Madmen and monster makers – scientists in literature

Review of an old favourite – Roslynn Haynes excellent survey volume From Faust to Strangelove. There’s a lot to cover, but she manages it very well. A book that stayed on my shelf for ready reference.

On they march, the fictional scientists. The best are well intentioned but misguided. Some are simply intent on knowledge, blind to the consequences. The worst are striving for power over nature, or for world domination. They are murderers, madmen, monster-makers. Intellectually obsessed, morally and emotionally crippled, and politically naive, they threaten to reduce us to their level. Dr Frankenstein, Dr Moreau, Dr Caligari, Dr Jekyll, Dr Strangelove, and their innumerable fictional progeny, all point accusing fingers at the real world of science.

So, at any rate, it must seem to the practising scientist, preoccupied with a mundane world of submitting grants, crafting experiments, writing papers, and juggling contracts. It is not hard to infer from western literature over the past two centuries that our culture views the doings of those trying to gain knowledge of the natural world with profound suspicion.

For those in the laboratory, this raises a number of questions. Whence such ambivalence? Is it a product of the literary world’s ignorance of the realities of science? Is it because the authors of such stories are as ill-intentioned toward science as their tales make scientists appear towards the rest of us? Who writes this stuff, anyway? And to what extent does it reflect or shape popular attitudes to science and technology?

Anecdotal answers to these questions abound, especially in recent debates over the public understanding of science, but they are usually worth little more than the prejudices of the scientists who offer them. The importance of Roslynn Haynes’s book is that it is the first systematic attempt to bring together the data we need to try to offer scholarly answers.

It is a large job, which has taken the Australian author, a biological researcher turned professor of English, a good many years to complete. As her title suggests, she confines herself to western literature, the writing of the culture that spawned the scientific revolution, but she tries to cover the whole historical span from Faust and the Golem to the atomic age.

The book, then, is a survey, eschewing literary theory for a wide-ranging inventory of fictional images of scientists. It begins with Dr Faustus and the alchemists, runs through images of Baconian and Newtonian science, describes in detail the backlash against Newtonian hagiography in 18th-century satire and moves on to the Romantics before the most famous fictional scientist of all, Frankenstein, gets a chapter to himself. There follow chapters on Victorian scientists, on scientist adventurers, and for a just a few decades, on the scientist as hero. Finally, we move further into the 20th century. Here, the story becomes more complex. Reality overtakes fiction, as Haynes has it, and the enormous volume of literary (and now cinematic) depictions of science and scientists means the coverage must be much more selective. But although the thematisation in the latter part of the book is sometimes a little arbitrary, and there are some repetitions, the overall picture is clear enough. “With the exception of the superficial characters of much science fiction, the dominant picture has been of scientists who recapitulate the unflattering stereotypes of earlier centuries – the evil scientist, the stupid scientist, the inhuman scientist – or, as a peculiarly 20th-century contribution, the scientist who has lost control over his discovery,” she writes.

Any book that covers so much ground will have weak spots, and every reader who has trawled these waters will find some favourite examples omitted. But I cannot identify any really significant absentees. Haynes seems most at home in the 19th century, with impressive treatment of George Eliot, Wells (whom she has discussed at length in a previous book) and Hardy. But her 20th-century selections are generally well made, and she makes good use of science fiction – at least up to the 1970s -and, interestingly, of German- language sources, which enrich this account considerably.

So how much help will the book be in answering our offended scientists’ questions? One clear conclusion is that images of scientists have a long and complex history, with different kinds of ambivalence emerging at different times. This ambivalence has been affirmed and amplified in this century, but the picture is still far from uniformly negative. Although the American sociologist Christopher Toumey has argued that recent reworkings of older stories, such as the cinematic versions of Frankenstein, tend to make the scientists increasingly amoral, a popular treatment like Jurassic Park embodies quite a complex and sophisticated view of science. True, the monsters are made by a molecular geneticist, but he is led astray by Hammond, the capitalist. Another scientist, the mathematician Malcolm has the clearest vision of any of the characters of the flaws in Hammond’s scheme, and the two paleontologists recruited to advise on care and feeding of dinosaurs are simple comic-book heroes.

Haynes does not quite reach Jurassic Park, but the elements of the tale can all be traced in her history. Nor would it surprise her that it is a tale of biology. She remarks several times how negative images attach more readily to the life sciences than to the physical sciences from the beginning of the 20th century, at any rate until the advent of the Bomb.

Examples like this perhaps enable us to dispose of the charge that the negative images of scientists in fiction are due to authors’ fears of science borne of ignorance. Frankenstein’s creator, Mary Shelley, was extremely well versed in the science of her time. Wells, trained in biology under Huxley and a great enthusiast for science, nevertheless created an enduring image of its dark side in The Island of Dr Moreau. Aldous Huxley, grandson of Wells’s scientific mentor and brother to Julian, one of the leading biologists of the first half of the century, gave us Brave New World. Even Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park) has an MD.

It is no doubt true that situations where science has adverse consequences make better stories, whether in newspapers or in fiction. Brian Stableford, an author Haynes omits, comments in the preface to his collection of short stories about the new genetics, Sexual Chemistry, that “futuristic fiction is, in the main, much more anxious and alarmist than futurology; this has much more to do with the nature of drama and suspense than with the ideals of the authors”. This explains, he says, why he has produced rather pessimistic stories, in spite of being a technological optimist. But if authors are drawn to the less pleasant scenarios, so are the rest of us, it seems. It is the negative images that resonate. After all, there is no a priori reason why Sinclair Lewis’s Martin Arrowsmith, a scientist hero if ever there was one, should not be the canonical fictional biologist. Yet it is the older Frankenstein that has spawned literally hundreds of films, and amounts almost to a cultural obsession. Haynes’s own suggestion, in her very brief conclusion, is that all these madmen and monster-makers, and their authors, are trying to tell us something. She quotes Theodore Roszak, in full counter-cultural flow in the 1970s: “The scientist who does not face up to the warning in this persistent folklore is himself the worst enemy of science. In these images of our popular culture resides a legitimate public fear of the scientist’s stripped-down depersonalised conception of knowledge”.

She adds a slightly lame afterthought, suggesting that some recent trends in science and technology – namely the advent of personal computers and computer-mediated communication, and researchers’ roles in trying to understand global environmental problems – are encouraging new attitudes toward the enterprise. It is not clear where the evidence for this lies, especially as her exploration of science fiction only embraces writers like Philip Dick or Ursula le Guin rather than more recent work by, say, William Gibson.

But if all of these conclusions will go on being debated, this fascinating book certainly gives us a wealth of material to bring to the debate. (1995)

Roslynn D Haynes. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. (Johns Hopkins).

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