Ghosts in the Machine: Mary Shelley on Conceiving Ada
For the second webpaper, I have written an imaginary interview with Mary Shelley, discussing the film Conceiving Ada. Based on our experiences with the panels this week, I thought it would be interesting to use technology to contrast a historical perspective with an imaginative one. The premise (which I borrowed from the film, but which is also reminiscent of a television show called Mentors on Discovery Kids) is that, with new technological advances it has become possible to interact with the “consciousnesses” of various people from history. Some of my sources are hyperlinked within the interview, but I used an asterisk to cite the book I used as a resource on Mary's life.
I have written the interview as though I conducted the interview for a newspaper or magazine. “SM” represents the imaginary reporter version of me, while “MS” stands for Mary Shelley.
Mary Shelley is best known as the author of horror classic Frankenstein. This is part four of our continuing series on how new technological advances allow us to learn about the progress of science and the humanities directly from the source. We recently searched the database of digital data streams and were able to interview Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Below is an excerpt of the interview, which was conducted in an attempt to recorded over several hours and speaks directly to many issues raised by our readers.
SM: Mrs. Shelley, before we discuss the movie, could you tell us how being a woman shaped the way you wrote Frankenstein?
MS: Please, call me Mary. I believe that no writer is every truly aware of every influence. However, it is true that there were certain correlations I drew intentionally between my characters' lives and my experiences as a woman. I was educated quite liberally for my time, and I was allowed an unprecedented amount of freedom to learn and to explore and to develop my own ideas. For example, when I was fifteen my father sent me to live for a time in Scotland with one of his radical Dissenter friends, William Baxter*. His hope was that living amongst people with such strong political opinions might inspire me to study politics further. Even when I was younger, he would allow me to be the first reader of some of his books on politics for children*. So I was quite privileged in a strictly educational sense. However, I was also severely restricted because women had no social or economic freedoms, especially compared to those you experience in the – the twenty-first century, is it? It's a bit difficult to remember the date when you're merely a “data stream,” as they've told me is my current form [chuckles].
But as to the connection between my book and the life I experienced as a member of the female sex – well. Simply put, the monster is a rather morbid representation of me.
SM: Really? I was always taught that the monster functioned to critique the patriarchy. [pause] Not that I presume to know more than you do on the subject…
MS: I do not take offense. That is a fair assessment, and true in its way. But it is far more than that. You see, the monster is lost. He has been created, given consciousness and a physical form. He is made of human parts, yet he is not quite human. He is both similar to and very different from humans. He searches for meaning, for answers to the questions which plague him. He has been abandoned by his creator; he is very lonely.
This is a dramatized self-portrait. You see, as an educated woman I was able to glimpse the great wide world, the world I was denied. I was similar to the women I knew, as I was made from the same “parts,” if you'll pardon the crudeness, yet I was also very different from these women because I had developed a thirst for knowledge and for learning. My mother penned a rather revolutionary book that claimed that women were equal to men, but that we appeared to be lesser only because we received pathetic intellectual instruction. I tell you this because I believe my mother would have been a great source of consolation to me had she lived. But my mother – my “creator” – died eleven days after I was born. I felt very alone for much of my adolescence and adulthood, alone and unsure of myself. Writing about the monster was a way for me to examine my own feelings about my place in society.
As a woman who dared to follow her heart, I faced a great deal of criticism and I was ostracized by people of good breeding. My own father, who had raised me and taught me himself, turned away from me when my behavior brought shame upon the family. I was alone and wandering; when I wrote of the monster, he was also alone and wandering. I suppose the relationship of the monster to Victor Frankenstein is a metaphor for the ills of the patriarchy. But in writing the book, I was much more interested in the relationship of the monster to humanity.
SM: You mentioned your own great loneliness, due largely to your interests. Do you see a relationship between you and Ada Lovelace? I know you've seen the film–
MS: [shakes her head] I'm not sure if that's the right term. When your entire essence has been reduced to a data stream filed away in a digital library, it is difficult to “see” anything in the strictest sense of the word. I am, however familiar with the film, yes. To be frank, I really had to consider the film a second time before I truly began to understand its true impact. Had you asked me that question earlier I might have felt quite insulted. Ada Lovelace was imprudent, to put it politely, and the depiction of her in the film is not a particularly flattering one. I am certainly no addict or gambler, though I do believe loving freely is an admirable philosophy of life.
Now that I have had time to consider the film, however, I believe that there are similarities between my experiences and Ada's. We lived during the same period, though she was quite a bit younger than I. We were both treated unfairly because of our sex, and because were were interested in ideas outside the sphere traditionally relegated to women. Women weren't meant to be interested in such things as algorithms or literature or science. It simply wasn't done. I was treated poorly enough for my relationship with Percy and for my writing; I simply can't imagine how much more difficult my path would have been had I been interested in mathematics instead.
A technician working on the database has informed me that they may soon be able to connect various data streams to one another, in which case I should very much like to connect with Ada and discuss my ideas with her directly. I think she must be very amused at what computers have made possible. In a way I suppose this sort of life – in the data stream – is a product of her both her dream and mine, molded by others.
SM: In what way?
MS: Ada was one of the first computer programmers; the abilities of computers now are far beyond any that could have been envisioned in my day. I, meanwhile, imagined a sort of human-machine hybrid in Victor Frankenstein's monster. And what are Ada's and my data streams now, if not hybrids of computers and humans?
SM: What do you think of the database? Are there things that you like or dislike about it?
MS: The database is still quite strange to me. The idea of preserving “information waves” is difficult to grasp for someone who died decades before the invention of computing machines. When my data stream was activated, it took quite a long time for me to understand what had happened to me. The technicians spent hours helping me to comprehend things that seem quite basic now. The most challenging idea is that I am no longer alive, yet my consciousness is still aware. The other issue is the loneliness. I have limited access to the – what is it – the internet, I believe it is called? And so I keep myself amused by learning about the world as it is now. The creative endeavors of humans these days are quite engaging; they have even created a play about the lives of my parents, have you seen it? It's quite fascinating. The technicians say that once they work out the codes, or whatever those things are, I may be given programming that will allow me to write again. [sighs] That would be lovely, to write once more.
I like the comfort of consciousness free of physical limitation. Because I no longer have a body, I cannot become ill. I spent a great deal of time feeling very ill in my life, and to be free of such worries is refreshing. However, the worst part of this sort of life – if one can call it that – is the loneliness. I spoke earlier of my great loneliness. This isolation is different and in ways much worse. I look forward to the time when the data streams might interact, for I would dearly love to communicate with my Percy again.
SM: In the film, what did you think of the character Emmy's decision to ultimately ignore Ada's final wishes?
MS: I was quite saddened; final wishes are sacred. I can certainly understand not wishing to carry on in a younger body, especially when you feel very weary. And this “digital life” is no true life. I do not truly understand the workings of these computer memory banks but I believe the technicians say that I am not really Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; I am merely a series of codes and computer commands which mimic the appearance of Mary Shelley.
SM: If you don't believe you are alive, then what do you think you are? More simply, I guess, where is the line between the natural and the artificial for you?
MS: I must appreciate the irony of this question. [laughs] In my day, “natural” and “artificial” were used was perhaps a bit simplistic in my day. I thought a great deal about such things while writing Frankenstein, but really “natural” was whatever was God-given, and anything else was an abomination. Hence the fear and suspicion surrounding the monster, who is clearly neither natural nor God given. His emotions are the opposite of artificial, however. Though he is not truly human, his emotions spring from some humanity within him. In my case… I do not have an answer. I am in a sort of existential between-place. Like the monster, like Ada Lovelace herself, I am not sure where I fit.
*Tripod listing for cited book: Mary Shelley, by Miranda Seymour
Trailer for The Rights (and Wrongs) of Mary Wollstonecraft, a play
Text of Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women, by William Godwin