Dr. X Will Build a Creature*

DollyAs I post this, today would have been Mary Shelley’s 219th birthday. As you’ll know, her most famous work, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, addresses an ethical question that’s challenged us for a very long time. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it? It’s not surprising this question would have come up at the time Shelley wrote this novel. Electricity had recently been channeled for human use, and it frightened a lot of people. And that wasn’t the only scientific development of the day, by any means. To many people, it must have seemed that it was all moving too quickly, in very dangerous directions. So Shelley’s cautionary tale makes sense given the era.

But it’s by no means the only story that addresses that question. We see it come up in crime fiction quite a lot, and it raises interesting ethical issues. And those issues can add a solid layer of suspense to a plot, and invite readers to stay engaged.

Agatha Christie’s play, Black Coffee, revolves around a potentially very dangerous scientific advance. Famous physicist Sir Claude Amory has developed a formula for an atomic bomb (the play was written in 1930, before this possibility became a reality). As you can imagine, the formula is worth a great deal of money, and Sir Claude has come to believe that someone in his family wants to steal it for that reason. And as we get to know the different people in his household, it’s not hard to see why he feels that way. He asks Hercule Poirot to travel to his country home at Abbot’s Cleve to find out who the guilty party is. Poirot and Captain Hastings make the trip, but by the time they arrive, it’s too late: Sir Claude has been poisoned, and the formula’s been stolen. The play itself isn’t regarded as one of Christie’s best works. However, it does raise the question of what we should do with the knowledge of how to make such a devastating weapon. Sir Claude wanted to provide it to the government in order to protect the country, but the question could be asked: should the information be available? It’s a difficult dilemma that US President Harry Truman faced some fifteen years later.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we are introduced to Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children, Pete and Kim. The Eberharts make the move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Housing’s less expensive, taxes are lower, schools are good, and it’s the perfect small town to raise a family. At first, things do seem to go well, and everyone settles in. Not long after the family’s arrival, Joanna makes a new friend, Bobbie Markowe. Little by little, Bobbie begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. And in any case, they’ve just moved, and the idea of moving again is out of the question. But then, Joanna learns to her dismay that Bobbie was right. Something sinister is going on in the town. Levin doesn’t specifically address the question of whether we should do something just because we can. But the novel does show what can happen when the wrong people have access to frighteningly successful technology.

The question of whether we should do something just because we can is explored in a slightly different way in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Smilla Jaspersen is a half-Inuit Greenlander who’s now living in a Copenhagen apartment building. She’s terribly upset when ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building, dies from what looks like a tragic accidental fall from the roof of the building. But Smilla isn’t so sure it was an accident. The evidence she sees in the snow suggests something else, and she starts to ask questions. The trail eventually leads back to Greenland, so Smilla gets a place as a maid/cleaner on an expedition ship that’s going there. That’s where she discovers the truth about Isaiah’s death. Some readers have said that the second half of this novel is a little more like a science fiction story than a murder mystery. Certainly it raises the question that a lot of science fiction does: should every scientific investigation be pursued? Are there some things we should leave alone?

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode is the first of his trilogy featuring Stockholm County CID detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. In it, a series of brutal murders are committed, all by people who work in some capacity for the justice system. What’s even stranger is that none of the killers has any idea why the murder was committed. Gröhn gets assigned to the case, and soon finds that there are plenty of people, some in very high places, who don’t want him to solve the murders. In fact, his career nearly derails because of it. And in the end, we learn that one important element of this story (and of the trilogy, really) is the question of scientific developments and technology, and where they may lead. It’s a look at the issue within the thriller context.

Of course, lots of other thrillers do a similar thing. Robin Cook’s thrillers, for instance, often raise the question of medical ethics. Novels such as Godplayer, Coma, and Chromosome 6 explore some of what is possible in medicine and science. And they ask whether it’s in our interest to take those fields as far they can go.

Mary Shelley explored that issue in Frankenstein. Nearly 200 years later, we’re still wrestling with it. Every time we make a scientific, medical or technological advance, we are also faced with the question of whether that advance does more harm than good. It’s not an easy issue, which makes it a really intriguing element in a crime story.

ps. The ‘photo is of Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, and one of her offspring.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s Science Fiction Double Feature.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Mary Shelley, Peter Høeg, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk

28 responses to “Dr. X Will Build a Creature*

  1. This is a fertile topic of discussion, Margot and I am sure it will spark a lots of interesting comments, which I look forward to. You have convinced me I need to reread Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I read it a long time ago and I did not remember a lot of the story.

    • I’m looking forward to the comments, too, Tracy. And thanks for yours. Smilla’s Sense of Snow is really an interesting novel on a lot of levels. If you re-read it, I’ll be interested in what you think the second time round.

  2. It’s interesting how while scientists long to push things forward the general population is more cautious about their advances. Sadly I can’t think of any more examples for you though

    • I think that’s interesting, too, Cleo. There is sometimes a real difference between scientists’ views of what we should do to move forward, and the views of others. It’s a fascinating social phenomenon. And don’t worry about examples. I love your visits, examples or no.

  3. Although I have it on my shelves, Margot, I cannot even remember if I ever did read Margery Allingham’s The Mind Readers , the last book she completed before her death. It’s about a device that enables mind reading, and the struggle (involving two teenaged relatives of Albert Campion, I think, who built the device or in some way created it) and the power struggle for control of such a potential weapon. Looks like I may have to put that one on my active reading list and get it to the top of the TBR pile. In any case, it sounds like a story very much along the lines you’re discussing today.

    • It certainly does, Les. And I’m glad that you mentioned it. I’ve heard of the book, but I must confess I’ve not read it. It raises such an interesting debate, though! What should be the limits of our probing the human mind? Fascinating ethical question, and I’ll bet Allingham handled it well.

  4. I can’t think of specific examples either, but I feel there have been quite a lot of books recently about the advances made in fertility treatment and the impact they can have – especially surrogacy, though that has less of a scientific side to it, I suppose. I always enjoy books that look at these kinds of questions, though I tend to think of it more in terms of sci-fi than crime, on the whole. I really must get around to reading Smilla’s Sense of Snow – it’s been on my list for ages…

    • I have books like that on my list, too, FictionFan. And I agree; it really is interesting when a book looks at those sorts of questions. Thanks, too, for mentioning the development in fertility treatments. That raises a lot of ‘should we just because we can’ questions, doesn’t it? Interesting, too, that you mention sci-fi. I was just talking about that with my husband sci-fi expert, who made the same point. Great minds, I suppose 🙂

  5. Col

    I did like the Levin book. I need to read the Hoeg one of these years!

  6. I would certainly add JAR CITY to this fine list – it’s a topical topic that isn’t going away anytime soon!

  7. There have been many books written that would fall into this line of discussion, but unfortunately, I can’t think of any one title. For some reason, I keep thinking of Ian Fleming and his James Bond. There were a lot of gadgets he introduced that later came on the market.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • That’s quite true, Mason. Those novels have all sorts of devices that were considered almost sci-fi at the time, but are now easily available. It really shows how technology has changed, doesn’t it?

  8. Margot, in Morris West’s “The Clowns of God,” the Pope shocks the Vatican inner circle when he announces his plan to tell the people that he has had a revelation that the world is going to end. This puts the Vatican and its cardinals in turmoil. Is it ethical for the Pope to predict apocalypse that could lead to global disorder? The book raised some interesting questions.

    • Oh, that does sound absolutely fascinating, Prashant! And yes, it raises some interesting ethical questions about what the Pope should do. It speaks, in a way, to public figures in general, and what it’s ethical for them to say, considering the millions who may listen to them.

  9. kathyd

    Oh, Frankenstein, but what a movie with Boris Karloff and then with the amazing Elsa Lancaster in The Bride of Frankenstein.
    But this topic makes me think of Gene Wilder in the absolutely hilarious movie, The Young Frankenstein, directed by the unsurpassable Mel Brooks.
    Saw Brooks on TV the other night talking about the greatness of Gene Wilder in that movie and others. A clip was shown from Young Frankenstein, which had me howling with laughter.
    R.I.P. Gene Wilder. You made millions of people laugh for so many years.
    And this topic raises ethical dilemmas. Tweaking with human genetics can prevent hereditary diseases and bad mutations, but to what extent should our genes be manipulated? And how can science be misapplied?
    But it can also be used for greater good.

    • Those questions of human genetics really are difficult, aren’t they, Kathy? I very much doubt Mary Shelley thought of that when she was writing. And yes, Gene Wilder will be missed…

  10. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    “Strange things are happening” at mystery writer Margot Kinberg’s blog!

  11. I read an article a few days ago about plans underway to “resurrect” the wooly mammoth. It seems they have discovered tissue with “useable” DNA buried in the ice (can’t remember where). In just a little over a century, mankind’s knowledge has snowballed to where things once thought to be mere fantasy is now reality-plus. How the heck can they put so much complex circuitry on a pinhead-sized board? I’m still trying to figure out how a simple radio works. If progress was left up to me, I’m afraid we would still be living in caves and eating raw meat. 🙂

    • It is absolutely astounding the progress we’ve made in so many areas, isn’t it, Michael? And you’re right; we’re doing things easily now that we only dreamed of just a short time ago. Consider your visit to this blog (and mine to your excellent blog): not so very long ago, there would have been few productive ways for people who live geographically far apart, as you and I do, to share thoughts without using the postal service, if we were even aware of each other’s existence. Now, within milliseconds, I can send you an entire book. You can post a video and millions of people, thousands of miles apart, can see it. Whodathunkit?

  12. kathy d

    If genes can be manipulated to prevent Sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, breast cancer and other diseases, that’s a good use of science, it seems to me.
    But to create “superior” beings, I don’t know, or to create “the perfectly beautiful person,” I don’t think so. A wonder to behold is the diversity of humanity, people from every country and culture and looking as they do. After all, it was evolutionary development in various areas of the world, given different climates, relationship to the sun and more that led to our physical differences, remembering that we are all of the human race.
    It’s glorious in its differences and in our similarities.

    • You outline clearly both the benefits and risk of some of the technological progress we’ve made, Kathy. And that’s part of the reason for which we ask ourselves: just because we can do something, does that mean we should. Each step forward means really serious ethical considerations.

  13. I was just reading in Wired magazine that technological innovation is taking off in China. For years, the Chinese have COPIED other tech innovations to play it safe. The article argues that safe investment is a big part of the culture. Now, though, young Chinese men and women are being backed to put out new tech products, and I’m really surprised by some of them. For example, there is a dating app that you can download, but it’s not to actually find people to date. You get put into a “room” in the app and are able to flirt with other people and buy them digital gifts that cost real money. The example I remember best is you can pay $1,000 for a DIGITAL luxury car to gift to someone. I mean, what is the point of all this? It’s not devastating like the science of Shelley or the atomic bomb, but it’s changing the way we think and interact with one another. And that’s just one app! On NPR yesterday was a news story about DIGITAL sports becoming so popular, with so many spectators, that organizations will rent an arena, sell tickets to the event, and broadcast a DIGITAL sporting event. Holy, jeez! (though could it possibly be more interesting than golf or NASCAR? *fingers crossed*)

    • Those apps and other innovations really are amazing, aren’t they, GtL? At the same time, though, they really are changing the way we think and the way we interact. Is that a good thing or not? Some people say it is, as it allows people to meet others they might not otherwise meet. Others say a resounding ‘no.’ Certainly it’s got fans and foes, and lots of controversy. Must have been a very interesting article!

      I’m also thinking about your comment on the NPR story. It’s interesting how digital sports are, indeed, becoming popular. That changes an awful lot about how we think about sporting and other events (such as a digital concert, for instance). How will these innovations impact the way we interact with one another? My guess is, profoundly.

      • One of the guests of the NPR segment was saying that people can’t simply take a sport and make it digital, it has to be entertaining to watch, too, so I get that it’s a complicated thing, but goes back to your question: just because we can, does that mean we should?

        • It does, indeed, GtL! Is there something important to be gained for us by going in this direction? It’s not an easy question, that’s for sure.

  14. I’m glad you mentioned Miss Smilla – that was the first title that rose to my mind. I’ve recently been reading some Victor Canning 70s thrillers – one, Firecrest, deals with an important new scientific development. Its creator wants to be paid for it, and both sides in the then-current Cold War are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of the important papers… We are kept in the dark for a long time over what the important development is…

    • You’ve had some great posts on Canning’s work, Moira, and I really must read some of those thrillers. And Firecrest sounds like a great example of exactly what I had in mind with this post, too. The Cold War really serves as an excellent backdrop, too, for that sort of story.

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