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  • From Superhuman to Posthuman:The Gothic Technological Imaginary in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Octavia Butler’s Xeno Genesis
  • Theodora Goss (bio) and John Paul Riquelme (bio)

Dystopian or Utopian? Superhuman or Posthuman?

Although no two works can exhibit definitively the diverse character and directions of science fiction during the past 190 years, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis (comprised of Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Imago)1 provide revealing related moments at the genre's origin and at a recent stage of its development.2 In both its early and late manifestations and throughout its history, science fiction emerges from the overlapping perspectives of a Gothic imaginary and a technological imaginary.3 Mary Shelley modifies and redirects the conventions of eighteenth-century Gothic narratives in English by making her protagonist a scientist whose wrongheaded ambition is to create life and, in so doing, to become [End Page 434] godlike. Early in his narration Victor Frankenstein states clearly his desire to stand at the top of a pyramid of power and value: "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (Shelley 1818, 36). Writing in the wake of the French Revolution, Shelley combines in Frankenstein elements of eighteenth-century Gothic with the technological ambition to dominate and manipulate nature. The science that Frankenstein practices is a dark, Gothic science, motivated by the technological imaginary's imperative to overcome death, to "renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" (36). Rather than serving humanity, the denial of death contributes to the scientist's effort to control life and death. Frankenstein attempts to metamorphose from a human into a superhuman by creating a superhuman being who worships him. In its hierarchical tendencies, the technological ambition central to Frankenstein is related to the social hierarchies that characterize earlier Gothic writing. Like the Montonis and other aristocratic villains from eighteenth-century narratives who dominate and exploit the people around them, Frankenstein, an intellectual aristocrat, expects to exercise power over his creation and over other people, as would a ruthless monarch. Not just another kind of hierarchical thinking, the technological imaginary's imperative, imperial aspect can stand for hierarchical thinking per se as both its cause and its purest form, its imago. Gothic reaches an important moment of cultural realization in its offspring, science fiction, when the scientist replaces the ruler and the priest as wielder of power and source of wrongdoing.4

In her trilogy, Butler combines Gothic elements and technological ambitions differently from Frankenstein in a narrative that emphasizes a process of emergence as a potential antidote to destructive hierarchical attitudes and behavior.5 Butler's combination arises from and responds to a changed literary and historical situation. She writes not only in the wake of an eighteenth-century Gothic tradition but also after science fiction narratives influenced by Frankenstein; she writes not in an era concerned with the spread of revolution but in an era of postcolonial nation building and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Like Shelley, Butler responds to hierarchical cultural tendencies of the kind regularly evoked in the classic Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. She does so specifically by presenting an incarcerated heroine threatened by a powerful, manipulative figure, not a monster in human form as in the case of Radcliffe's Montoni, but an alien. At the same time as Butler recasts the gender hierarchies of many Gothic narratives, she translates and transforms the prejudicial nationalistic hierarchical thinking evident in classic Gothic writing. The [End Page 435] differences between Protestant and English, on the one hand, and Catholic and foreign, on the other, are replaced by contrasts between species, understood as races, and with differences that contribute to the emergence of new kinds of communities, rather than ones that express the dominance of an existing community over another. Even though the technological threat to human survival in Xenogenesis is far greater than the threat in Frankenstein, Butler's narrative affirms the possibility of a qualified or "critical Utopia" (Moylan 44).6...