Thursday, August 11, 2011

Frankenstein and Parable of the Sower

(This was written for an English class)

The books Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler are both science fiction novels warning of a dangerous potential future. Frankenstein looks at the perils of creating artificial intelligent beings, while Parable explores human savagery in the collapse of American civilization as the result of poor political decisions. Each addresses concerns of the time they were published. While both are pessimistic views of the future and both require the suspension of disbelief, Frankenstein is ultimately more plausible for addressing a timeless issue that modern science may soon make a reality, while Parable creates an alarmist depiction of conservative leadership.

Frankenstein is an early depiction of the creation of artificial intelligence, an idea with great significance today. While artificial intelligent beings such as golems exist in myth as the product of magic, scientific progress carries the true potential to make artificial intelligence. In modern times, the subject is frequently discussed with regard to computers being programmed to think, in an imitation of the human brain. In Frankenstein, the medium used is recycled human body parts stitched together to create a new human-like entity. Whether or not this entity, which is dubbed the monster, is truly not of the human species is a matter of semantics, as the monster has the full functioning intelligence and corruptible conscience of a human being. The protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a terrific scientist who creates new life but through his own negligence causes his powerful creation to transform into a malicious creature that becomes a bane on humanity. Victor Frankenstein is criticized as a human playing God by creating an intelligence he has no business creating. After reading Paradise Lost, the monster compares himself to Adam, but finds Satan a more fitting comparison. The monster says, “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (chapter 15). The monster becomes cruel and vindictive, but he places the blame on Victor for making him a monster.

The book Frankenstein is as much about the cruelty of human prejudice as it is about science going too far. The monster starts his life as ignorant as a child and has the same potential for good and evil shared by everyone else. Because the monster was created from the scraps of human corpses, Victor finds his newly living creation grotesque and flees from him in fear. The monster lives like an animal for a while until he seeks shelter in a hovel and observes the DeLacey family, from whom he learns speech and culture. He falls in love with them and wishes to join their family, but when he approaches them, they react with fear and aggression. Because of his appearance, they can only see him as a monster and drive him away. The monster then takes out his anger on his creator for making him for no purpose and causing him needless suffering. The monster is not evil inherently but was made that way through being treated fearfully and aggressively all his life. The monster says, “where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses” (chapter 13). Though the creation of life itself is looked down upon as transgressing mortal boundaries, once created, the monster should be treated responsibly. This remains a relevant issue for both the potential creation of artificial intelligence and normal human parenting.

Parable of the Sower functions as a cautionary tale in the formation of its dystopia. While Frankenstein focuses on the protagonist’s creation as the thing to be worried about, Parable takes place in a horrible world and its protagonist’s creation is the spark of hope in a dismal world. The dystopia designed by the author is influenced by secular socialist fears of religious individualism and capitalism if political leaders are allowed to take things as far as right-wing politicians would like. This can be seen with the evil company-owned towns, and privatized police and firefighters whose fees no one can afford. The protagonist Lauren Olamina’s father says, “We can’t afford their fees, and anyway, they’re not interested until after a crime has been committed. Even then, if you call them, they won’t show up for hours—maybe not for two or three days” (pg. 71). Joanne comments that Lauren’s father doesn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming because “only God could change the world in such an important way”, which expresses secular liberal fears of Christian conservatism (pg. 57). President Donner, in addition to suspending protective laws such as minimum wage, also gets rid of the space program and has near space programs privatized, which is horrible to Lauren, who views the colonization of alien planets as part of the natural progression of humanity. Sometime after Parable was published, however, the X-Prize Foundation was developed as a way to improve upon space technology within the private realm, which has advanced technology just as well as NASA has. While there is some truth to the criticism of right-wing policies, the author takes it to an absurd degree. Although not explicitly stated, there is the implicit message that right-wingers will destroy America and reduce all but the wealthiest parts of the population into mad savagery.

Parable’s dystopia has the United States broken up so that only a few civilized areas remain, accessible only to the wealthy, while everyone else lives in a horrible state of perpetual anarchy. In the poor state of California, life is savage. People either live in gated communities or take their chances on the road between them. Bandits and drug traffickers rule with violent force, and anyone who dares to leave a gated community is likely to die. It takes Lauren with her hyperempathy and dreams of spreading Earthseed as a new religion to start to change things for the better by building up a small community of individuals who are civil and compassionate. This scenario of descending into savagery is incredibly implausible. The country would have to radically change in viewpoint to ever accept something like that, which is hard to do. A more likely dystopia would be the emergence of a fascist state with people making more and more sacrifices for safety over time, slowly developing a trust and dependence on a controlling government that turns attention away from its own faults by targeting other countries.

In conclusion, Frankenstein presents a cautionary tale far more plausible than that of Parable of the Sower. While Frankenstein’s literal premise of creating life from death remains in the realm of fantasy, the possibility of creating intelligent life is all too real in the age of computers. As the monster becomes evil as a result of human prejudice and parental negligence, the story is a relevant cautionary tale for the day when computer programmers may create true artificial intelligence. On the other hand, Parable of the Sower is an alarmist fantasy demonizing right-wing policies that is not even explored so much as presented as fact to simply set the stage for a story taking place in the dystopia. Private business has since shown that it can keep up with NASA, anthropogenic global warming will cause problems over the next century but nothing like the disaster scenario envisioned, and it’s implausible to believe that all public-service-type businesses would only cater to rich people instead of different companies seeking out different niches. While both novels present pessimistic views of the future, Frankenstein has greater basis in the real world and is more plausible than the alarmist Parable of the Sower.

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