Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know. Science in Fiction.
|Originally published in the Guardian.|
Can the public perception of the value of science and the trustworthiness of scientists sink any lower? With the approval of the majority of the public, protestors dig up experimental plots of genetically modified crops. Despite recent publicity about such triumphs as a vaccine for malaria, biomedical research is tainted with suspicions that, after Dolly the sheep, armies of human clones are about to be unleashed on the world. Arch rationalist Richard Dawkins publically decamps to Austria to watch the August 11th total eclipse because Cornwall is full of New Age mystics and pagans.
And after Stephen Sommer's CGI-rich 'reimagining' of the 1932 movie The Mummy became this summer's first big box office hit, it's certain that Universal Studios will continue the profitable plundering of its vaults. Yes, the hot rumour is that next on the blocks is another remake of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.
The mad scientist in question is not Henry Frankenstein, Colin Clive's bewildered cypher, but Dr Septimus Pretorius, a vain, fey, Mephistophilean figure with a shock of white hair and a penchant for gin ('It's my only weakness'), played with feline glee by Ernest Thesiger. It is Dr Pretorius, an amoral creature for whom science is merely a way of affirming his own greatness, who embodies all the negative values that are frequently projected onto scientists. It's Dr Pretorius who plays cat-and-mouse games with the homunculi he has created and keeps imprisoned in glass jars; Dr Pretorius who first prompts and then blackmails the reluctant Frankenstein into creating a Bride for his monster; Dr Pretorius who supplies the necessary parts. It is Dr Pretorius who is destroyed by the monster's self-immolation after rejection by the Bride, the Faustian fate ('Hubris clobbered by nemesis', as Brian Aldiss has
succinctly put it) of all mad scientists.
The power-mad scientist whose creation turns upon him is an enduring theme, the stuff of hundreds of schlocky horror and sci-fi movies and novels; Michael Crichton has made a career out of dramatising the catastrophic consequences of scientists over-reaching themselves. It's a theme which touches upon primal fears about the unknown, fears which have been expressed in popular protests against the displacement of skilled artisans by machinery, against atomic weapons, and now against genetic modification. Scientists seem to have grown so powerful and inhuman that, like so many Dr Strangeloves, they'll willingly embrace monstrous creations which threaten to clobber not only them, but the whole world.
While other fictional portrayals of scientists are more sympathetic, although scarcely more realistic. In the pulp fictions of the early twentieth century, scientists were often modelled on Thomas Edison, eccentric geniuses who were inexhaustible sources of handy gadgets. Hugo Gernsback, the inventor of modern American science fiction, published a serial novel about one such inventor hero, Ralph 124C 41+ (trying saying it aloud), in the pages of his Modern Electrics magazine. There was even a series of juvenile novels featuring Tom Edison Jr. The archetype lives on as James Bond's Q, the Back to the Future trilogy's Emmet Brown, The Simpsons' Professor Frink.
Less comforting is the scientist as the paternal sage who, like Sherlock Holmes, relentlessly riddles the evidence until only the improbable truth remains. Star Trek's Mr Spock is perhaps the most familiar example, but the best is surely Nigel Kneale's Professor Quatermass who, in five television series and three movies, faced down menaces which were effectively chilling combinations of science fiction and horror, from astronauts infected with alien spores, governments conspiring with aliens (foreshadowing The X-Files by almost forty years), to the discovery that humanity's irrational penchant for violence is the result of experiments by Martians on our primitive ancestors.
Hero or villain, the fictional scientist is rarely portrayed as a social creature. The
simplifications of pulp plotting provide more easily digested thrills than realistic portrayals of the cultural milieu in which scientists work, or of the laborious way by which discoveries are really made. Even for scientists, there's something seductive about the image of the lone genius down in the basement, cooking up the medicine, unfettered by the burdens of peer review. I've fallen for it myself. Dr. Pretorius (as "Dr. Pretorious") makes a guest appearance in my alternative history Pasquale's Angel, which displaces the industrial revolution to Renaissance Florence.
Alex Sharkey, the antihero of my near future novel Fairyland, is a low-rent mad scientist working in a lock-up garage in the East End of London. He's a gene hacker who wants nothing more than to make a living synthesising psychoactive viruses. Unfortunately, a mad little girl, the product of experimental treatments designed to upgrade intelligence, has other plans for him.
Science itself makes mythic simplifications of its important discoveries: Newton's Apple; the dream of gyrating snakes by which August von Kekulé understood the structure of the first known organic ring molecule, benzene; the frenetic few days in which James Watson and Francis Crick realised that complementary base pairs formed the rungs of DNA's helical ladder. Blind alleys, failed experiments and recalcitrant equipment, the thousands of hours of patient work which make possible the final synthesis, are often forgotten or glossed over. As Crick once remarked, 'It's true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold.' Watson and Crick were not alone in their search. They were only two of a large number of scientists, sharing results and insights, who were working on what was then the central problem in molecular biology. Their lasting achievement is that they got there first, but they both admit that the race was a close one.
Science is not done by emotionless androids. Although they try to erase themselves from the papers which present their work, scientists are as human as the next guy or gal, and bring the full range human passions and emotions into their laboratories. Science is as crammed with rivalries, friendships, foolishness and wisdom, as any human endeavour.
Non-fictional depictions of scientific research, such as The Gene Wars, Robert-Cook
Deegan's account of the inception of the Human Genome Project and the subsequent battles for funding and political control, contain as many plot twists and outrageous personalities as any technothriller. Although there have been very many popular accounts of cutting edge scientific theories by eminent scientists, a few of which have even crept into the best-seller lists, the difficulty of fictionalising the minutiae of laboratory work and the cut- and-thrust of scientific debate in journals and seminars remains a challenge few have taken up.
John Updike's Roger's Version contains a sublime passage in which the gawky cuckolder of the novel's narrator, a computer science graduate student, glimpses what might be the hand of God in the mathematical fabric of the Universe after pulling an all-night session on the mainframe. Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica explores with admirable thoroughness the tribalistic structure of scientific culture by which senior scientists ensure that their cherished ideas are championed by new generations of postgraduate students. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. The imaginative leap required by non-scientists is not often made. And although rather more scientists write fiction (usually science fiction) than ghosts write ghost stories, the exhausting demands of their profession means that there are few who can pursue
the double career of scientist and novelist.
But for anyone who wants a glimpse of the human aspect of scientific research, these rare novels are worth searching out. Perhaps the best fictional account of scientists at work is to be found in practising physicist Gregory Benford's Timescape. Scientists from a future in which the ecosystems of Earth have been terminally damaged attempt to change the past by transmitting a tachyonic message across time and space (tachyons are theoretical particles for which time's arrow is reversed). The description of how a young researcher in the 1960s spends a year working out that the annoying interference that's wrecking his delicate experiments on nuclear resonance is more than mere noise is both engaging and realistic; his attempts to convince his peers convincingly dramatise the tremendous difficulty of introducing a new paradigm into the scientific establishment, where senior scientists cling to
cherished theories which are long past their sell-by-date. Benford has tried the trick again in his most recent novel, Cosm, in which an experiment in a supercollider accidently creates a wormhole into a newly born universe that's evolving far faster than our own. It's a critical exposition of the culture and politics of Big Science, a
fictionalisation of the daily life of a working scientist, and a depiction of the life and death of a whole universe, all wrapped up in a neat techno-thriller package.
The scientists in the fiction of Benford and his peers are as different from the lone, cackling screwball surrounded by Tesla coils and rabbit-ear spark generators as a chemist is from a wizard. Nevertheless, the popular perception of science, which has so radically shaped twentieth century history and culture, is still firmly based on the melodrama of B-movies rather than on reality. I'd like to make a modest suggestion, building on a programme that's already in operation in the U.S. sector of Antarctica, the only continent on Earth where scientists form the majority of the population. Like prisons, schools and big businesses, university departments and scientific institutes should encourage artists, poets and novelists to take up residence in their laboratories for a few weeks or a few months. Such cross-cultural fertilisation might at last banish the shadow of Frankenstein's monster.
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