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The moral and philosophical landscape it might have explored would be no less rich.That Victor did not do this—that he spurned his creation the moment he had made it, merely because he judged it ugly—means that, to my mind, the conclusion we should reach is the one that the speculative-fiction author Elizabeth Bear articulates in the new volume.“Now that I had finished,” he says, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” He rejects the “hideous wretch” he has created, but nothing about that seems inevitable.
One might answer that the result would have been a pretty dull and short novel. Imagine the story of Victor struggling to have the creature accepted by a society that shunned it as vile and unnatural.
We would then be reading a book about social prejudice and our preconceptions of nature—indeed, about the kind of prospect one can easily imagine for a human born by cloning today (if such as thing were scientifically possible and ethically permissible).
Such misconceptions might do little justice to Shelley, but as the critic Chris Baldick has written, “That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings with follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth.” In any case, the essays in the MIT edition have surprisingly little to say about the reproductive and biomedical technologies of our age, such as assisted conception, tissue engineering, stem-cell research, cloning, genetic manipulation, and “synthetic human entities with embryo-like features”—the remarkable potential “organisms” with a Frankensteinian name. Frankenstein is still frequently the first point of reference for media reports of such cutting-edge developments, just as it was when human IVF became a viable technique in the early 1970s.
The “Franken” label is now a lazy journalistic cliché for a technology you should distrust, or at least regard as “weird”: Frankenfoods, Frankenbugs.
To condemn Victor for violating “Mother Nature” with his “unnatural being” seems plain disturbing in the 21st century. Haldane in 1924: There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.
Certainly it bears out the complaint of the British biologist J. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.
Is it the case for so-called “three-parent babies” made by mitochondrial transplantation, a misleading term apparently invented for the very purpose of insisting on its unnaturalness?
Would the first human clone be the next “unnatural freak,” if ever that technology becomes possible and desirable?
To Mary Shelley’s biographer Anne Mellor, the novel “portrays the penalties of violating Nature.” This makes it sound as though the attempt to create an “artificial person” from scavenged body parts was always going to end badly: that it was a crazy, doomed project from the start.
But Mary Shelley takes some pains to show that the real problem is not what Victor Frankenstein made, but how he reacted to it.