Prophets of Science Fiction, part one – Mary Shelley

Prophets of Science Fiction is a documentary television program that aired on the Science Channel for a single, eight-episode season between 2011-12.  Produced and hosted by Ridley Scott, each episode focused on a different writer of sci-fi, exploring their life and work and attempting to correlate the fictional science of their stories with the factual applications in the real world.  Thanks to Netflix, i discovered this terrific program (which is also streaming on the Science Channel’s website).  Frankly, i was pleasantly surprised to find the program suggested by Netflix, as their algorithm’s analysis of my viewing habits – Dexter, Breaking Bad, Star Trek, The Writer’s Room and the like – somehow comes up with picks like Benchwarmers and The Croods.  As a fan of the genre, i’ve often been amazed at how concepts and constructs from works of the past have so clearly come to fruition in the present.  Ideas like the flip-open communicators from Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future to Daniel F. Galouye’s total environment simulator, presented as works of fiction some 50 years ago, are not only real parts of the world we live in today but in many cases even more mind-bending than their speculative counterparts.

Unlike the hyperserialized programs that are the usual culprits of the binge-watching phenomenonProphets of Science Fiction does not take viewers on an emotionally-invested roller coaster ride with a cathartic ending that compels the audience to watch successive episodes.  My experience with the show found me frequently nodding off before completing a single installment, but this was due more to queuing it up when i should have been going to sleep.  Nevertheless, the complete 5-plus hour series did keep me coming back night after night for its blending of re-enactments, expert interviews and animated recreations centered on the worlds these imaginative writers created.

Prophets of Science Fictino

For the series initial offering, the focus was on Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.  The show opens by explaining that Shelley was essentially the creator of the science fiction genre, something i had never really thought of before.  It makes perfect sense though, as Dr. Michio Kaku – the theoretical physicist featured in i think every single science-related program – explains that Frankenstein, and science fiction in general, asks what happens when “the best intentions of science goes haywire and technology fights back.”

In the case of Shelley’s most famous work, she examines those questions through a story that brings together her own personal tragedies and her academic upbringing.  While struggling to develop an idea for a ghost story, Shelley has a nightmare that she describes in the foreword of the book’s 1831 edition.

Frankenstein inside cover
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

But it was not simply a scary dream that brought about the creation of one of literature’s most enduring creatures.  Instead, it was Shelley’s intuitive melding of what are now considered the three elements of any great work of science fiction, packaged in a way that offers more than just an entertaining read.  At their core, sci-fi stories seek to offer a morality tale that goes to the heart of the purpose of technology.  They do this by giving a plausible account of modern science, a humanistic critique of that science, and a possible prediction of what could happen if that science is uncontrolled.

In the case of Frankenstein, popular culture tells us that the tale is one of science gone wrong.  But in Shelley’s view, that’s not the case.  Her story – and personal view – is that controversial science is acceptable, but only if you take responsibility for the outcome, something at which her protagonist Victor Frankenstein fails.  Fixed only on his goal of reanimating dead flesh, his quest is motivated by the devastating loss of his wife – an analog of Shelley’s own sense of loss, that of her mother days just days after giving birth to her, and the loss of her own children as infants.  In fact, a dream she had wherein she held one of her deceased babies near a fire, the warmth of which brought it back to life, served as another springboard to the idea that energy or the “spark of life” could give rebirth to the dead.

What Prophets does, that i found most intriguing, is use the writers’ works as a fulcrum to examine the past and the future.  The program does an excellent job of showing how that and other events in Shelley’s life lead her to pose the questions she does, and like the best works of art we learn that their creator has injected much of themselves into the work.  For Frankenstein, we learn that events such as her mother’s and children’s deaths play heavily into the story she fashions for Victor Frankenstein, and the science behind his endeavors flows from the leading science of those times such as the work of Italian physicist Luigi Galvani.  His work with electricity, which included experimenting on cadavers, was considered cutting edge and the term “galvanization” is named after him and his work.  And therein lay the scientific foundation for Frankenstein – taking those concepts one step further by asking “what if…?”

This is where Prophets starts to get  really interesting, by flashing forward to the modern day, where electrical stimulation research has progressed more than Shelley may have imagined 200 years ago.  Fascinated by the power and possibility of science, her speculations terrified her and she rightly believed others would feel the same fear.  But in the context of what we know today, the show focuses on the hopeful work at a UCLA lab using electrical stimulation to give a man paralyzed by a spinal injury the potential to walk again.  This is where the show’s title, which is perhaps a bit dramatic, speaks to the forward-thinking nature of science fiction writers. Did Shelley, with her 19th century academic curiosity, foresee the possible uses of electricity in biomedical applications in some prophetic fashion?  Certainly, she understood intellectually what her Victor Frankenstein character was trying to do, as well as the danger in unleashing something more powerful than he could fully appreciate.

And that is often the danger of science both fictional and real – that our reach will exceed our grasp.

Science fiction writers like Shelley, and likewise her creation Dr. Frankenstein, in a sense  play gods.  They create universes and lives through which they ask questions about life and let their characters try to answer them. In her book, Victor is immediately frightened by his creation and his responsibility, casting the creature aside.  In this respect, Prophets doesn’t disregard the potential negative implications of man’s scientific research either.  Likening Frankenstein’s creature to work in artificial intelligence, the program notes the creature’s vast intelligence – an unanticipated outcome.  Akin to the supercomputers like IBM’s Watson, the creature was able to think intelligently and learn through observation, prompting the narrator to ask “how will the world change when computers become smarter than humans?”  Certainly, it is a question worth considering – something you’ll have to revisit The Long Shot for when i get around to Episode 5’s Isaac Asimov.

Perhaps, like a recent Wired article discusses, mankind will conduct Frankensteinian experiments on ourselves, zapping our brains with electricity to enhance our own lives (for you science fiction writers, there’s an idea worth exploring).  Or maybe we’ll evolve through some sort of synthesis with machines into an entirely new race, if research like The Blue Brain Project’s attempt to reconstruct a mammalian brain piece by piece by physically connecting computers to real brains’ neo-cortical columns is successful.  There’s even a branch of research called mitochondrial replacement resulting in what’s being colloquially called “three-parent babies” that detractors are saying is a slippery slope towards a “Frankenstein future.”  Other genetic research is getting ever-closer to allowing people to design their own children, and breakthrough work from the Human Genome Project already showing successes in creating synthetic life.

At the end of the day though, the truly astonishing thing that Prophets brings to light is not some quasi-religious revelation these writers have that give them visions of the future.  Instead, it’s the notion that their works are a coalescence of their fears, knowledge and curious natures about mankind’s use of technology.  That so many of their ideas later bear real fruit is not precisely the point.  Instead, i consider books like Frankenstein as both an inspiration for aspiring scientists – many of whose fascination with science fiction led them to careers in science – and an ethical guideline to offer caution to keep research in check.

*     *     *     *     *

Have you watched Prophets of Science Fiction yet?  If not, i highly recommend heading to Netflix or and checking it out.  Episode 2 focuses on my personal favorite sci-fi writer: Philip K. Dick and i’m looking forward to watching it again before sharing a write-up at The Long Shot.  And with all the news of commercial space flight and colonies on Mars, my upcoming conversation with a leading voice in space law should provide some intriguing insights into Episode 4’s Arthur C. Clarke.


Leave a Reply