The Automaton Sequence: 3.0: ‘You are my creator, but I am your master’; Robot Anxiety

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And so here we are, the dreaded Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus week. For the purpose of this article, I am referring to Mary Shelley’s opus, and to a lesser extent Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as the two are closely linked, and my preferred interpretations of the Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein is the root of most, if not all, anxieties in relation to robots, A.I., clones, doppelgangers, and technology in general. As Marie O’Mahony suggests, Frankenstein set the agenda for science as the harbinger of man’s destruction (Mahony, M 2002, pp. 14), and though it may not be wholly visual in the text, once you dig deeper, it is obvious that Shelley’s piece is evocative of the paralysis of fear, and looming dread of unrestrained knowledge, and man’s drive to, unknowingly, strive for death through their creations.

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‘What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow’, Mary Shelley on writing Frankenstein.

Those reading this may envision the bolts in the neck, the copious amounts of electricity pumped through the rigid patchworked corpse of the creature on the solid, metal slab. The, ‘it’s alive!’ from James Whale’s movie hums like a minute case of tinnitus as the silent, grumbling creature looms overhead like a wafting smell of disintegrating chunk of flesh on stilts. This is not my preferred reading of Frankenstein, on the contrary, I am fascinated how Shelley’s novel attempts to depict the genius of a misguided scientist, one who wishes to reclaim life from the clutches of death and reinvigorate the brash scientific community with the macabre reimagining of life itself. It is a reading that understands that Frankenstein is a text to be read against the Enlightened, those who believe that it is by the glory of God that they exist, his boon and voice in which they sup. To revive the dead, or to live forever is a sin, for humans cannot, or should not become immortal, for that is not truly living a human life.

It is here that this reading of Victor Frankenstein becomes intrigued by the intricacies of life and death, for one cannot exist without the other. He goes:

‘Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.’

(Shelley, M 1818, pp. 126)

God complex aside, Frankenstein is smitten with the boundaries of life and death, primarily death as it alludes to, at least Frankenstein himself, the greatest scientific challenge to face mankind. But to go one step further, and to bring this to my Čapekian preference, I suggest that by unearthing the grave into his service, he is unwittingly attempting to create a slave race, a race that “owe their being” to him, and him alone.

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‘There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand’ (Shelley, M 1818, pp. 12).

Though it eluded my initial reading of Frankenstein, it is obvious with a brief reading of Gothic Science Fiction edited by Emily Alder and Sara Wasson, that Frankenstein is a novel concerned with the bright, but deluded fantasy of a scientist, Frankenstein himself, a symbol of overreaching science (Alder, E & Wasson, S 2012, pp. 5) in attempt to defy death through a mindless servitude of the uncanny unnaturality of everlasting life.

The anxiety lies in the foundations of the Enlightenment. To these thinkers, people are living and dreaming beings with a burgeoning love of science and natural order. Frankenstein defies that with his creation, a creation that Franco Moretti would call, a totalising monster, one who threatens to never be vanquished, and one immune to temporary restorations of order and peace (cited in Halberstam, J 1995, pp.29).

It is my thesis that the modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein, the progenitor of the modern mad scientist, and demented, albeit altruistic individual, is symbolic of creator of the end, much like Rossum last week. The robot, in this case the creature moulded into shape by Frankenstein through shadowy, and murky means, is not just symbolic of life giving and defiance of death, but a force of nature with the ability to wreak havoc. As the creature threatens Frankenstein:

‘How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’

(Shelley, M 1818, pp. 149)

And here we have the problem that all robot texts eventually boil down to–the inability to control the machine. The creature is reminiscent of the atomic bomb, a harbinger of doom or a disciplinary sign, a warning of what may happen (Halberstam, J 1995, pp.72). Unlike Rossum’s robots, the creature is a singular being born from the whims of science treading far deeper than it should. Rossum created robots for economical reasons, whilst Frankenstein defied his masters and rerouted his brilliance to surge through the underside of the Enlightenment. As Frankenstein dies, so does his creature, for the monster, and the robot, are but our masters in the grand scheme of this cosmic joke.

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‘The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine’ (Shelley, M 1818, pp. 70).

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