Sept. 18, 2018

Modern myth of Frankenstein goes under the microscope

Art meets science and technology at Campus Collisions

One of the most famous warnings ever written about the potential consequences of science may not quite be what you think it is.

In honour of the 200th anniversary this year of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, three professors at the University of Calgary explored passages from her novel at a free event during the Campus Collisions portion of the Beakerhead art, science and engineering festival.

“I always find there are a staggering amount of people that haven’t read the novel,” says Dr. Anthony Camara, PhD, one of the experts who will be speaking at Frankenstein at 200.

“They expect it to be this very one-sided invective against science — that human beings shouldn’t play God — but the novel says the crime is not so much building the monster as it is neglecting him and not being a proper parent. I think this is very much reflective of the current ambivalence about science and technology as something that can potentially be abused, but that we also need to use to alleviate certain forms of human suffering.”

Most people’s understanding of the story, which was first published in 1818, is likely based on adaptations such as the Universal horror movie from 1931 starring Boris Karloff as a bestial, mute monster. But the novel instead describes an articulate, sensitive being who can understand great works of literature, such as Paradise Lost, only to become murderously twisted by loneliness after being shunned by his creator due to his physical appearance.

“Students are always shocked by that inversion — that his creator, Victor Frankenstein, is the one who seems to be the monster,” says Camara, who is an assistant professor in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts.

Frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Anthony Camara

'It's not just a novel'

As current fears about the consequences of science and technology grow over everything from climate change to artificial intelligence and genetically modified “Frankenfoods,” Camara says it is vital to understand the nuances of the original novel (whose full title is Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, in reference to the ancient Greek myth of the Titan who created humanity and gave them fire).

“It’s not just a novel,” says Camara. “Frankenstein  is really a fundamental kind of modern mythology for our society because it speaks so profoundly to our relationship with science and technology.”

Besides Camara, Frankenstein at 200 includes associate professors Dr. Stefania Forlini, PhD, and Dr. David Sigler, PhD, also of the Department of English.