I think we can all agree that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a babe.
Not only has she been credited with creating the genre of science fiction as we now know it when she wrote Frankenstein, but she’s also widely believed to have written the very first post-apocalyptic novel in The Last Man.
She’s a Gothic queen, and the impact Frankenstein has had on the sci-fi and horror genres is remarkable.
One of the most common themes we continue to see in science fiction is AI, or Artificial Intelligence, which has popped up in everything from the Terminator franchise to the Descender graphic novels to the Murderbot Diaries. AI is the perfect sounding board in sci-fi for man’s relationship with humanity and what makes someone, or something, human.
“None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.”
But what exactly is AI? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it’s: the study of how to produce machines that have some of the qualities that the human mind has, such as the ability to understand language, recognise pictures, solve problems, and learn.
Sounds familiar. Isn’t that exactly what Dr Frankenstein accomplishes?
Often we think of AIs as computers – such as J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man or Lovelace in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – but if Frankenstein’s Monster is made from the flesh and bones of other people, does that mean he doesn’t count as an AI?
Lovelace is likely named after Ada Lovelace, the woman who’s considered one of the world’s earliest computer programmers, but as she was only around six months old when Mary Shelley wrote the first draft of Frankenstein (while on holiday in Geneva with her husband, Percy Shelley, and Ada Lovelace’s own father, Lord Byron), I think we can be safe in our assumption that Shelley didn’t know anything of computers when she wrote it. While Frankenstein’s Monster might not be a machine in the way we think of the word, and while he may be a character created before the existence of computers, he is still a creature created by man who’s expected to understand language, recognise pictures, solve problems, and learn.
Much like many stories surrounding AI, the question running through Frankenstein concerns whether or not Frankenstein’s Monster counts as human when he has been made by man and not by God, as the rest of the people in the book (and its contemporary readers) believe themselves to be. The creature ultimately becomes monstrous because of the way he’s treated by his creator, who is disgusted by him and rejects him, and readers can both sympathise with him and recoil from him in equal measure as he descends into monstrosity.
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
We can see echoes of his struggle in today’s sci-fi.
AIDAN from Illuminae watches humans and makes decisions based on what he sees and, in so doing, begins to develop feelings his creators believe he should be incapable of. He makes decisions that seem callous to a human’s mind, and yet it’s the human race he’s learned that callousness from. In the creature’s case, he watches humans to learn their language and then quickly learns to be afraid of them when his encounters with them leave him spurned and rejected over and over again.
The creature might do monstrous things, but he does those things because, from the moment he came into being, he was never shown any form of kindness, and was never taught how to behave and how to give and receive the most basic levels of respect.
“Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!”
Ultimately, Frankenstein’s Monster wouldn’t have become a monster at all if Dr Frankenstein had taken better care of his own creation.
Today there are many more positive AI stories in existence. Characters like Lovelace, as well as Lovey and Owl in A Closed and Common Orbit and Iko in The Lunar Chronicles, offer us more hopeful AI narratives with characters who have been treated with love and care by the people who create or, for lack of a better word, own them.
We also have authors like Ann Leckie whose Imperial Radch trilogy is told from the POV of an AI, as is the Murderbot Diaries and Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective. This also isn’t all that dissimilar from Frankenstein, in which my favourite section of the novel is narrated by the creature himself.
AI is still regularly used as a tool to discuss humanity and personhood, such as in shows like Westworld and Humans, perhaps now more so than ever when we live in a world in which AI looks like it will be a big part of our future with ‘virtual assistants’ like Alexa and the unveiling of the world’s first robot artist, Ai-Da.
He might not be a computer, but through Frankenstein’s Monster Mary Shelley was already asking questions about the personhood of mankind’s creations and what it means to be human.
So, is Frankenstein the first AI novel?
The honest answer is that I don’t know. There may very well be other novels I’ve never come across, written before Frankenstein, which ask these questions – and if they weren’t written in English, they’re definitely stories I won’t have come across. But if we agree that Frankenstein is the first English-language science fiction novel, or at least the first novel to define science fiction as we now know it (we can argue, after all, that Margaret Cavendish was writing sci-fi in the 17th century), then I’d have to say yes.
So many of the struggles faced by AI in 21st century fiction are struggles Frankenstein’s Monster already faced in 1818, at a time when Britain was breaking further away from religion to science. Just over 40 years after Frankenstein‘s publication, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, considered the foundation of evolutionary biology, and Gothic literature responded again, this time with fears of devolution through the publication of vampire and werewolf fiction. But that’s a story for another time.
For as long as scientists have been inventing machines with the ability to learn, there have been those questioning the ethics behind the creation of such machines. In my opinion, Mary Shelley just happened to get there first.