The latest documentary by Chris Paine — who gave us “Who Killed the Electric Car?” in 2006 — is a production with an exigent message: “Do You Trust This Computer?” It is intended to alert the public to evolving Artificial Intelligence (AI). Doyens in the field vocalize startling scenarios and caveats regarding what this amalgam of science and technology may portend for humanity. A sense of something unprecedented pervades, as does the alarming notion of something stupendous run amok.
Outer reaches of AI prove hard to comprehend. Human control of the phenomenon may be just as elusive. One baldly expressed concern is that most of humankind — barely aware of these developments — is about to be “blindsided” by an invasion of AI into facets of social and economic life. Paine’s urgent documentary opens with this epigraph: “You are my creator, but I am your master.” This sentence is taken from the well-known Gothic novel “Frankenstein” penned by Mary Shelley, who was 18 years old when she embarked on her tale of horror and hubris. This year celebrates the 200th anniversary of the story’s publication.
In the captivating commemorative biography “In Search of Mary Shelley” author Fiona Sampson limns compelling episodes in the tumultuous life of this unique woman. Born in 1797, Mary was the offspring of intellectually formidable parents — both writers and political theorists. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, perhaps the first outspoken feminist, was the controversial author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” William Godwin, her father, produced novels and political works espousing anarchism, liberty and free love.
Their circle of friends, fellow travelers and artists included luminaries such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake. During a visit to England, American Aaron Burr — best remembered today for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel — became a friend of Godwin. By that time, Wollstonecraft was deceased. She died days after giving birth to Mary. Burr cultivated a progressive attitude regarding equality of the sexes and was effusive in his praise of Wollstonecraft’s eloquent defense of women. Mary was essentially home schooled. Throughout childhood, she was privy to poetic recitations, political debates and scientific discussions that were staples in her father’s home. By the time she reached her teens, Miss Godwin possessed an impressive education.
Eventually, a young man, who was infatuated with the philosophy of her father, entered William Godwin’s sphere. Although from a more affluent class, Percy Bysshe Shelley was an aspiring poet who had already demonstrated a capacity for iconoclasm. His interest extended to Godwin’s daughter Mary. Though already married and a father, these proved no impediment to Percy’s elopement with Mary on what was supposed to be a romantic sojourn on the continent. Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was also in her teens, was along for the excitement.
Circumstances soon proved arduous. Sampson states that “things are frequently so frankly uncomfortable that the journey sounds more like a holiday from hell than a romantic fantasy.” Before long, grim reality forced the trio back to England where both Godwin and Percy’s father, Timothy Shelley, were fuming over the shocking escapade. Godwin may have sung the praises of unencumbered liberty and free love, but for his daughter and stepdaughter to skip off on such a caper with a wild unknown poet was another thing entirely. And the elder Shelley’s ire was surely understandable given that Percy had abandoned his wife Harriet and child in outrageous fashion. Later Harriet would commit suicide by drowning.
In 1816, Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies erupted in a fearsome display of nature’s power, shooting 2 million tons of volcanic dust into the atmosphere. The result was disruption in global weather patterns, creating the “Year Without a Summer.” That June, Mary, Percy and Claire are in Switzerland and in company with infamous poet and libertine Lord George Byron, along with his personal physician John Polidori. It would prove a fateful commingling for literature and art. The inclement season kept the group inside most nights, often gathered at Villa Diodati, a sumptuous manse rented by Byron. On one such night after reading aloud eldritch tales from “Fantasmagoriana”— with wine, laudanum and perhaps opium readily at hand — Byron challenged those present to try a work of supernatural fiction.
It was not the two poets but Mary and Polidori who produced works of merit. Much more modest than Mary’s seismic offering, Polidori’s worthy short story “The Vampyre,” is a pioneering piece presaging other efforts in the dark realm of vampirism. But the riveting narrative of Mary’s hubristic scientist and his hideous progeny has reverberated with mythic power over the past two centuries. Today, the name “Frankenstein” applies to both creator and his monster. It is an allegory for astonishing discoveries and techniques that have unintended consequences. Our world is replete with numerous examples. Plastic junk despoils land and fouls oceans with refuse endangering marine life. Industrial society is caught in the undeniable thrall of climate change and rising temperatures. Nuclear waste continues to pose the challenge of safe disposal.
In life, Mary endured a great deal of pain and disappointment. Only one of her children, a son, survived into adulthood. As a disciple of the doctrine of free love, her husband Percy pursued various relationships at whim. At age 29, he died in a boating accident. Mary would remain loyal to Percy and his verse and worked to ensure that the world would remember him. She would continue to write but would never create another work with the popularity and cultural resonance of Frankenstein. She died in 1851 in London of a brain tumor.
This brief review is an invitation to visit this fine biography where the reader can more fully encounter the richness and depth of Mary Shelley’s own remarkable story. Writes Sampson: “She changed the face of fiction; she has challenged every ‘modern’ generation since she wrote her first novel to explore both empirical science and moral philosophy; and in the hubristic researcher Frankenstein and his creature, the nearly human of our nightmares, she created two enduring archetypes.”
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