On Thursday, Feb. 2, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will hold an event called “The Spawn of Frankenstein” in Washington, D.C., to discuss the novel’s legacy. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Perhaps the best-remembered aspect of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel about scientific creativity and its consequences is the gruesome visage of Victor Frankenstein’s creation. His “hideously deformed and loathsome appearance” animates the novel’s central narrative arc of violent retribution—the monster isn’t inherently enraged or vengeful, but rather made that way through a series of rejections and abuses by people (including his creator) repelled by “a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”
Shelley conceived of Victor’s creature when she began writing the novel in the summer of 1816, during the twilight of the Industrial Revolution. Some of the technologies that shaped Shelley’s early 19th-century Britain—railways, mechanized factories, coal-powered steam engines, public bio-electrical experiments—were brutal, complex, ugly, dangerous machines that profoundly disrupted life and damaged the natural environment. Appropriately, the creature, which is used to tell a parable about the thrills and potential perils of technological achievement, has similar attributes. He’s physically intimidating, aesthetically off-putting, and vastly more powerful and efficient than a human—not unlike the spinning jennies and rolling mills taking over industry at the time. The world he inhabits is similarly freighted with the anxieties that Shelley and her contemporaries may have felt, or observed in the public imagination, about the vertiginous times they were living through.
Nearly 200 years later, Shelley’s themes of innovation, responsibility, and hubris still resonate. Frankenstein is among the most felicitously adapted and interpreted stories in English-language literature. We see it everywhere now: breakfast cereals, Halloween costumes, anti-GMO campaigns. But most frequently, we see it in film and television, which has produced dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Frankenstein stories, in genres ranging from bawdy comedy to pulse-pounding thriller. The decisions made during adaptation—which elements to carry through, which to transform or leave out—shape the stories we tell. Each adaptation tries to offer a new spin, to tailor Shelley’s story to a new technological and social moment. And in the past decade, there’s been a telling trend: Our Franken-creatures aren’t hideous. They’re sexy.
Take the frothy horror yarn Splice from 2009. The film features a pair of scientists who try to foster the genetically engineered human-animal hybrid they made in secret. Their female creation, whom they name Dren, is overtly sexualized. Played by French model and actress Delphine Chanéac, Dren possesses exaggerated versions of characteristics that are currently considered attractive for women in the West: large eyes, a thin but muscular build, full lips. Even her inhumanly wide-set eyes give her a slightly disconcerting alien quality that is often sought after in high-fashion modeling. In one of the many steamy moments in the narrative, she has sex with one of her creators, played by Adrien Brody, while she is fully nude and sporting a rather ostentatious set of wings.
Splice shares this surprising tendency to sex-up Shelleylike creations with other cinematic Frankenstein adaptations that squarely confront emerging technologies. Among the notables: Ex Machina (2015), a Cartesian puzzle-box about robotics; Her (2013), Spike Jonze’s hipster meditation on artificial intelligence and human-machine love; and of course, the obsessively buzzed and theorized Westworld (2016), another puzzler featuring highly sexualized, increasingly self-aware A.I. “hosts” and the more grandiose seduction of an entire alternate world that enraptures its guests. (Though Scarlett Johansson never physically materializes on that screen in Her, her voice is immediately recognizable and summons mental images of the woman inside the machine.)
In these examples the creature hasn’t just become sexy—it’s transformed from male to female. The feminine framing of Dren and her cinematic counterparts make them seem less physically formidable then they actually are. Despite his herculean physical fortitude, the creature in the novel is quite emotionally vulnerable. The creatures from Splice and its ilk are more self-possessed, either stoically rational or calculating, but they take advantage of gender stereotypes to convincingly play at vulnerability and victimhood, to capitalize on the preconceived gendered biases of their creators. Ex Machina exemplifies this tendency: Ava, the artificially intelligent robot, expertly plays her creator and his unwitting Turing-tester sidekick against each other by embodying the damsel in distress.
These racier revisions to the classic tale reveal much more than Hollywood’s penchant for the salacious. Beneath their titillating tendencies, the creations’ shifts from hideous to sexy reflect a shift in what the modern Western world fears most about technological change: Rather than being brutally overpowered by our innovations, we might be seduced into complacency by their attractiveness and ease.
Many of our contemporary fears about privacy and surveillance are tied to beautiful, aggressively convenient consumer technologies. Glossy smartphones, sleek search engines, elegant apps, cloud-enabled home systems—all beckoning to put their easy charm at our fingertips. Our increasingly interconnected social, financial, and medical technologies are slick, intuitive, and fun. Many popular digital services, with uses ranging from dieting and balancing our household budgets to quitting smoking and getting a better night’s sleep, are infused with gameplay, deploying amusement to encourage us to change our behavior for the better, and of course to share oodles of personal information.
These vast stores of personal information, managed by private enterprises and often made available to security and law enforcement agencies, add up to a detailed digital footprint that could, potentially, be used for mass surveillance regimes; analyzed, swapped, and exchanged by companies seeking ever-more sophisticated ways to sell to us; evaluated by prospective creditors and employers to determine our fitness for loans or jobs; exploited by extralegal scammers to guess our passwords, gain access to our finances, develop intricate, personalized scams to defraud unsuspecting loved ones; and more. The data solicited by these services, often quietly or invisibly, forms a sort of digital shadow self that can be used and manipulated in countless ways without our input or control.
Arguing for a ban related to human cloning research in the late 1990s, Leon Kass, chairman of George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, controversially invoked “the wisdom of repugnance”: the idea that disgust can be “the emotional expression of deep wisdom,” cluing us in that a scientific or technological practice is nasty, sinister, a threat to our humanity. Shelley’s Frankenstein takes the contrary ethical stance, showing us the hazards of repugnance—how the creature is turned violent and vengeful after rejection by people horrified at his appearance. Today’s sexy and seductive technologies present us the same difficult task of discounting outward appearances, but in reverse, challenging us to glimpse the unseemly, frequently profit-driven, and potentially dangerous systems and practices churning under the appealing veneer. Responsible engagement with emerging technologies ranging from iPhones and Google search to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering requires us to reject physiognomy, the age-old fallacy that we can deduce the virtue or vice of something (or someone) by assessing its exterior beauty. The sexiness of our contemporary Frankenstein’s creatures captures the enormous difficulty of rejecting technological charm—after all, in Splice, Ex Machina, Her, and Westworld, the irresistible creatures come out on top, outfoxing, transcending, or physically eviscerating their hapless creators and caretakers.
Beyond the full-frontal differences between the creatures, there’s also a less obvious, but perhaps more jarring, difference between Shelley’s tale and these recent Hollywood adaptations—the contrast between their creators. The original Victor Frankenstein, for all his foibles, at least had the good sense to fear his own creation. In the novel, he’s grandiose about his ambitions but ambivalent once he sees the power of what he has wrought. But the modern innovators onscreen—a Silicon Valley CEO in Ex Machina; researchers at a pharmaceutical conglomerate in Splice; Westworld’s army of computer scientists, roboticists, and tissue engineers—don’t shrink; rather, they’re assured of their own mastery. A similar confidence can be seen in today’s high-risk innovators such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, J. Craig Venter—audacious men who wear their ambitions proudly. If Shelley’s Victor warns us about the dangers of youthful scientific ambition without a plan for follow-through, these modern-day Frankenstein stories warn us about highly competent corporate creators, all money and ego, ready to seduce consumers into their particular visions of progress. They’re untroubled by the kind of moral waffling that makes Victor such a compelling and infuriating protagonist.