Alien vs the Modern Prometheus and a New Take on Mary Shelley’s Genius

Matthew Bellisario, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?

The Creature

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s great classic hardly needs any introduction. Most of us have read Frankenstein in school or know it by reputation alone. Even if you’ve only ever seen Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee play the monster in film, you know the basic storyline.

What more I might say that hasn’t been said already?

Well, what if we considered Frankenstein in terms of the subtitle which Percy Shelley gave it: The Modern Prometheus. Well, if we do, then we can make the argument that The Creature is perhaps the first modern alien. More specifically, the Creature is the original xenomorph.

That would be the very disturbing extraterrestrial form presented in the Alien franchise.

Weren’t expecting that, were you?

Boris Karloff as The Creature and the Xenomorph

Prometheus Explained

Greek mythology in all of its incarnations is a space opera waiting to be made. Nowhere is that more clear than in the myth of Prometheus. Prometheus is the Titan who defied the Olympians to benefit man. And it’s Prometheus, which Percy Shelley thinks of when he gives Frankenstein its subtitle and writes the first preface.

Prometheus is associated not only with science but civilization. Hence the colossal statue of him at Rockefeller Center in New York.

The myth of Prometheus builds off of the ancient struggle between the Titans and the Olympians. If you aren’t familiar with that struggle, then it’s worth reviewing because it sets up the entire science fiction genre quite nicely.

Prometheus

There are two different versions of the Promethean myth:

1. The god who stole fire

In perhaps the best-known version, Prometheus, a Titan, stole sacred fire from the gods to give to humans. He then went a step further and taught man how to use the fire and so the art of metalworking was born.

Fans of Tolkien will no doubt see similarities here with the creation of the dwarves.

2. The god who created man and then stole fire

In another version of the myth, Prometheus also created man out of clay and stole the fire to give his creation. I suspect it’s this version which Percy Shelley was thinking of when he gave the subtitle The Modern Prometheus to his wife’s novel.

In this version of the myth, it only mentions Prometheus making man. It doesn’t mention him making a woman. That is because the first woman, Pandora, embodied the exact opposite of everything Prometheus had made. And at the behest of Zeus himself.

Neither version of the Promethean myth ends there.

Prometheus’ Punishment

Zeus, enraged that humankind was given something by which the gods could be destroyed (hello, Planet of the Apes), condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock while and eagle tore out his liver. Daily. For eternity.

Did I mention the eagle was a symbol of Zeus?

Not a happy state of affairs, is it? Don’t worry, Hercules comes along and kills the eagle while he is performing his 12 labors. Which it ironic considering Hercules was one of Zeus’ many children. The son kills the symbol of the father.

Percy Shelley would later write his own masterpiece: Prometheus Unbound, which encourages the reader to follow the Titan’s example.

The theme, if you haven’t yet caught the drift, is of defying and overthrowing the gods. Or at least of overthrowing perceived divine authority.

Which sets the entire stage for Victor Frankenstein’s studies in natural philosophy and his questions about the origin of life itself.

Hideous Progeny

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny to go forth and prosper.

Mary Shelley, Introduction to Frankenstein, Third Edition. 

Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.

Victor Frankenstein

Frankenstein

The question Frankenstein has about the “principle” of life sets off the entire chain of events in the novel. Matters of life and death hitherto in literature were solely the province of religion. That was slowly changing, even in Percy and Mary Shelley’s day.

In his preface to his wife’s book, Percy Shelley mentions a Dr. Darwin. No, not Charles Darwin. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816—far too early for it to be Charles Darwin.

No, Dr. Darwin here is Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Now, Erasmus Darwin wrote a little pamphlet called Zoonomia in which Erasmus espouses a much earlier version of what his grandson would later make famous.

The implications? Man can create life in whatever way he sees fit. He wouldn’t need a woman to create another human being, but could instead create his own life form. Percy Shelley associates this with Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create a new species. One of sentiment and higher learning.

Just as Prometheus stole the divine fire and Hercules killed the eagle, man could harness the powers which had only until then been associated with the Divine.

Which is one of the unspoken taboos of the novel. The Supernatural doesn’t exist. It’s just man and nature.

Except the very man who behaves as if this were so is the one whose life is destroyed.

Much like the team in Prometheus gets destroyed when they assumed the “Engineers” would be benevolent patrons of humanity. Except that they had plans to destroy it.

And in return, David the android destroyed the engineers.

The Android, the Alien, and the “Modern Prometheus”

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Ozymandias

Percy Bysshe Shelley

The idea of artificial life forms creating havoc on the natural world began with Frankenstein. But the creators of both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant took the idea to a whole new level and there is no doubt they got some of their inspiration from Frankenstein. They even have David quote from Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias as he destroyed the Engineers.

David, the android, a creation of Mr. Weyland, in turn creates the creatures who would become the xenomorphs. He even sources materials in much the same way as Victor Frankenstein. We discover in Alien: Covenant, of course, that David uses a human body to harvest tissues and organs so he can create his own life forms.

Which he then unleashes on humankind when they make it to his planet. It would be as if the Creature created life and then turned them on Frankenstein instead of doing all the killing himself.

David, like Victor Frankenstein, is a Promethean type. Or at least, is trying to be. Only he himself is a creature made by a man who, like Victor Frankenstein, wants more life. This lust for more life makes David try to create life of his own.

While neither Prometheus nor Covenant tell us the full story of how the Xenomorphs came into being, we see enough of their parentage with David to know the reason for their creation was all too similar to the reason for Victor Frankenstein creating his own monstrous progeny. Only David was a “hideous progeny” himself.

The hideous progeny has a hideous progeny of its own. Which then destroys the creator’s creator. It’s an intriguing extension of Mary Shelley’s original idea.

Let’s not even get started on the idea the Engineers created human beings and then tried to destroy them. Did, perhaps, they have Victor Frankenstein’s same horror?

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

Victor Frankenstein

Frankenstein

Note how Victor uses the word “clay” here. Remember that second version of Prometheus we talked about earlier? Well, this is it right here. Victor Frankenstein harvests bones, organs, and tissues from animals and cadavers alike.

The famed statue of the creature in Geneva gives us a very morbid idea of what this would look like. And it’s every bit as appalling as the view we get of Elizabeth’s body in Alien: Covenant. 

Are you seeing the corollaries yet? Makes you look at Frankenstein in a whole new light, doesn’t it?

Science Fiction and the Power of the Gods

The Twelve Olympians, by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754-1837)

Beware of taking upon yourself those powers which our ancestors attributed to the gods. Our ancestors weren’t stupid people. They left matters of life and death safely in the realms of mystery.

Perhaps we should do the same.

The oldest trope within science fiction is the story of what happens when man tries to usurp the power which was once only attributed to the gods. Science is a wonderful thing, but science fiction tells us to be careful in how we use it.

Mary Shelley’s work, far from being the modern Prometheus, is more of an anti-Prometheus if ever there was one. The man who seeks to create life ends up destroying not only his own life, but the lives of his entire family. Mary’s would-be Prometheus learns that the hard way.

So what do you think? Have we heeded Mary’s warning? Or have we, like Victor Frankenstein and David, set aside all considerations and only pursued our own ends?

Let me know what you think!

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