Friday, January 23, 2009

Mary Shelley's Worst Nightmare

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

The products of technological advance are, themselves, neutral. What we do with rocks, sharp sticks or nukes, however, is a moral issue. The emergence of 'artificial intelligence' carries implications for warfare --'automated nukes' and 'robotized warfare'. The word 'Frankenstein' has come to mean 'monsters of our own creation', monsters beyond our control.

Until Isaac Asimov's seminal "I, Robot", most robotic oriented sci-fi could be summed up in a sentence: Robots were created and destroyed their creator.

Some Sci-fi authors imagined an advanced race taming both its own destructive impulses as well as those of its robots. The fifties classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, is premised upon the use of robotic power to impose peace. [See: Sci-Noir: The Day the Earth Stood Still (Again!)]

Asimov attempted to 'create' a 'noble' robot that could not harm a human being. Thus was born in his 1942 short story "Runaround", Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics'
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The very word 'Frankenstein' has come to mean 'monsters of our own creation' but more generally, monsters beyond our control. 'Frankenstein' has come to symbolize the Faustian bargain made by man with his own technology. The '50's Sci-Fi classic, Forbidden Planet, echoed Shakespeare's The Tempest which, likewise, dealt with the same theme. [See: Monsters From the ID]

The film, Rowing with the Wind, is set near Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1816. It was then that Lord Byron challenged Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her stepsister Claire to write the ultimate horror story. Mary Shelley's response to the challenge made literary history: Frankenstein.
It was a brilliant piece of work for someone so young. But it came out of a hotbed of post-industrial-revolution intellectuals, steeped in a rising concern over what science and industrialization were doing to the world.

Her young protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, tells us early on that

My reluctant steps led me to M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy, an uncouth man, but deeply imbued in the secrets of his science.
And under Krempe's instruction, Frankenstein's Faustian quest for knowledge takes him to the terrifying secret of life. His product, the monster, is more articulate, more intelligent, and more able to feel pain than his human maker. The monster produced by Frankenstein's intelligence and creative drive had Frankenstein's intelligence and sensibilities, but in a kind of grotesque parody.

--Dr. John Lienhard, Frankenstein
In Rowing with the Wind, Mary Shelley fears that the 'monster' of her fertile imagination has become, in a sense, real as she witnesses a series of tragedies befalling the people around her.

The 'monster' of this film is not the one of her famous story --Frankenstein. The 'monster' of this film is seen throughout but never actively causing deaths. It is the vehicle with which the film explores the four disparate personalities, their intellects, their eccentricities, their fears and passions, their 'monsters from the Id'.

The film takes place near Geneva, where Byron had made his challenge, where Mary Shelley birthed her 'monster'. The photography is scenic and colorful; the costumes recall the era; the dialogue is witty and of the period.

Unless there is a dramatic and universal change of attitudes, mankind will fall victim to its own robotic weapons of mass destruction. Already, sophisticated 'robots' have been built and tested. A 'second generation' will make Robocop look antique. Future generations may utilize exotic or nuclear power. They may fly, see through buildings, target victims with a panoply of high-tech detection technologies not dreamed of today. This is truly 'Frankenstein' beyond Mary Shelley's worst nightmares.
Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

--William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1950

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