Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Notes Introducing a Debate Unit on Transformative Technologies

This is a little backgrounder on Shelley’s Frankenstein that I created for a Powerpoint presentation to a high-school Debate class. We were starting a unit in which students would be debating the merits of various emerging transformative technologies.

In preparation for this unit, I want to tell you about a truly remarkable young woman who at about your age, about 200 years ago, did an amazing thing. That’s her boyfriend and, later, her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in the center. The other fellow is their friend George Gordon, Lord Byron. Percy Shelley and Byron were both poets—very great poets.

Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin, into a family of political radicals. Her father, William Godwin, was a Socialist utopian. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is widely considered to be the founder of the Women’s Rights Movement.

When Mary was only 16, much to the displeasure of her father, she became involved with the young radical poet Percy Shelley. Although Shelley died young, just before his 30th birthday, he had already produced work that made him, according to critic Harold Bloom, the greatest poet who ever wrote in the English language, excepting, perhaps, Shakespeare. Percy Shelley certainly was the greatest of the Romantic poets. It’s impossible to exaggerate how much his work influenced our culture. He invented a way of speaking, in verse, that has permeated our popular culture and personal lives—the ways in which we talk about our feelings, about romantic love, about justice and idealism. Every popular love ballad owes a debt to him. He was a brilliant intellect, a master of ancient Greek, an idealist, a vegetarian, a political and social radical. He died when his boat was destroyed while sailing on the Gulf of Sperzia, in Italy. It is possible that the British intelligence services arranged for his boat to be rammed and capsized, for Percy Shelley supported Irish rebellion against the British and he wrote in favor of revolution—like those that had occurred in the United States and France—to overthrow the nobility and to establish social equality and democracy. Shelley detested tyranny, and he was fearless. It’s easy to see why Mary was attracted to him. Many of the young women of Europe, at the time, were. He was something of a counterculture hero of his day.

In 1816, Mary and Percy and Mary’s half-sister Claire Claremont joined Lord Byron at a rented house on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, for a holiday. Byron was rich, and he could afford this sort of thing. (Shelley was also from a noble family of some means, but his father had disowned him for his radical behavior and views.) Also joining the friends was a young English doctor, Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori.

The friends had intended to spend their summer holiday sailing and hiking in the mountains.

As it turned out, that year was known as “the year without a summer.” A volcano had erupted on an island in Indonesia, throwing enough dust into the air to affect climate worldwide. The weather was awful, and the friends were confined indoors in rainy, cold weather.

The friends amused themselves by telling German ghost stories, and Bryon proposed a contest: They would each write a ghost story to tell to the group. Naturally, since Percy and Lord Byron were both famous writers (though they were quite young), they expected that one of them would win the contest.

But Mary Shelley surprised everyone by writing the best story of all, a novella that would make her internationally famous. Though she was only 18 years old, it was here, at this time, that she wrote the novel Frankenstein.

And Polidori wrote, for this same contest, the first vampire novel, The Vampyre—a riveting tale, but not nearly as well written as Mary’s was. She won the contest—and immortal fame.

Consider this fact: Humans have never created a new technology that they have not then used. They have never looked at a technological possibility and said, “No, that’s crazy. We shouldn’t do that.” But that’s just the question that young Mary Shelley’s novel raised: “Should we do that?”

 

And so, at the age of 18, Mary Shelley created a new genre of literature—the science fiction novel—and a new area of thought regarding what moral limits, if any, should be placed on technological and scientific “progress.”

Mary’s idea for the novel was based on one of the latest scientific discoveries of her time. The Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had discovered that if you hooked nerve cells up to electricity, the muscles operated by those nerves would twitch. Many thought that this “animal electricity” might be the secret to life itself. Mary wrote a novel in which a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, uses galvanism to reanimate a creature sewn together from corpses of the dead. Today, the science of the electrical properties of cells, including neural cells, is called electrophysiology. (Note: the scientist, not the “monster,” is named Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein’s creation is rejected and unloved and unnamed. The creature refers to himself as the “Adam of [Victor’s] labours.”)

So, the overarching, Essential Question, for our debate will be

Should technological progress proceed unchecked?

or

Should limits be imposed on some technological developments?

Issues we shall be debating related to this question:

  • Greater-than-human general artificial intelligence
  • Genetic engineering of humans/manipulation of the human genome/designer babies
  • Indefinite life extension/the end of aging
  • High-tech surveillance
  • Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs
  • Human-computer hybrids, or cyborgs
  • Education via computers versus education via physical classrooms and human teachers

Look around you. How many items can you list, in your immediate environment, that are artificial, or made by humans using technology? (Yes, even that bag of potato chips is a technological marvel.)

What are some ways in which we benefit from technology? What are some the existential risks (risks to our continued existence) that our technologies pose?

Are there technologies that should be banned or strictly controlled? What limits or controls should exist? And are such limits or controls even possible? (Consider: What if some countries ban genetic engineering but others don’t? What happens then?)

  • Why is it especially important for young people to be asking these questions? (Consider: You will live in the world that these new technologies create.)

Copyright 2018, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. Feel free to share with credit.

NB: A compassionate and erudite reader, teacher and education activist Christine Langhoff of Massachusetts, correctly chided me, after seeing this post, for not mentioning that Percy Shelley, in his treatment of women and of his children, was a spoiled, “callow cad.” She’s right about that.

For more by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Science Fiction go here:

For some Science Fiction stories by Bob Shepherd, go here:

For more on Education Deform, by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more on teaching literature and writing, by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

For short stories, flash fictions, and writing about fiction, by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/short-stories/

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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