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Mad Science and Modern Culture

By David J. Skal

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-393-04582-X
Publisher: Norton

A remarkably detailed survey of a much-neglected cultural icon by a leading historian of horror films (Dark Carnival, 1995, etc.). As Skal points out, the mad scientist has been a central figure in science fiction from its beginnings: Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Moreau are among those whose names any reader of the genre would recognize instantly. And yet, the true blossoming of this ambiguous stereotype has not taken place in the pages of literary science fiction but rather in film, comics, and other less “respectable” media. After taking a brief look at the deeper implications of the icon—notably, a public awareness that the gifts of science are often of dubious value to the ordinary citizen—Skal lifts off for a wide-ranging examination of some resonances between sci-fi and daily life, centered on a history of the monster movie. Drawing parallels between the Heaven’s Gate cult and the Frankenstein monster, Skal examines the origins of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, moving deftly between the circumstances of its composition and the Romantic social theories of which it was one expression. As a counterpoint, the illustrations show the faces of various Hollywood screen embodiments of the Frankenstein monster. This dialogue between the cerebral and the sensual, the literary and the popular, gives Skal’s book an unusual breadth of reference. In a similar vein, the book segues between the career of Nikola Tesla, a real-life prototype of the mad scientist, and early sci-fi movies by the likes of Melies and Edison (who produced the first film version of Frankenstein!). Skal’s familiarity with his subject is second to none, and his interest in significant intellectual and cultural issues, as well as the usual ephemera of film histories, is an added treat. Should appeal to serious students of modern culture, along with sci-fi movie fans.