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Dr. Frankenstein May Be on to Something


By David Skal

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W.W. Norton

368 pp., $29.95

'It's alive!" is the theme shriek of "Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture." David Skal surveys the mad scientist from the 19th century to the present and shows that the creation of a "new life" is a preoccupation of these stories.

Skal's inventory begins with the gothic birth of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." His choice pinpoints where Old World terrors of magic gave way to New World worries about science run amok. The doctor (not the monster) is the base of a family tree whose roots include Faust and Greek mythology's Prometheus. Frankenstein's descendants are an ever-widening array of scientists, pseudoscientists, and crackpots. Their aims are hubristic, and the results of their "work" almost always provoke fear.

Is "Frankenstein" a horror-movie buff's classic or a novel taught in college classrooms? Skal navigates this lowbrow/highbrow schism well. He shows that science's "shadow self" runs from silly to deadly serious.

Film occupies much of Skal's attention, but he also draws from novels, essays, manifestoes, television, theater, and criticism to flesh out the Frankensteinian tradition.

The early 20th-century electronic wizardry of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison was matched by the visions of Paris's Grand Guignol theater, Karel Capek, and Fritz Lang.

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In 1931, James Whale's classic film "Frankenstein" inspired 20 years of monsters and their mad creators in Hollywood. Postwar nuclear fears unleashed cinematic flocks of irradiated horrors.

Skal reiterates that although the mad scientist "is often written off as the product of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, upon closer examination, he reveals himself (mad scientists are almost always men) to be a far more complicated symbol of civilization and its split-level discontents."

In the latter part of the book, the author examines cultural obsession with UFOs and aliens, a medical establishment unmoored from Hippocratic ethics by commercial interests, and most lately a world that may abandon corporeality altogether for computer-enabled "virtuality."

He stays attuned to the symbolic function of the mad scientist, allowing us to see, for instance, the recurrent theme of the mangled hand or the strange fact that aliens have "evolved" in the cultural imagination to appear more and more like underdeveloped fetuses.

"The fetus," he writes, "has become one of our most anxious cultural images, as political hysteria over abortion and reproductive issues in general converge with millennial anxiety over what we're giving birth to and what we're becoming - our collective gestation in the test-tube womb of science."

As the line between magician and scientist blurs in a science-dependent world where science is not a popular enterprise, the author's position itself is an unclear mixture of cool-thinking history and dreamreading.

* Chad Sylvain is a dramaturge in Minneapolis.

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