Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is a work of speculative fiction that touches on a number of ideas related to transhumanism and transhumanist thought. It is especially notable for the very early date of these explorations, 1818, when the work was first published anonymously. This is an important point, because at the time of publication many of the ideas contained in Frankenstein were so far beyond accepted and socially allowable thought that the author was afraid to publish the book using their true name.
Frankenstein explores a number of transhumanist ideas including the redefinition of the boundary between life and death and the revival of the dead; the production of beings that are hybrids of living and nonliving matter; and more. The monster’s creation explores the production of human/sentient beings by mechanical construction, a scientific and engineered method of procreation rather than the “old fashioned way” employed in the existing natural reproductive process.
Many of the basic notions of modern transhumanism were already known in Shelley’s time but in other cases they were considered to be occult or secret knowledge. Within the medical arena, various medical techniques were employed to prevent death or to restore bodily functions that appeared to have stopped. Percy Shelley‘s first wife Harriet drowned in London in 1816. At this time the methods of reviving a drowning victim included use of smelling salts, vigorous shaking of the body, application of electricity (see below), and artificial respiration with a resuscitation bellows. The notion that some people might be revived when otherwise they might be or appear dead was already accepted.
Another notable feature of the Frankenstein story is the use of electricity.
Hollywood effects pioneer and electrician Kenneth Strickfaden also known as “Mr. Electric” built the famous mad scientists laboratory in the 1930s version of Frankenstein and was himself a pioneer of DIY engineering and research.
Electricity was not fully understood at the time of Frankenstein’s original creation in 1818. It wasn’t until 1750 that Benjamin Franklin proposed his now famous kite experiment to demonstrate that lightning was a form of electricity. Alessandro Volta‘s experiments with static electricity date to American revolutionary period but his development of the voltaic pile, a type of chemical battery, weren’t published until 1791.
By the late-18th century both Volta and Luigi Galvani were experimenting with the effects of electricity on animals and animal parts.
In 1781, while dissecting a frog near a static electricity machine, Galvani’s assistant touched a scalpel to a nerve in its leg accidentally. The frog’s leg jumped in response to the electrical current and both Volta and Galvani repeated this effect in other experiments.
But it was another 50 years before James Clerk Maxwell published his famous equations connecting electrical and magnetic phenomena.
In Shelley’s time, electricity was still quite novel and the full extent of its real properties remained unknown. Frankenstein was a work of speculative science fiction in its time. In this historical context it wasn’t implausible to consider electricity as a scientific demonstration of the mysterious elan vital.
Various parts of the Frankenstein story have roots in true history.
The Frankenstein Castle is a real place, and a historical figure Johann Konrad Dippel lived there. Some think Dippel was Shelley’s model for Frankenstein although this idea is controversial at best. For example Shelley’s Frankenstein expresses an early interest in occult books and alchemy.
Dippel reportedly conducted alchemical experiments, experiments on animals and possibly also on human cadavers. According to Wikipedia, ” at least one local minister apparently accused Dippel of grave robbing, experimenting on cadavers, and keeping company with the Devil.” Whether or not Dippel was the model for Frankenstein, the two stories are connected in that they involve a connection to the castle Frankenstein, include mention of alchemy and revival of the dead.
The connection between life and electricity is of course not entirely fanciful. Cardiac resuscitation and pacemakers are now common, and scientists have recently also speculated about the use of electricity to help regrow or regenerate limbs.
Another important theme in Frankenstein is the transgression of the body.
The monster is constructed from parts of cadavers, an idea which would have been considered horrendous in Shelley’s time, but which we don’t find so unusual given the global system of organ donation and transplantation.
Perhaps the most important theme in Frankenstein for transhumanists to consider is that Dr. Frankenstein creates the “monster”, who as things turn out is a sensitive and sentient being.
But Frankenstein, appalled with his own transgression, rejects his monster denying it the love and support which we all need to survive. This is especially true of children and the monster is in a real sense Frankenstein’s child although it isn’t created by the usual means of procreation.
By rejecting his creation and failing in taking responsibility for it, Frankenstein reveals that the true monster is our fear of those who are different or ugly, and our indifference to the suffering of others. Transhumanists can learn from this cautionary aspect of Frankenstein; we can not escape the consequences of our actions, and we need to approach our creations with compassion and love not fear.
While Boris Karloff’s “bolt neck” version of Frankenstein has become iconic, numerous other creative visions have been presented which are more or less horrifying depending upon your point of view.
The monster was supposed to be frightening in 1931, but this look became so over used and exploited that it isn’t really very frightening any longer. Andy Warhol famously revisited the Frankenstein myth adding a sexual element much to the shock and horror of film critics.
Bernie Wrightston’s version takes a more macabre illustrative approach showing clearly the cadaverous nature of the monster.
Whichever version you prefer, the story is now in the public domain and available online for free.