Honeyed Frankenstein

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December 1, 2013 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

 

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

Eighteen-sixteen was “the year without a summer.” An historic low in solar activity combined with a volcanic winter event caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of MountTambora in Indonesia caused severe climate abnormalities. Average global temperatures decreased by 0.7-1.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the wet miserable summer, nineteen year-old Mary Godwin Shelly, Percy Bysshe Shelly, aged twenty-six, Lord Byron, also twenty-six, and John William Polidori, twenty-one – Polidori was to write the 1819 short story, The Vampyre, one of the first vampire stories in English – stayed in a rented villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary and Percy had lost their first child, born prematurely. He had left his wife for her, and his wife committed suicide.

Forced to remain indoors by the weather, they read horror stories from the book Fantasmagoriana. (1813) The group also discussed experiments by Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) with galvanism, the contraction of muscles stimulated by electricity.

The poets proposed a contest between all of them to write horror stories.

The framing of Frankenstein’s in the artic, its many water passages, its sense of disassociation of people from the environment, may have been drawn as some writers believe from Shelly’s fascination with indigenous people but can also be because that year’s extreme cold, and because the villa was on Lake Geneva.

A film should be made of these scandalous free thinking young people in their icy villa, making up stories with wintery light coming through its windows and sparking from the surface of the lake.

Mary Godwin Shelly’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus is about a man created by scientist Victor Frankenstein. She had a dream of a man who created life and was horrified by what he had made. A possible source may lie in François-Félix Nogaret’s Le Miroir des événemens actuels, ou la Belle au plus offrant (1790): a political parable about scientific progress featuring an inventor named Frankénsteïn who creates a life-sized automaton. Two of the most notable then-contemporary natural philosophers – the term “scientist” did not exist before later in the century — were Giovanni Aldini – he had made many public attempts in London from 1801 to 1804 at human reanimation through bio-electric Galvanism — and Johann Konrad Dippel who claimed to have developed chemical means to extend the life span of humans. Shelly never referred in any writing to either of these men.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan (parent of the gods) and trickster who created man from clay. He also introduced – or re-introduced — fire to human beings. Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock on Mount Kazbek, the third highest mountain in what is now the country of Georgia.

Many scholars call Frankenstein the first work of Science Fiction, but the genre had antecedents, beginning with the epic Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh, a god-king who sought immortality.

The Hindu epic Ramayana (5th to 4th century BC) includes Vimana flying machines able to travel into space or under water, and destroy entire cities using advanced weapons. In the first book of the Rigveda collection of Sanskrit hymns (1700–1100 BC), there is a description of “mechanical birds” that are seen “jumping into space speedily with a craft using fire and water… containing twelve stamghas (pillars), one wheel, three machines, 300 pivots, and 60 instruments.” The ancient Hindu mythological epic, the Mahabharatha (8th and 9th centuries BCE) includes the story of King Revaita, who travels to heaven to meet the creator Brahma and finds that many ages have passed when he returns to Earth.

Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ plays include several works that include elements often associated with the “fantastic voyage”, including air travel to another world. E.g., The Clouds (423 BC), The Birds (414 BC) and The Peace (421 B.C.)

The Biblical “Book of Revelation” reads like science fantasy: “There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” Erich von Däniken ‘s Chariots of the Gods (1968) includes an interpretation of the Book of Ezekiel to be a description of a landing spacecraft with angels in the likeness of man. Human-like angels order Lot and his extended family to go to the mountains because of the destruction of the city of Sodom by God. His wife looked back at the possible nuclear explosion, and fell “dead on the spot.” Von Däniken was a thief and a fraudster but the book caught on with a generation of people who believed that what he wrote was true – that extraterrestrials visited earth — rather than an insight into Ur science fiction.

Teen-age Mary Shelly’s fantasy re-emerges today as “the singularity.” The singularity is a theoretical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater than human intelligence. The capabilities of such intelligence may be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend.

The first use of the term “singularity” in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. Neumann in the mid-1950s wrote about “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” Futurist Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) predicts an exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence. He says this will lead to a technological singularity in the year 2045, a point where progress is so rapid it outstrips humans’ ability to comprehend it. Irreversibly transformed, people will augment their minds and bodies with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Once the Singularity has been reached, Kurzweil believes machine intelligence will be quintillions times more powerful than all human intelligence combined. Afterwards, Kurzweil says, intelligence will radiate outward from the planet until it saturates the universe.

In 2009, Kurzweil, in collaboration with Google and the NASAAmesResearchCenter, announced the creation of the Singularity. It uses Science Fiction writer Vernor Vinge’s Singularity concept as its foundation. Professor Vinge is a retired San Diego State University Professor of Mathematics and a computer scientist, best known for science fiction writing — e.g., Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), Rainbows End (2006) — and also for his 1993 essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity.” ! Vinge annotated his 1993 essay for the Spring 2003 issue of Whole Earth Review. This is available online. http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/ misc/WER2.html. The annotated essay does not read as if the author thinks of these ideas as fiction but rather than he is convinced they will be inevitable occurrences. According to Vigne: “Computers that are awake” and superhumanly intelligent may be developed. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is “yes,” then there is little doubt that more intelligent beings can be constructed shortly thereafter.)”

“Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as superhumanly intelligent entities.” “·Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.” “Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.”

The moral crux of the 1993 Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park is: “Just because you can make something doesn’t mean you should.” (In spite of the fact the delicious Jeff Goldblum starred in the film, I find the film difficult because the death of the lawyer in an outhouse is objectionable: not all lawyers are venal.)

Shelly’s Frankenstein posed the same moral dilemma as does the Singularity. Frankenstein reiterated the theme in Ovid’s story about Prometheus, which was answered at least implicitly in Ovid as an affirmative: man should have been given knowledge of fire. In Genesis, Woman tempted Man with the fruit of the tree of knowledge. (I don’t believe it was Woman who tempted Man, incidentally. The winners write history, and they almost always men.) The first message of the first Book of the Bible is that human beings should not have chosen knowledge, and the meaning of knowledge is to control nature, which should be left to God. We did not. We fooled with nature, we developed agriculture, and so we now have the responsibility of being stewards of nature. We were to take care of plants and animals.

We have not done this.

If “God” is the interrelationships of all living things, then this step we appear to be taking, this step that we assume incorrectly has no moral implications, is wrong.

Technology is not morally inert. Wherever it leads us remains so far in our hands but no one is asking whether or not we should permit our very clever but morally imperfect brains to replace themselves with androids.

No one can fathom what super-intelligent machines will determine, and none of us knows whether or not the end of the human era is anything any of us would want. Our own smart brains may have brought us to the brink of the end of life on earth. Fantasies about super-brains rescuing what is left for whatever they may decide in our stead are scary.

Let me substitute for our pell-mell and unthinking rush to the apocalypse a brief message from the Turkish poet Cahit Sitki Taranci: “I want a country let the sky be blue, the bough green, the cornfield be yellow, let it be a land of birds and flowers “I want a country let there be no pain in the head, no yearning in the heart let there be an end to brothers’ quarrels “I want a country let there be no rich and poor, no you and me on winter days let everyone have a home. “I want a country. Let living be like loving from the heart if there must be complaint, let it be of death.”

 

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