The old saying “Life imitates art” couldn’t be more true when it comes to the ‘Prophets of Science Fiction.’ Last night Ridley Scott’s show premiered on the Science Channel and it didn’t disappoint.
The show is filmed in a documentary style switching back and forth between the featured author and their writings and the present scientific discovery/procedures once thought of as fiction during the author’s time. This show is Scott’s attempt to find “the connection between creative inspiration and scientific progress.” In addition, other scientists and modern day authors chime in and give their interpretations of the episode’s subject.
The first show focused on author Mary Shelley and how her novel ‘Frankenstein’ started a whole new genre as well as how it foretold about the medical and scientific advances that we now take for granted. The story of how Shelley wrote the novel is well known. She was with a group of friends when Lord Byron suggested a contest among them of who could write the most terrifying story by the end of summer. From this challenge came ‘Frankenstein.’
The background of Shelley’s life gave great insight as to how her writing mirrored her life and why Frankenstein’s monster was written with the characteristics that he had. Shelley’s mom had died 11 days after giving birth so she was left to be raised by her father, a leading philosopher/intellectual. Often times, she was allowed to sit in on the scholarly discussions her father had in their home. Although not allowed to contribute her thoughts to the mix, she sat and observed what was going on and listened to the scientific revolutionary ideas of the time. It is from these talks that the science of her novel was born. On an emotional side, Shelley’s feelings of loneliness and isolation due to her upbringing were transferred in her writing and became the human characteristics of Victor Frankenstein’s Monster.
In the episode, many of the scientific ideas of the times were mentioned and how Shelley expounded on them in her book. For example, the stitching of different body parts to make the Monster came from the practice of doctors having to dig up fresh corpses if they wanted to study anatomy. The use of electricity to bring the Monster to life came from the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani who at the time was doing experiments with corpses and running large amounts of electricity through the body to see what would happen.
Shelley’s inclusion of the ideas that a person’s life force was connected to electrical energy, the use of body parts from dead people, man creating life without a woman or a creater and even creating a life with intelligence were a precursor to what we have now which are studies using electrical impulses to create movement in paralyzed people, the creation of the first self-replicating bacterial cell, the use of organ transplanting (the first successful hand transplant occurred in 1999) and the milestones in artificial intelligence.
In the book, Dr. Frankenstein had the best intentions in creating the Monster but didn’t think through all the consequences. In his fear, he ran away leaving the monster to take care of itself. It was only when the Monster demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him that the doctor realized this new creature could be more horrifying than the Monster in front of him and that she would be able to procreate making more horrific monsters. Then, Dr. Frankenstein realizes what he has done and destroys his monster limb by limb. This is the scene that scholars say transformed the name of Frankenstein to be synonymous with science out of control. A “Frankenstein” moment is now used to explain how the best intentions of scientists go haywire and technology goes berserk.
At the time, there really weren’t any books dealing with science fiction. The type of books that were prevalent were gothic and adventure stories. With ‘Frankenstein’, the genre of science fiction was born. Per many scholars, Shelley’s novel is considered a true sci-fi tale as it contains the 3 elements of a good science fiction book; the story gives plausible account of science of the day, there is a humanistic critique of that science and there is a viable prediction of what’s likely to happen if the ways of science and technology is not controlled.
If you are a person who is fond of back stories and trivia and how concepts are connected, then ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ is right up your alley. The first episode had a lot of light bulb moments and interesting correlations that it has made me look forward to watching more episodes. Next week, Scott will be tackling the works of Phillip K. Dick. Now that will make for a very interesting watch!