Crazy Hair and Secret Lairs: Mad Scientists in Popular Fiction

So you’ve got that doctoral diploma burning a hole in your pocket, and some distant uncle you never met left all these uncut diamonds and hollowed out volcanoes in his will. Just what are you going to do with yourself? Open a day spa? Wreak vengeance upon those who have wronged you?

I mean, you could do both I guess.

Illustrated by Christopher McGregor

The mad scientist trope is science fiction bedrock. At the center of the genre you have always had Jules Verne’s gentleman scientist trying to improve the world, and Mary Shelley’s mad doctor trying—even unintentionally—to destroy it. Our culture alternates between these binaries based on how pessimistic or guilty we’re feeling about technology at any given moment, but you can generally find a few labcoat-wearing super-murderers dotted about even when scientific optimism is at its zenith.

19th century literature was caught up in the promise and possibility of steam and electricity, but Wells’ Dr. Moreau still appeared to offer a sobering reminder of what unfettered ambition can bring. The Roaring Twenties capitalized mass production into economic success, so Fritz Lang gave us the character of Rotwang in Metropolis to portray a dystopian endpoint for mechanization. Post-WWII America saw immense booms in prosperity and technical achievement, but the spectre of atomic testing gave ample elbow room for the Dr. Strangeloves of the world to bring everyone back down to earth.

Mad science can be a useful and healthy way of reminding the scientific community to pull up and take stock every once and a while. It doesn’t promote Luddism, or glorify some imaginary, bucolic vision of the past—on the contrary, it shows us exactly how powerful and amazing raw science can be. Mad science simply asks for a social and ethical awareness to accompany this otherwise beneficial form of progress.

But even within the mad scientist archetype there are different flavours of characterization. There is the bumbling genius, churning out horrors but struggling to tie his shoes or find his coke bottle glasses. There is the brilliant Napoleon, driven to greatness by his vast inferiority complexes. There is the proud inventor, technically capable, but crippled by his own hubris, and constantly failing to kill the Fantastic Four (or Squirrel Girl, but I try my best to forget that ever happened).

And then there’s the divide between scientific disciplines. It’s a subtle but consistent truth that mad biologists are very different entities than their counterparts in physics and chemistry. A mad physicist is the kind of villain that superheroes, Flash Gordon, and 60s James Bond would fight. Death rays and earthquake machines are all well and good, but in your heart of hearts they’re never truly frightening. When creators want to give their audience a scare they turn to scalpels, viruses, and genetic engineering. Even when taken to wildly illogical extremes, the medical sciences remain intimately accessible to us, because they are grounded in the blood, bone, and sinew that are an inseparable component of our day-to-day lives.

In recent years, this is where the mad science mechanism has gone slightly off the rails. Biology carries intrinsic moral and religious baggage that is not necessarily present in other fields, so the message that scientists should practice caution has more and more been replaced by the idea that to practice science at all is to play God.

Battlestar Galactica’s 2004 reimagining replaced many of the robotic Cylons with organic models, and without spoiling anything, its heavily theistic final season ended on an unequivocally anti-technology note. The original series offered a helpful warning: “Hey guys, maybe don’t enslave and mistreat the murderbots you invented,” but the reboot went a step further, and ultimately condemned all science in general.

Even today, SyFy’s new show Helix (incidentally, created by Ronald D. Moore, the same mind behind Battlestar) terrifies viewers with the dripping fluids and popping ligaments of an ambiguously-defined—apparently artificial—disease, but does very little to explain where the mad scientists behind its creation might have done better. The architects of this plague simply committed the encompassing crime of “going against nature,” and so an outbreak of gooey rage zombies quickly accompanies their sins.

Mad science is supposed to be about moving science forward carefully, but still moving it forward. If we get too caught up in the idea that the science itself is morally wrong, we’ll miss out on all of the positive advances it can bring.

And seriously, at one point in Helix, Seven-of-Nine methodically grinds down her teeth with a Dremel tool. I don’t need those nightmares, thank you.

-Contributed by Matteo DiGiovanni


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