Science Fiction Studies

#65 = Volume 22, Part 1 = March 1995

W. Warren Wagar

The Mad Bad Scientist

Roslynn D. Haynes. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. v+418. $55.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.

The oxymoronic phrase "science fiction," which my American dictionary traces back to 1851, calls to mind the deepest chasm in modern Western culture: the chasm between scientism on the one side, and the humanistic rebellion against science on the other. Since the Battle of the Books in the late 17th century, pitting the new natural philosophy against a reverence for classical letters, the history of Western thought has consisted largely of the struggle between the world-view of science and its enemies. Beginning perhaps with Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, literature has sometimes deserted its natural allies to celebrate the virtues of science. More often it has ignored--or decried--them.

In C.P. Snow's familiar phrase, there are "two cultures" at work in the modern world, two opposing camps barely able to understand one another. More recently Wolf Lepenies has suggested there are in fact three cultures. Between the realms of "science" and "literature" stands sociology, which, especially in its formative stages in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sought to bridge the gap between the other two. Among his exhibits in evidence are H.G. Wells, an sf novelist who wrote sociology (such as Anticipations, 1901, and Mankind in the Making, 1903), and Gabriel Tarde, a sociologist who wrote sf (Fragment d'histoire future, 1896). To go Lepenies one better, sf itself might be construed as a third mediating culture, not only because it supplies a literature steeped in scientific themes, but also because it offers innumerable portraits of the scientist at work in society, often written by men and women of science themselves.

Roslynn D. Haynes, known to Wellsians as the perceptive author of H.G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future: The Influence of Science on His Thought, is in her new book, From Faust to Strangelove, concerned to explore the many ways in which scientists have been represented in literature, from the late Middle Ages to the present day. As a university professor of English, she might have been tempted to devote her energies to impenetrable deconstructive analyses of "mainstream" fiction. A little George Eliot, a bit of Thomas Pynchon, and so forth. Instead, she focuses unfashionably on the intellectual content of her fictions, and moves easily back and forth between mainstream and genre writers, without making any great fuss about the alleged differences. The struggle between science and the humanities lies at the heart of her inquiry. Not unwisely, The Johns Hopkins University Press has chosen to market her volume primarily as history of science, rather than literary criticism. A still more appropriate label might be intellectual history.

One of the many merits of From Faust to Strangelove, as the title suggests, is its broad chronological sweep. Although the war of the world-views (see my Terminal Visions) between scientific and humanistic culture did not take center stage in the drama of Western thought until at least the second half of the 17th century, the scientific world-view and modern science itself had significant origins in medieval alchemy, astrology, and other occult arts. The first recognizable image of the natural scientist in Western literature is the depiction of the alchemist in works such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Haynes gives both texts due attention in her first chapter, in which she delineates the stereotype of the obsessed or maniacal alchemist, who becomes the "mad" or "bad" scientist found in later literature about science. Such figures are almost invariably arrogant, godless, and hungry for power or fame.

But there are other stereotypes with long pedigrees. Haynes cites five: the stupid asocial virtuoso; the unfeeling scientist, devoid of affect or affection; the scientist who loses control of his (seldom her) experiments; and two generally positive images, the scientist as heroic adventurer and the scientist as idealist or world-savior. She introduces us to examples of each in her next six chapters, which follow the theme of the scientist in literature from Bacon to Mary Shelley. Except for a section on treatments of the subject in German romanticism, virtually all of her references for the early modern period are to British scientists and writers.

At first, writes Haynes, images of the scientist in literature were largely negative, in the medieval tradition. Scientists were routinely condemned as charlatans or ridiculed as fools and dabblers. But in the utopian visions of Bacon and, more to the point, in the almost hagiographical adulation of Sir Isaac Newton by many of his literary contemporaries and their immediate successors, "the popular image of the scientist changed from that of either a stupid or a sinister character to that of a highly respected man of genius representing the highest attainments of reason" (50).

Throughout the heyday of the 18th-century Enlightenment, scientists continued to enjoy the esteem of many literati. Newton was hailed by poets as a credit not only to science but to the British nation itself, and other scientists, such as Harvey, Gilbert, Boyle, and Halley, took respectable if lesser places in the literary limelight. At the same time, a reaction set in among moralists fearful that the very successes of science might lead to an undermining of Christian faith and the rise of atheism and amorality. Alexander Pope, for example, the same poet who had immortalized Newton in a familiar couplet ("Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;/God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light"), warned in The Dunciad that scientists were attempting to replace God with laws of nature, ousting the Deity in favor of "some Mechanic Cause." Jonathan Swift, never a child of the Enlightenment, savaged scientists in Gulliver's Travels. Haynes finds other scattered negative references to scientists in the engravings of William Hogarth and in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas.

It was in the romantic era, however, that the popular image of the scientist fell once again into general disrepute. The case of romantic writers "against the classical mechanics, which formed the basis of Enlightenment science, was that by limiting the universe to the sum of separate, measurable entities it limited man as well, denying the validity of emotions, nonrational experiences, spiritual longings, and individuality." (75) As a result scientists of the Newtonian variety were represented in romantic literature as fundamentally inhuman. The scientists who appear in works of Blake, Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Carlyle, Dickens, and many other British romantics, as well as Balzac, Hoffmann, and Hawthorne, suffer from both moral and spiritual infirmity. Only in the resurrection of the Faust legend by Goethe and other German writers did romantics find a way to cast scientists in a favorable light; and Goethe's Faust was an exemplar not of Newtonian mechanics but of romantic Naturphilosophie as taught by the idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

Haynes devotes a whole chapter to the one romantic work that, more than any other, epitomizes for modern readers the fatal failings of the scientist, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of her tale, just like the monster he created, was a lone wolf, alienated from his society and deprived of a sense of social morality by virtue of his isolation. As Haynes notes, the introduction into the narrative of the obsessive polar explorer Walton, who bears striking resemblances to Dr. Frankenstein, confirms that Shelley meant her hero to be seen as an example of a type common in the scientific world.

Oddly, Haynes does not discuss Shelley's other great sf parable, The Last Man, in which her husband Percy plays a starring role as Adrian, Earl of Windsor. Adrian becomes the proud ruler of a republican future England blessed with technological marvels who nevertheless cannot save his people from the plague that ultimately wipes out the human race. The character of Adrian was Shelley's gentle way of discrediting the lofty but in the final analysis arrogant and impractical dreams of both Enlightenment and romantic utopography. For good measure she also created, in The Last Man, the character of the astronomer Merrival, so absorbed in his research that he took no notice of the plague that raged all around him or the poverty in which his loving wife and children were forced to live. Merrival is a classical example of Haynes's stereotype of the absent-minded unfeeling scientist.

The next four chapters of From Faust to Strangelove carry the story into the Victorian period and somewhat beyond. The practical and theoretical achieve mentsof natural science throughout the 19th century did much, Haynes contends, to rehabilitate the image of the scientist in literature. Characters like Tom Thurnall, the heroic physician of Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago, and the benevolent scientist-poet of George Meredith's Melampus offer idealized portraits of the scientist. A more complex figure, studied at profitable length by Haynes, is Tertius Lydgate, the physician and scientist whose professional struggles are central to George Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch. Still less admirable are the scientists portrayed in the novels of Thomas Hardy.

But the Victorian era also gave rise to popular images of the scientist (or inventor) as an adventurer, a heroic figure able to perform great feats or even save the world. In one chapter, Haynes examines the protagonists of the novels of Jules Verne and compares them with Arthur Conan Doyle's biologist-hero, Professor Challenger. In another, she probes the realm of late 19th- and early 20th-century popular fiction, including sf, to discover an abundance of scientists and inventors who rescue humankind from various disasters, scientist- detectives who catch dastardly criminals, and scientists who rule technocratic utopias. The novels of Garrett P. Serviss and Kurd Lasswitz, the detective stories of Doyle, and the post-Victorian utopias of Wells are all studied, with a concluding glance at B.F. Skinner's much later work, Walden Two. Not surprisingly, Haynes takes special pleasure in exploring the many sf stories casting Thomas Edison or some other wizard of invention as the hero, a sub-genre recently and most aptly described by John Clute as the "edisonade."

Late Victorian writers were just as likely, however, to characterize the scientist as a villain or madman. Attacks on scientific materialism were mounted by Samuel Butler in Erewhon, Ambrose Bierce in "Moxon's Master," Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even Jules Verne in such later, and darker, fictions as Maître du monde. Haynes adds a lengthy section on the scientific romances published by H.G. Wells in the 1890s. Although Wells became a major apostle of scientism in the 20th century, his earliest work stressed the perils of science, illustrated by the characters of Moreau in The Island of Dr. Moreau and Griffin in The Invisible Man. Moreau and Griffin are obvious grist for Haynes's mill, but she also detects a fair amount of ambiguity in the likes of the Time Traveler (in The Time Machine) and Cavor, the absent-minded scientist of The First Men in the Moon, who was "prepared to sacrifice not only himself but anyone else in the cause of his research. Fundamentally, then, the disarmingly cheerful Cavor is as amoral as Moreau." (158-159)

In her remaining five chapters, Haynes considers the image of the scientist in 20th-century fiction. Unlike Patrick Parrinder in his invaluable essay "Scientists in Science Fiction," which Haynes does not cite, she sees that image as preponderantly negative throughout the century. Science, she argues, has been viewed as incredibly dangerous and scientists, for the most part, as evil, or aloof and emotionally defective, or lacking in moral judgment, or unable to maintain control of their own research.

Many of her most telling examples spring from sf, including sf films and even comic strips. In one chapter she profiles evil or irresponsible scientists created by such writers as Robert Cromie, Maurice Renard, Karel Capek, Alfred Döblin, Murray Leinster, J.B. Priestley, C.S. Lewis, and Philip K. Dick, and in films such as The Invisible Ray and Dr. Strangelove. Aldous Huxley's frontal attack on scientism in Brave New World is examined, perhaps too briefly. Subsequent chapters discuss the work of Yevgeny Zamyatin, Eando Binder, Ernst Jünger, Philip Wylie, and Stanislaw Lem. Nor does Haynes overlook Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the absentminded genius whose diabolical invention, ice-nine, destroys the world in Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

But she awards equal attention to negative representations of scientists in fiction and theater outside the realm of sf. The many scientists depicted in Aldous Huxley's non-sf novels, as well as those appearing in the work of C.P. Snow, Robert Musil, Thomas Pynchon, and others receive significant attention. There are also useful discussions of the image of the scientist projected by leading modern playwrights, including Bertolt Brecht, Thornton Wilder, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. A final chapter, "The Scientist Rehabilitated," briefly surveys depictions of the scientist as idealist in 20th century literary work, an image that Haynes sees as somewhat rare in our time "with the exception of the superficial characters of much science fiction." (295) She begins her overview with a late Victorian example, the scientist-hero of Emile Zola's Dr. Pascal, and continues through some of Wells's mid-period fiction to Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, the numerous stories of scientists written or edited by John W. Campbell, and the heroes of two more recent sf novels, Huxley's Island and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. An epilogue, "Implications," offers the serious (but wildly incongruous) hope that in the next century e-mail will enable scientists and non-scientists alike to build a better world.

Clearly, From Faust to Strangelove is a comprehensive and substantial volume, of great interest to students of sf, perhaps more for its treatment of non-sf literature than for what Haynes has to say about sf itself. No one could ask her to cover more ground in 417 pages. Her glaring omissions of appropriate texts are relatively few, and possibly not all that glaring. Thinking only of sf, I am a bit surprised to find nothing on such writers as Jack London, E. E. ("Doc") Smith, Jack Williamson, or Robert Heinlein. Sax Rohmer's evil Chinese scientist Dr. Fu Manchu would have offered Haynes an especially juicy opportunity to connect her theme with racial issues. Recent science-oriented sf, as represented by Gregory Benford, David Brin, and William Gibson, is also largely ignored, despite its considerable relevance to Haynes's topic. Two major scientist-writers of sf who deal extensively with science in their work, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, are examined briefly, but not in the chapter where the reader might expect to find them, "The Scientist Rehabilitated." I might also complain about the relatively slight treatment of French and Soviet sf and the over-emphasis on British texts in the earlier chapters. German-language material, by contrast, receives generous coverage. But Haynes's bibliography of cited primary sources lists more than 400 novels, plays, poems, and stories, which is surely all she should have attempted to handle in a work of this size. As it is, no doubt some critics (but not this one) will fault her for traversing too many texts and failing to chart any of them in real depth.

From the point of view of both structure and analytical acumen, however, I cannot proclaim From Faust to Strangelove an unqualified success. The two matters are closely related in this instance. Haynes's mix of chronological and topical treatment of her material sometimes does not work. In order to establish a sense of period and Zeitgeist, she tries to choose texts written during the years in question, but all too often she finds herself reaching back half a century before her "period" or straying half a century beyond it.

At the same time, her typology of stereotypes is rather arbitrary, with much opportunity for confusion and overlapping. The fine distinctions she draws between scientists who are inhuman, evil, amoral, irresponsible, unfeeling, or foolish, as well as between scientists who are heroic, adventurous, or idealistic do not always hold up when tested against the materials she studies. Nor do they make all that much difference, as compared, for example, with the ideological and philosophical biases of her authors or other issues that she touches on still less often, such as gender. Some of her best insights are taken from the work of the (formerly East) German critic and writer Christa Wolf, who finds it no coincidence that nearly all the villainous scientists in literature are men, "a consequence of the excessive concentration on reason, efficiency, and objectivity that a patriarchal hegemony extols." (210) Unfortunately, Haynes does not follow up the leads provided by Wolf and furnishes no extended analysis of the question of gender in literature about scientists. She clings all too rigidly to her wobbly categories and dubious periodizations.

These criticisms notwithstanding, here is a book that I can recommend with enthusiasm to serious scholars of science, sf, and the history of ideas. It is free of postmodernist philo-babble, written with felicity, and mercifully oblivious (or almost so) to such technical lit-crit concerns as form, genre, and semiotics. It is the kind of book that you will want to buy and put on your reference shelf. It is also a hefty reminder of the truism that much of what we call science fiction is anti-science fiction.


Clute, John. "Edisonade," in Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 2nd edition. NY: St. Martin's, 1993, 368-370.

Haynes, Roslynn D. H.G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future: The Influence of Science on His Thought. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Lepenies, Wolf. Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology (in German as Die Drei Kulturen, 1985]. Cambridge and NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Parrinder, Patrick. "Scientists in Science Fiction: Enlightenment and After," in Rhys Garnett and R.J. Ellis, eds. Science Fiction Roots and Branches. NY: St. Martin's, 1990. 57-78.

Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge and NY: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Wagar, W. Warren. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

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