Published in 1818, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” imagined the possibility of science re-animating dead matter, and the themes in her masterpiece have been as enduring as the Hollywood images of a block-headed, neck-bolted monster. What are the moral responsibilities of our scientific capabilities? Just because we can, should we?
Like Shelley’s novel, Stephen P. Kiernan’s intriguing debut, “The Curiosity,” begins in the Arctic, where scientist Dr. Kate Philo leads an expedition to find the perfect “hard ice” from which to re-animate single-cell life forms. The funding for the expedition comes from Erastus Carthage, a monomaniacal, media-savvy genius who appoints Daniel Dixon, a lecherous, mediocre journalist, to document the project.
Instead of krill, the expedition discovers Jeremiah Rice, a 19th-century Boston judge who fell overboard during an expedition in 1906. When this “metabolic mystery” is re-animated successfully, the Lazarus Project quickly moves from a science lab to the world’s stage.
To Christian conservatives, Jeremiah is an abomination, for only Christ can rise from the dead. To Carthage, he’s “Subject One,” a commodity to be exploited, and to Dixon, he’s “Frank,” an erroneous pejorative for his monster status. But to Kate, he’s a human being, a man who has loved and lost a lifetime.
The story is told from the perspectives of these main characters, but it’s Kate’s sections that I particularly enjoyed. She becomes Jeremiah’s confidante, helping him navigate the 21st century. Soon she begins to see the world through his eyes, and so do we.
Jeremiah is “a student of the present,” concluding “our species had not become smarter … nor any more moral.” Instead, our progress is simply “the culmination of a century’s exertions.” We may have put man on the moon, but are we better people as a result?
This man who “wants to be more than a time tourist” puts Kate at the “intersection of science and magic, fact and speculation” and he re-animates not only her ability to love, but also to do the right thing.
“Facts are stubborn things,” Jeremiah says (quoting John Adams), and the novel’s suspense comes from how each character in his or her own way manipulates and maligns them. Humanity may have discovered a “means to new truths,” adds Jeremiah, but this “can also produce new lies.”
Summer is dominated with thrilling books, but if you prefer yours more measured, more touching and decidedly more thought-provoking, this one may satisfy your curiosity.
Carole E. Barrowman is the co-author of the Hollow Earth series. She teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee.