a million dog ears and quotes underlined, but I am really excited to get to the end and figure out what happens in this sort of epic duel between the creator and his creation.

IRA FLATOW: And people consider this to be maybe the very first science fiction.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: At the very least, it was the first of modern science fiction. I know Brian Aldiss is someone who’s written a lot about this. He was definitely the first mad scientist in the sub-genre. And I think, actually, that’s a really great question to consider too, as you read. Is he a good scientist? Is he representative of scientists? Could scientists learn anything from him?

IRA FLATOW: And as you say, it is very relevant today, as we talk about the new kinds of stuff being made in laboratories.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, CRISPR, AI again, self-driving cars is out of Frankenstein’s story here. Are we going to regret this creation, or do we need to take better care of it as we go?

IRA FLATOW: To be continued. And that’s a wrap! Thanks so much for coming on. Christie Taylor, associate producer at Science Friday and chief bookworm for the sci-fi book club. Thanks, again.

And again, you can learn more about the book club. Enter to win that free copy of Frankenstein and sign up for the weekly book club newsletter, sciencefriday.com/bookclub.

Copyright © 2017 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

  • Guido Alvarez

    As I am listening to your show on NPR i thought I should share a work of research I completed a few years ago during my PhD studies regarding Mary Shelley’s book. I have used it many many times in my design classes and I continue to use it today as it continues to be fresh and relevant. Maybe more so that before.
    Here’s a link to the posting I am talking about:

    http://thefishery.typepad.com/frankenstein/2009/09/from-single-paragraph-to-media-monster-the-moment-of-creation-in-mary-shelleys-frankenstein-.html

  • Risinggr

    Frankenstein was also used for the NPR book club that shared the time slot with Science Friday. I am blanking on the name. Anyway, the discussion centered around what Shelly was saying about the Godless creation of life. But when I read the book, something else struck me that I neglect to mention (I was on that live panel for awhile): Shelly was an 18 year old Unitarian. Frankenstein ruminated about how people reacted to his appearance–how they couldn’t see beyond his hideous looks. Might Shelly, a young woman, have been commenting on how society judges people by their appearance?? A discussion of bullying of plain or overweight women, for example, might be pertinent

  • Caroline E. Czllhoun

    So, other than the newsletter, is there an ongoing conversation about the book? or just the wrap up at 5 weeks?

  • Janis Deets Nowak

    Looking forward to reading the book and joining the discussion!

  • Wartgin

    I was looking for the other sources for reading the new annotated version for free if I don’t win the drawing but was unable to find any other than the Frankenbook website. If there are others, please post the links (especially those that can be downloaded). If that is the only source, please put instructions for using that format as I am unfamiliar with it and am having a hard time scrolling finely enough to read the text continuously.

    Thanks.

    • S.

      Gentle fellow. The new annotated version is available as a free PDF. Both the publisher (MIT Press) and Arizona State University, which helped to develop the text, link to the following file:

      https://www.dropbox.com/s/v3p2b1cz2emw9f0/10815.pdf?dl=0

      • Wartgin

        Thank you. Successfully downloaded now.

  • Dennis Shaffner

    The ‘monster’s’ observation and story avout poverty is poignant and still timely.

  • Kathi Sharp

    If you’d rather listen to the book you can download episodes 75-88 of CraftLit here: https://craftlit.com/category/shelley. Heather Ordover includes annotations, links, and useful tidbits with each episode.

    • Danielle Richardson

      Thank you!

  • Marla Singer

    Is it possible to purchase a hard copy of the annotated version?

    • Liebe Gray

      check Amazon, you can pre-order the book which is coming out on the 18th, I think.

  • Connie Tosky

    Did anyone else read the the 1831 edition ? I checked it out of curiosity , it’s interesting the things the editors made her change. Apparently it isn’t OK to suggest farming is of more value than being a judge, ( her brother’s future career was to be a soldier) She wasn’t allowed to say what she wanted about capital punishment either ( I haven’t finished the book, so there are probably other examples) , but it goes to show, even back then, public opinion dictated publishing.

  • Susette

    Mount Tambora volcano created the rainy, cool weather around the world that stranded Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori in Italy. They created the competition to write a work of horror; thus this book.

  • Dennis Shaffner

    The fact that the creature spoke French and Arabic makes him perfect as a candidate for 2020 replacing the dotard Current Occupant ! Humanity rebounds.

  • Julie K Wahl

    I feel like our current political environment has become a Franken Party. The emergence of something that has the potential to get out of control.

  • Collette Mak

    I used Frankenstein as the starting point for classes I taught on critical thinking/evaluating resources because it would go in so many directions (GMO, genetics, ethics) for their final projects. What caught the interest of my students is that they were the same age as Mary Shelly when she wrote Frankenstein. That a young woman their age (college freshmen) could have written a book that has such a lasting impact just stunned them. The book itself isn’t very good for a number of reasons but the ideas behind it are impressive indeed.

  • warrencriswell

    Rereading Frankenstein now, with AI becoming a reality and global warming threatening us with extinction, was a kind of revelation. It seemed like the prototype for movies like “Blade Runner,” the TV series “Humans” and “Westworld,” Stephen Hawking’s warning and all the scifi literature about robots gone bad, in which the creators are horrified at what they’ve created and try to destroy their creation, “the monstrous image which I had endued with the mockery of a soul still more monstrous.” The moment of repentance seems to come when we see a soul in our machine, the moment the machine becomes self-conscious, the thing our geeks hoping to achieve. And then the fear of it becoming able to reproduce itself and become a rival to humans, as in Victor’s horror when he realized the consequences of making a mate for his monster: “one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth …”

    But this is also the very moment that the monster becomes an object of sympathy. If Frankenstein had only shown his creation a bit of it, it would never have become a monster. The creature, like the creature that made him, wanted only to be a part of humanity, part of a family who would love him, but he was spurned and driven out – all because of his looks! Gross! We seem to have learned that lesson, to judge by the appearance of the syncs and replicants on our TV screens today. But that too can be a dangerous deception! –a seemingly harmless seduction, like Facebook.

    But if Mary Shelly’s novel is a prototype, it’s hero is also an archetype, as her subtitle makes clear. Prometheus is an archetype of creation gone bad. At least Victor gets to die instead of, like Prometheus, having his liver eaten eternally by vultures, his punishment for creating humans and giving them fire. But like those who made the same mistake before him – the Sumerian gods and later the Hebrew’s Yahwey, God in the Bible, who tried to destroy their monster with a great flood – Victor deeply regretted his creative act.

    So as we humans develop our AI while destroying our live support systems, we can see ourselves as both creators of life and monsters created by evolution, in a race between creation and destruction. Like Victor’s daemon, we may have our last gasp in the Arctic, maybe the last livable ecosystem on the planet. But unlike the mythological versions, we will have created our own Great Flood!

    • Charles Cooper

      I am sure I am not alone, that others here have seen a family sitting at a table in a restaurant, and everyone is holding a phone or is bent over one. So, this novel ends with one creature isolated on an ice-raft floating away from another.

      The poets of Mary Shelley’s time were deeply concerned with how technology had isolated humans from the natural world, but the prophetic brilliance of this novelist is that she shows the isolation of humans from the human community. It might even be said that in the final scene the monster becomes more human and his creator less of one. Frightening.

  • Dorothy G. Ferguson

    I heard that Shelley wrote the story about her relationship with her father. He was a physician, right?

  • Please join us for the opening lecture of our year-long celebration for Frankenstein @ 200 in the San Francisco Bay Area:

    ​​”Frankenstein at the Ballet: Mary Shelley and Her ‘Hideous Progeny,'” Professor Ellen Peel, Department of Comparative and World Literature and the Department of English, San Francisco State University (See Poster-pdf)

    February 28, 2018, 2-4pm, Student Union, Meeting Room 4B, San Jose State University – free and open to the public (SJSU Parking & Directions to SJSU)

    Description: Reflecting on the origin of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley later wrote that she was often asked “how I, then a young girl, came to think of . . . so very hideous an idea.” We will attempt to answer that question by looking at cultural and scientific forces in her day, and by considering her early life–which itself could be a Gothic tale. We will then ask how the novel has managed to play so powerfully on our wishes and fears for two centuries, becoming a myth continually reborn in new avatars, now including a ballet being staged by the San Francisco Ballet March 6-11, 2018.

    Biography: Ellen Peel is a professor in the Department of Comparative and World Literature and the Department of English at San Francisco State University. Her fields include science fiction and fantasy, the novel, and feminist and narrative theory. She is working on a book about Frankenstein and other accounts of “constructed bodies.”

    For more information, teaching materials, and other information, see https://frankenstein200yrs.wordpress.com/2018/02/07/frankenstein-at-the-ballet-2/

    We have a full slate of events planned throughout the Bay Area in conjunction with Stanford Medicine’s Frankenstein@200.

    Follow us for updates:

    Twitter: @Frank200yrs

    Instagram: @Frank200yrs

    Organized by:

    Dr. Katherine. D. Harris, San Jose State University

    Dr. Kirstyn Leuner, Santa Clara University

    Dr. Omar F. Miranda, University of San Francisco

    An affiliated event with Romantic Bicentennials and Frankenreads

  • sciencebabe

    I enjoyed hearing this discussion on podcast only recently. I felt moved to share my thoughts because I didn’t hear this perspective mentioned in the discussion, and I think there are implications throughout the story when viewed this way.

    When I first read the original version of Frankenstein, it took a leap of faith to accept that Dr. Frankenstein would suddenly perceive his “creature” as an “abomination” and become fearful of him. It made no sense to me that a scientist with a vision of helping the world would decide he’d made a mistake, not because his creature was ugly, but because he was an abomination.

    Then when I read Shelley’s re-write of the story, I was at first put off by all the religious content that she added. But then I realized that she was answering my initial problem with the story – it was religious views that made the awakened creature an abomination. The scientist was not put off by using body parts to help mankind. It was not until he animated his creature that it occurred to him that his bringing the creature to life was calling forth a demonic nature which frightened him.

    I toured Davidge Hall in Maryland where the building (built in 1807) had secret exits in case the religious mobs came beating down their doors as they were performing educational autopsies. The experiments being done with galvanism during these times also brought the wrath of the religious. As you know, Shelley was involved in philosophical discussions with people on the cutting edge of thinking, and was well informed of what was going on in the intellectual and political worlds.

    I believe that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was about the clash of morals between science and religion, as it was playing itself right there in her time. And as for Frankenstein’s poor creature, well – as they say – religion ruins everything. For me this adds an even deeper layer of tragedy to the story.

    I hadn’t considered this before listening to the discussion on the Science Friday Book club, but it seems to me that the Prometheus reference would be that Dr. Frankenstein stole from religion (god) the ability to create life. And that was (is?) a “punishable offense” you could say.

    The thoughts on the Frankenstein’s story that Richard Holmes puts down in the (completely enthralling) book: The Age of Wonder (chapter 7 Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul), are touching and seem deeply considered. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy taking a look at it.

    With sincere regards

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