Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Rebuilding Babel: Science, Fiction, and a New Divinity

Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Rebuilding Babel: Science, Fiction, and a New Divinity

Article excerpt

   Man has ... become a kind of prosthetic God.

      --Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

   I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.

      --Donna J. Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto"

THE paradigmatic tale of God's punishment of humans for overreaching with technology is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. In this story, human beings, who communicate in one common language, decide to build "a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." God's response is not encouraging: "Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." As punishment for their pride, God decides to "confound the language of all the earth" and scatter the people across the earth (Gen. 11: 4-9).

The sense of a divinely determined boundary or limit to human science and technological development runs through much of our writing and thinking about these issues. Especially in what we have come to call science fiction, a clear pattern was established early in the history of the genre in which humans who took on the roles and powers traditionally ascribed to God in Jewish and Christian theology inevitably failed and were horribly punished. One of the earliest and clearest examples of such cautionary fictions is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, in which the tale of an overreaching scientist attempting to create human life is couched in highly religious language, especially in the later 1831 edition. Shelley turned to religious paradigms in order to express her anxiety concerning the possibilities held out by the new scientific discoveries of her day. Shelley's antihero, Dr. Frankenstein, attempts to take upon himself the godlike power of creating a new species, yearning to "break through" the "ideal bounds" of life and death in order to become the "creator and source" of a "new species," (1) but he finds himself unequal to the task and is punished for his pride and inadequacy. Shelley continually draws parallels between the scientist Frankenstein and the great rebels against divinity, Prometheus and Satan. The traditional religious paradigm is embodied in the newly created "monster," who addresses his creator in the antique language of thee and thou reserved, by Shelley's time, for religious discourse: "`Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.'" (2) As a result of his prideful and ill-considered attempt to usurp the place of God within creation, the scientist Frankenstein becomes the slave of his own creation, losing everything he loves.

Another example of a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific ambition is H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), which again portrays the scientist in the role of a dysfunctional god. (3) Like Frankenstein, Wells's Moreau attempts to create new species and in doing so quite consciously takes on a godlike role. We can see this role reflected in Wells's parodies of religious law and ritual in the novel, especially in the pathetic and degraded recitations of "the Law," which Moreau has inculcated in the Beast People he has created in order to keep them from reverting to their animal pasts:

   Not to go on all Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
   Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
   Not to eat Flesh nor Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
   Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
   Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

   His is the House of Pain.
   His is the Hand that makes.
   His is the Hand that wounds.
   His is the Hand that heals. (4)

Moreau, like Frankenstein, sets himself up in the role of a god over a creation he cannot control, and like Frankenstein, he is destroyed by this creation. …

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