Throughout January, Futurography focused on the legacy of Frankenstein, tracing the scientific and cultural reverberations of that 199-year-old novel. We looked at its relationship to the anti-vaxxer movement, how it can help A.I. researchers, and even why our modern monsters are so much sexier. But we’re also interested in what you have to say, so we’ve written up the results of our survey on the topic. Meanwhile, Futurography continues this month with our course on the essentials of cybersecurity self-defense.
By and large, those who wrote in agreed that Frankenstein still has lessons to teach us, though they had a range of thoughts about how it might do so. Some held that the novel offers a warning against the unintended consequences of our actions, while others took it as a story of hubris. “Just because you can create life, doesn’t mean you can, or should try to, control it,” one wrote, even as another took the opposite approach, proposing that it’s imperative to “[c]ontrol the monsters that you build.”
Some embraced more philosophical approaches, as did one who wrote, “A ‘monster’ is an assigned concept that becomes self-fulfilling.” And yet another described the book as “a profound essay on … the male inability to escape the trap of masculine thinking,” arguing, “Given the opportunity to create a new being, instead of nobility and kindness, they enshrine strength and violence.”
A similarly contemplative attitude manifested in many readers’ response to the question of whether we should worry about scientists “playing god.” As one put it, “We all play God. We think we know best and continually lament that other people aren’t more like us.” Meanwhile, another observed, “If by ‘playing God’ you mean blithely creating things without looking to the consequences and impacts they may have in the real world, yes, this is a concern,” before adding, “good old-fashioned omnipotent hubris” was less worrisome, even if it was still a concern. And at least one thought the framing of the question was wrong, telling us, “There is no god. Stop using the false concept and perpetuating it.”
Whatever their stances on the question of divine overreach, readers pointed to a variety of possible Frankentechnologies. Cloning seems troubling, wrote one, explaining, “Already had that as I am a twin.” Several others echoed this concern in one way or another, though one tossed “AI systems capable of creative thought” into the hat as well. Some got far more specific, pointing to particular examples such as reports of a lab-created human-pig hybrid embryo. And one suggested that the real problem isn’t with bad science, but with scientific illiteracy: “It’s not so much the Frankentech that worries me as it is the uproar over it that seems to support pseudoscience and charlatans’ quests to have things like GMOs banned or labeled with no real evidence of harm.”
One thing that didn’t seem to divide readers? Their love for Young Frankenstein, which many cited as their favorite pop cultural incarnation of the original book. Several more pointed to the seminal 1931 James Whale film adaptation, about which one acknowledged, “I know it’s nothing like the book; they really seem to have keyed into the supposition of Victor’s madness/the Creature’s badness and gone off on a tangent from there.” Others nodded to an array of ’80s and ’90s gems, including Blade Runner, Robocop, and Demolition Man. Here too, though, at least one reader expressed an ongoing frustration with the Frankensteinian genre, since all adaptations “depict scientists in simplistic, comic book fashion.”
Finally, readers got speculative in response to our query about how the book would have differed if it had been written today. “His parts would be grown in a lab instead of stolen from graves,” one suggested, even as others proposed that the story would bypass the physical altogether and focus on artificial intelligences. Among those who thought that corporeality would remain important, some seemed to agree with Joey Eschrich, holding that the monster would be a lot sexier today. Beyond such superficial changes, however, many readers were convinced that the central themes would persist. Exploring this idea, one wrote, “Our simultaneous fascination with and fear of technological advancements seems to create [a] tension that’s worthy of dramatists in every century.”
And that, dear readers, is why we’re still reading Frankenstein today.
This article is part of the Frankenstein installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.