FRANKENSTEIN AND STEAM: ESSAYS FOR CHARLES E. ROBINSON by Robin Hammerman, ed., Reviewed by Andrew Lacey

Ed. Robin Hammerman
(Delaware, 2022), 148 pp.
Reviewed by Andrew Lacey on 2023-01-28.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This is a fine memorial volume of seven wide-ranging essays dedicated to Charles E. Robinson (1941-2016), closing with a postscript chapter, "Remembrances of Charles E. Robinson." Robinson's impact on studies of Mary and Percy Shelley (and, indeed, Byron) was profound; his major works, including Byron and Shelley: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight, Mary Shelley's Collected Tales and Stories (both Johns Hopkins, 1976), The Mary Shelley Reader, edited with Betty T. Bennett (Oxford, 1990), and the scrupulously edited and richly annotated two-volume The Frankenstein Notebooks for the Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics series (Garland, 1996) are, of course, well-known, and little more of their enduring influence need be said here.

As Robin Hammerman observes in her introduction to the volume, Robinson's "astute awareness of cutting-edge trends in Frankenstein studies, even at the end of his life, led him to a growing interest in the novel from the perspectives of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). He further acknowledged that STEAM, an extension of the STEM acronym with a substantial arts component (hence the A for 'arts'), is the most fitting application we might have to identify this pursuit" (2). Frankenstein and STEAM repeatedly demands that we read Shelley's novel again and resituate its warnings in the rapidly changing world in which we now live: "a time," writes Hammerman, "when developments in technoscience and new media challenge and blur boundaries between the animate and inanimate, when political leaders seek to dehumanize the most vulnerable among us, and when the Earth faces apocalyptic climate changes that may result in radical physical alterations to our species" (1). Besides handsomely commemorating Robinson, therefore, this collection vindicates his inclusive critical approach to Frankenstein.

Rich in historical detail, Susan J. Wolfson's essay deftly links Shelley's novel to Benjamin Franklin's eighteenth-century kite experiments, Humphry Davy's lectures, the vitalism debate between John Abernethy and William Lawrence, the rise (and misuse) of the "Franken-" prefix in the twentieth century, and its continued application (and misapplication) to twenty-first century scientific developments such as gene-editing. In Wolfson's account, the dreams of science (visions of scientific progress, perhaps), before as well as during and after Shelley's time, have been persistently shadowed, in the mode of Shelley's "dæmon" relentlessly pursuing Victor, by nightmares. "The dream of science for the improvement of the human species," writes Wolfson, "can't shake off the specter of uses that cannot be known or controlled" (26). The latter section of Wolfson's chapter sounds a theme recurrently echoed in this book: the danger of "fallible human hands" doing unintentional, potentially catastrophic damage is now more threatening than it ever was in Shelley's time.

Turning to "Figures of Monstrous Technology in Digital Media Discourse," Mark A. McCutcheon finds that Shelley's novel anticipates five connected technological tropes: utility, supplementarity, contagion, shock, and revolution. Given this anticipation, he argues that "Frankenstein, together with certain significant adaptations of it, has shaped and inflected the modern meaning of the word 'technology' itself, such that today we can hardly speak of technology without inevitably also conjuring Frankenstein" (32-33). Marshall McLuhan is said to have "cemented and popularized [the] Frankensteinian sense of technology as human-made monstrosity" as "a menace that needs to be ... mastered ... to be useful" (32, 37). "Frankensteinian, technological chaos" (43), wherein a human-made creation breaks free from what might be called "comfortable" control and then proceeds to run amok in unanticipated ways, is then neatly exemplified in accounts of the recent activities of three of the so-called FAANG group of digital media corporations (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), and of their increasingly connected (and, it would seem, polarized) user/consumer-base. Like Shelley's Creature, McCutcheon strikingly suggests, some of the more troublesome users of social media platforms in particular have grown malicious and vengeful after being alienated from wider society. On the evidence of this insightful chapter, it seems entirely apt that the former vice president of Twitter should allude to the myth of Pandora's box (39).

Reading Frankenstein in light of the 2014 film Ex Machina (directed by Alex Garland), Lisa Crafton turns to what Caroline Picart calls the "Frankenstein cinemyth" (qtd. 48). If "each adaptation represent[s] the cultural anxieties of its moment," then a key source anxiety in our moment is surely the rapid rise of artificial intelligence. Crafton's detailed, careful analysis, interwoven with well-chosen call-backs to Shelley's novel, discusses the ethically fraught destabilization of the categories of human and android (creator and creature, perhaps), and explores, lucidly yet with impressive economy, anxieties about both technology and gender in the film and the novel. Victor's aborted creation (and panicked destruction) of the female Creature, Crafton notes, is paralleled in the film by Nathan's creation and mistreatment of his female humanoids -- one of whom, Kyoko, rebels against her creator in the most transgressive way. These parallels show that gender implications in the creator-creature power relationship are just as complex in the twenty-first century as they were in the nineteenth.

In an ambitious study of the Creature's experience with food in the novel, Siobhan Watters ranges widely (and quickly) from manga (specifically Tsutomu Nihei's Knights of Sidonia, 15 vols, 2013-16), to classical myth, language theory, space travel, and more. In "grasp[ing] the centrality of food to the human condition and us[ing] it to explore the permeable boundaries of human and nonhuman" (64), Watters argues, Shelley implies that a satisfactory level of self-sustenance is a marker of humanity. Furthermore, Watters claims, Shelley "sees the human as constituted by a cultural-technical milieu of which the Creature is not a part" (65). Watters's understanding of food as a "medium of ... socialization" (67) is key here: the Creature's alienation from humanity is reflected by the inadequacy of his diet, and since he scarcely knows how to make raw foods palatable, his "technical deficiency" speaks, tragically, of "the human milieu that produced but does not sustain him" (69). Watters also explains how humans might become posthuman by means of new "food techniques" such as, potentially, photosynthesis, as in Nihei's work, which would allow humans to generate energy from the sun by means of genetically engineered chloroplast-type surface cells. She thus underscores the importance of the relationship between food and what makes us essentially human (or posthuman). Watters's reading, which pays rewardingly close attention to Frankenstein in parts, testifies to the continued applicability of Shelley's themes to present-day concerns, such as global food security and the sustainability of our increasingly fragile ecosystems.

In "Reading Frankenstein's Ecological Legacy", Lisbeth Chapin posits that an ecocritical approach is "vitally productive" for the investigation of "how we 'read' each other and our differences [in the contexts of our own and other species]" (85). In her psycho-geographical reading of Frankenstein, she persuasively examines its natural elements (earth, air, fire, water) and ecological scenes and symbols (mountainous topography, Arctic wastes, lakes and the sea), arguing that "Shelley develops the characters of Victor and the Creature in encounters with each of these and emphasizes important contrasts" (86), and that "[n]o part of the story is without an ecological setting that infiltrates the perceptions of the characters and determines our interpretation of the narrative" (101). This elegant chapter adds further nuance to the long-established idea that Victor and the Creature function as doppelgängers. Yet Chapin stresses the boundaries drawn by this novel: the shifting geopolitical boundary around Mont Blanc in the section on the Arctic, the metaphysical ("ideal"?) boundary between the living and the dead in the section on grave-robbing and anatomy schools, and the ethically contested boundary between human and nonhuman animals in the section on vegetarianism. These boundaries repeatedly remind us that Victor and his Creature, though alike, are fundamentally divided, separated by their different essential natures, and must remain so.

In provocatively defending the system of criminal justice in Frankenstein, L. Adam Mekler also considers the operations of social justice more generally within Shelley's narrative. To correct what he sees as overly simplistic readings of "the [novel's] judicial system" as somehow flawed and unfair, he first of all notes that there are actually several different systems at play here. Furthermore, Mekler argues, "although justice is not served equally well for Victor, for Justine [Moritz], and, perhaps more importantly, for the Creature, the problems that arise for them ... are not solely the result of gender, class, or religious prejudice" (104). The picture is more complex than this, especially in Justine's case, where "[i]n the end, ... the judges are presented with little evidence to persuade them in Justine's favor and substantial, albeit circumstantial, evidence against her" [109]. Mekler's reading of the "metaphorical trial[s]" to which the Creature is repeatedly subjected -- in which he is judged on physical appearance, except in the case of his solitary dealings with the blind De Lacey -- is particularly perceptive.

In "Teaching Frankenstein as Pastiche, Parody, and Adaptation in the General Education Classroom," Brian Bates identifies Frankenstein as a novel that, in the Preface in particular, explicitly acknowledges the collaborative nature of the endeavour that brought it into being, and implicitly invites "textual reworking" (129) and addition. In the Preface and throughout the novel, the presence of its numerous "textual gaps, elisions, ellipses, or unexplained secrets" invites adaptation (126). Bates describes a classroom experiment in which he asked his students to produce "additive imitations" of Shelley's novel, which required them to assume the role of "active readers and inventive coauthors who added to Frankenstein's legacy" (127). As Bates observes, several of the pastiches and parodies produced -- which vary in focus and genre -- include, alongside more traditional textual "additives," a "riotous Broadway musical parody" (132) and a video game that aligns with several of the themes and topics of Frankenstein and STEAM.

The novel's adaptability surely proves its continuing capacity to speak to the present-day concerns of all readers, not solely scholars. But in rightly sounding a note of caution in the close of his chapter, Bates evokes Albert Rivero's spectre of a "hypertextual free-for-all" in which the proliferation of such "additives" gradually muddies the waters of authorship. To forestall this prospect, Bates suggests, we can simultaneously "convey to our students a robust fidelity to authorial Frankenstein texts and open up spaces for students to experiment with Frankenstein through collaborative reading and writing acts." This seems a fair compromise, as it was, he argues, a similar act of collaborative reading and writing at the Villa Diodati that prompted Shelley to conceive her novel in the first place: "[t]hese tales [i.e. the 'German stories of ghosts'] excited in us a playful desire of imitation..." (Preface, qtd. 127).

The portrait of Robinson that emerges from Hammerman's postscript chapter is that of a rigorous scholar, committed to detail, generous with his time and with his knowledge, and of a caring, supportive, and, above all, much-loved colleague and man. On the evidence of Frankenstein and STEAM, the Robinsonian project of re-reading Frankenstein and reassessing the significance of Shelley's cautionary narrative in the context of a rapidly changing, increasingly complex world is in safe hands.

Andrew Lacey is Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University, UK.

Leave a comment on Andrew Lacey's review.