In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature.
Mary Shelley—Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus
Theatrical as it is, the cliché of the mad scientist—a wild-haired, goggle-eyed maniac pacing around a laboratory, operating buzzing contraptions with the help of a hunchbacked assistant—reveals something important about our relationship to knowledge. At least since Aeschylus, science and technology have been bound to madness and criminality: when Prometheus rebels against Zeus, steals the “fire that makes all skills attainable” from the gods, and gives it to the humans—together with tools, technical and scientific knowledge, language, and reason itself—he “is mentally straying, robbed of [his] wits, like a bad doctor who has fallen sick.”
Some two thousand years later, a different incarnation of this paradox helped give birth to modern science. Descartes, one of the founding figures of our scientific method, started out by imagining a “malicious demon of the utmost power” that deceived him and confounded his mind so that he doubted everything that presented itself to his senses and his mind. “I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement,” he writes in his first Meditation. “I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.” Descartes’s radical skepticism, a deliberate form of madness, is the cornerstone of his method: the demon makes him doubt everything—except that he doubts and therefore thinks and therefore exists. Rationalism is, then, the product of an evil genius.
To this day, metaphors of insanity and normalcy are engrained in the philosophy of science: epistemologists like Thomas Kuhn call “normal science” all work that is done within an accepted paradigm. This, of course, implies that all revolutionary science is, at first, abnormal—or “Abby Normal,” as Igor calls the brain he gets for the creature in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.
From Prometheus to Dr. Faustus, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Griffin, Dr. West, or Dr. Banner, mad scientists in literature have one thing common: they all challenge some sort of law. In one way or another, they “practise more than heavenly power permits,” as the chorus in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faust says in its final admonition. Not only do they break the rules of established paradigms—their methods are never recognized as proper science by academic institutions—but, more importantly, they defy the very laws of nature. “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through,” says Victor Frankenstein. By redefining life, matter, and even space-time, the greatest mad minds defy the basic concepts on which we build our sense of reality. The rejection of the world everyone sees in favor of an alternate reality nobody else can perceive is both one of the most commonplace descriptions of madness, and a prerequisite for scientific breakthrough. And, precisely because the work of these mad scientists is so groundbreaking, there is seldom legislation in place to address the ethical issues that may arise. Mad scientists operate in a legal limbo, when they are not overtly breaking criminal laws. World-domination, as anyone who has watched an episode of Pinky and The Brain knows, can be their main drive. In short, mad scientists violate institutional protocols, twist what we thought was the unbendable order of nature, or contravene, in super-villainous ways, the rule of law.
Still, for all the madness, there is something at the core of these narratives that remains utterly normal: all these geniuses—such as those in the list of in-network mad doctors in the preceding paragraph—are white men. A google search will yield a few marginal women mad scientists such as the protagonists of George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff (1894) and Mullett Ellis’s Zalma (1895), Barbara Haggerwells in Ward Moore Bring the Jubilee (1953), or Dr. Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series—although some of these few cases are problematic: even if they are megalomaniac enough to fit the bill, Olga and Zalma, for instance, use devices (submarines, airships, biological weapons) developed by men. Even if a few other examples may have been omitted here, the main point remains unchallenged: in a canon defined by a character that defies the establishment, that character is, in decisive ways, conservative and conventional.
It is stunning that the radical literary invention that conceived of “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” along with time travel, teleportation, trans-species hybridization, invisibility, death rays, light-speed vehicles, and more has, for the most part, been unable to imagine a woman scientist. The creations are outrageous; the creators, for all their madness, not so much.
As early as the seventeenth century, however, there was Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. A self-taught scientist and philosopher, Cavendish was indefatigably prolific—“It is probable, some will say, that my much writing is a disease” (my italics). In an inscription to the University of Cambridge that prefaces one of her works, she writes, “You might, if not with scorn, with silence have passed by, when one of my sex, and, what is more, one that never was versed in the sublime arts and sciences of literature, took upon her to write, not only of philosophy, the highest of all human learning, but to offer it to so famous and celebrated an university as yours.” It is true that, for the most part, her writings were met with silence—after the publication of one of her books, Henry More wrote in a letter to Anne Conway (author of the Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, a forerunner to Leibniz’s Monadology) that Cavendish “may be secure from anyone giving her the trouble of a reply.” But more than for her extensive work on natural philosophy, Cavendish is remembered for her novel, The Blazing World (1666).
Although not exactly about a mad scientist, The Blazing World is, in a strict sense, the first example of science fiction, and the inventions created within it, such as submarines, would later become tropes of the genre. Science fiction should be taken literally here, stressing the consecutive order of these two words. Cavendish’s novel was published together with Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, an ambitious speculative treatise that aspires to give a systematic and all-encompassing account of nature, while engaging in open discussion with pretty much the entire western philosophical tradition, from the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, and the Stoics to Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle, to name only a few. Following this treatise, in the same volume, comes the impossibly whimsical and digressive Blazing World, a narrative in the tradition of travel literature to imaginary lands—Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, Mardi, Erewhon, and, above all, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland are other examples that come to mind.
In The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf writes of Cavendish: “No fears impede her. She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs.” A quick synopsis of The Blazing World will be enough to confirm Woolf’s words. The nameless protagonist of the novel, “the Lady,” is abducted by one of her suitors, who takes her on a boat with an all-male crew. A storm sweeps the vessel all the way up to the Arctic (sound familiar?) where, in a refreshing shift away from tradition, all the men, instead of the woman, die. At the Pole, the boat is “forced into another World,” inhabited by creatures in the shape of bears, foxes, apes, spiders, lice, worms, geese, and so on, “only they went upright as men.” In short order, the Lady marries the emperor of this world, obtains absolute powers, and becomes a Hobbesian sovereign of sorts (“as it was natural for one body to have but one head, so it was also natural for a politic body to have but one governor”). With her “very ready wit, and quick apprehension,” she interviews every sage in the realm, learning all about the land’s culture, science, and technology, while also judging and rectifying what she hears. She even “commanded her anatomists to dissect such kinds of creatures as are called monsters [, which] would be very beneficial to experimental philosophers.” In a disappointing turn of events, the Empress’s scientific inquiries come to a halt, replaced by a sudden evangelizing fervor. She builds churches, preaches, and creates a congregation of women that she heads herself. “And thus the Empress, by art, and her own ingenuity, did not only convert the Blazing World to her own religion, but kept them in a constant belief.” And this, believe it or not, is where the book gets strange. The Empress somehow manages to conjure up the spirit of the Duchess of Newcastle, the author of the novel we are reading (“although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious, yet she is a plain and sensible writer, for the principle of her writings is sense and reason”). The Empress engages the Duchess as her scribe and then as her main advisor. In the end, they become “platonic lovers, although they were both female.” It would be hard to summarize the long exchanges between both spirits, which range from politics and philosophy to the importance of imagination (they, quite literally, create worlds in their minds) and fashion—the Duchess is “singular both in accoutrements, behaviour and discourse.” Toward the end of the novel, the Empress learns from the spirit that her native land, Esfi (a stand-in for England), is under attack. A couple of centuries ahead of the mad-sci submarine frenzy, the Duchess tells the Empress they should build “ships that could swim under water.” Escorted by bird-men, fish-men, etc., the fleet of submarines finds a passageway back into our world and vanquishes their enemies so that Britain may become the ruler of the entire globe. The Empress returns to her husband in the Blazing World. After a long list of the imperial couple’s favorite sports, dishes, dances, and music, the book comes to an abrupt end.
This is, then, the plot of the fiction that comes after the science in Cavendish’s double volume. In her preface to The Blazing World, Cavendish supposes the reader may wonder why she would “join a work of fancy to [her] serious philosophical contemplations.” The answer is, quite simply, “to recreate the mind.” Cavendish starts out by separating both genres: “The end of reason, is truth; the end of fancy, is fiction.” In the end, however, she recognizes that these may be complimentary spheres: “And this is the reason, why I added this piece of fancy to my philosophical observations, and joined them as two worlds at the end of their poles.” Remarkably, her theory of genres is illustrated by her novel, where two worlds are joined by their poles. Here is, then, what may be the first mention of something like “science fiction,” prefacing a book with two female protagonists in roles of supreme power—empress, demiurge, and author—penned by a woman scientist.
And yet, despite such an auspicious beginning, most mad scientists turned out to be men—and, more specifically, European men. One of the few characters in the western mad-sci canon that breaks away from this rule can be found in a novel by Jules Verne. Captain Nemo’s backstory appears not in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) but in The Mysterious Island (1874), a book where science and politics are tightly intertwined. Its implausible plot begins about two months before the end of the Civil War. Five Union prisoners escape Confederate imprisonment in a balloon that takes them to a seemingly deserted island in the Pacific, which they name Lincoln Island. In the final chapters, after having “improved” the island with their stereotypically American industry and ingenuity, the castaways meet Nemo, their secret benefactor on that remote spot, who tells them his story. The son of an Indian raja, his real name is Prince Dakkar, and his sole mission in life has been to fight British imperialism and free his country from its colonial yoke. He is, then, first and foremost, Indian. Although educated in Europe, “this artist, this scientist, this statesman had remained Indian in his heart, Indian in his dreams of reclaiming one day the rights of his land, Indian in the hope which he cherished of being able someday to reestablish the rights of his country, of driving out the invaders, of restoring its independence.” He was the “soul” and “organizer” of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and his defeat marks the beginning of his transformation from Prince Dakkar into Nemo:
The soldier became a scientist. On a desert island of the Pacific he established his workshop, and there he constructed a submarine ship after plans of his own. One day we will understand how he harnessed the immeasurable mechanical force of electricity for his ship’s needs, on what inexhaustible source he drew to power her engines and fill her with light and warmth. . . . He had longed to rid himself of human society, and now his desires were fulfilled. He named his submarine machine the Nautilus, took for himself the name of Captain Nemo, and disappeared under the seas.
If Nemo protects and assists the Americans, it is because he “learned from them of the struggle of America against America itself for the abolition of slavery. Yes! These men were worthy to reconcile Captain Nemo with that humanity which they represented so honestly on the island.” (Never mind that the Americans have imperial ambitions of their own: “Our plan . . . is to give the island to the United States and establish a base for our navy, which would be well situated in this part of the Pacific.”) Despite all the Orientalist clichés—and Verne’s novel abounds in them—Nemo may be the only mad scientist who truly deviates from the monopoly Europe and North America have held over this character, and for whom race and politics play such a decisive role.
To a large extent, South American literature has followed the European model, based on the Faustus/Frankenstein stereotype. This can be confirmed with a quick glance at the mad scientists over the last century or so in Argentina.
Rather than exploring the possibilities of a new genre in a new country, Eduardo Holmberg, an early Argentine science fiction author, sets “Horacio Kalibang, or the Automatons” (1879) in Germany (and the story reads like a bizarre translation of E. T. A. Hoffmann). A little later, Leopoldo Lugones, whose most brilliant mad-scientist stories appear in The Strange Forces (1906), made important deviations from the most hackneyed versions of this character. One of Lugones’s mad scientists had spent his life devising, under the constant hazards of poverty, small industrial inventions, from cheap inks and coffee grinders to tram ticketing machines. . . . Intuiting, perhaps, that he was somewhat of a genius—which he played down with an almost surly form of modesty—he felt the deepest disdain for those small triumphs. Whenever someone brought them up to him, he would shrug with apathy or smile bitterly. ‘That’s just to put food on the table,’ he would simply say.”
Unlike his aristocratic or at least independently wealthy peers in Europe, this “modest sage” needs side hustles to make ends meet. Lugones, however, won’t let go of the Continental traits the archetype still seems to require: he takes great pain to link all his geniuses to the European tradition with numerous, rather tedious erudite references—and one of his mad scientists, Dr. Paulin (who studied in Krakow under Wróblewski and found a way to distill thought into a liquid) even ends his days in a German mental institution.
Roberto Arlt, with his techno-terrorist novel The Seven Madmen (1929) and its sequel, The Flamethrowers (1931), offers a further glimpse into what a truly Latin American mad scientist could have looked like, if only the main character had been able to overcome his existential malaise to implement any of his projects, which range from wireless transmission of energy and research into beta rays to dry cleaning for dogs and the creation of a copper rose. In Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel (1940), an inventor picks up the theme of life creation, but this time in the age of mechanical reproduction. Morel designs a machine, powered by the tides, that captures and reproduces the life and very soul of its subjects—at the cost of their actual lives—so that their artificial projections re-experience, like the supporting characters in Groundhog Day, the same week over and over again, always as if for the first time. Still, despite taking place on a deserted island, the setting and the protagonists are almost decadently cosmopolitan and colonial: the narrator first hears of the island in India but is told that “white people had built there a museum, a chapel, a swimming pool.” The novel subserviently harks back to the canonical tradition of mad scientists—the narrator’s love interest is, somewhat heavy-handedly, called Faustine. Lastly, César Aira offers a parody of the mad scientist genre in his novel The Literature Conference (1997). Typically Airaesque in its free associations and wild narrative leaps, the book feels bizarrely akin to Cavendish’s Blazing World. After solving an ancient riddle, the main character, Aira himself, finds a fabulous ancient treasure hidden by British pirates. With his newly acquired fortune, Aira, who (we suddenly learn) is also a mad scientist, sets out to fulfill his dreams of world domination with an army of clones. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, however, Aira wants to create a being that surpasses him in intelligence: “It was on this point that our Mad Scientist most differed from the stereotype of the Mad Scientist, who would typically dig in his heels with self-destructive resolve in order to maintain the central role of his own intellect, ours reached the conclusion [that] his intellect [should] be placed at the service of another intellect, his power at the service of another greater power.” Aira, then, decides to clone a “genius”—Carlos Fuentes. But the trained wasp that was supposed to bring him Fuentes’s DNA gets, instead, a sample from his tie, and Aira ends up cloning giant silkworms. Disaster ensues. Nevertheless, for all his outlandishness and schizophrenic personality shifts (and despite the substantial difference with Frankenstein noted above), Aira’s alter-ego still is “the typical Mad Scientist found in comic books,” a figure the narrative needs to keep in place in order to succeed as a parody.
Science and madness represent the opposite extremes of the same spectrum—the zenith and the nadir of reason. But this is not the only reason why the dissonant figure of the mad scientist is appealing. In modern history, it has been science’s job to define madness. And madness is too often linked to criminality, which, not by coincidence, is a link the figure of the mad scientist repeatedly exemplifies. It is to be expected, then, that Aeschylus’s notion of a “bad doctor who has fallen sick”—as opposed to, say, an insane accountant—will complicate matters.
And still, wild as this dissonance may be, the creators are seldom as challenging as their creations. The standard arguments and justifications don’t apply here. “Women were excluded from academic pursuits for centuries,” you might say. Yes, but many mad scientists are self-taught and don’t have a degree. “Institutions only want those who will perpetuate their status quo.” True, but mad scientists are by definition anti-institutional. “Modernization was an uneven process that relied on exploitation, which is why most of these characters are Caucasian—only they had access to advanced technology.” Sure, but mad scientists are always bricoleurs and, by definition, DIY prodigies who make their own gear. “The most important books in the tradition were written by men, so it is only logical their protagonists should also be men.” Wrong: the most influential mad scientist in literature was created by a woman—who first published Frankenstein anonymously, by the way. This freakishly unique, monstrously exceptional novel is the subject of the second installment of this essay (to be published tomorrow).
Hernan Diaz is the managing editor of RHM (Columbia University). His first novel, In the Distance, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.