I thought it fitting that after having completed fifty short stories I am about to try something I’ve never done in my writing. At the end of my last story, The Favored Son, I expressed a desire to give it a second try, to rewrite it with a different plot and set of themes.
Not because the first try was a failure, I actually liked it pretty well when all was said and done, but because there is a very different experience that I believe I can grow from the bones of the first, and I just can’t turn down an opportunity like that! Like Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll or the scientists in Jurassic Park, just to imagine the experiment is to already be compelled to see it through. Never mind what the outcome might be, the question of “can I pull it off” must be answered!
Man’s Exceeding Reach)
But unlike those examples, my cobbled-together monstrosity probably won’t be trying to kill anyone!
Which is a very interesting pattern from those three stories. Each one of them is a fresh take on the same theme, one of the most common themes in all of literature: man should not deal with matters that are beyond him.
Frankenstein is trying to play God by creating new life. Though at first he appears to have succeeded, eventually he learns that making something walk and talk is not enough. Man needs a soul, strong morals, and innate goodness. This new creature lacks all of these qualities, and so is not a man, but a monster.
Dr. Jekyll learns a very similar lesson, though his attempt it not to create new life, but to circumvent human nature. What if instead of going through the long process of mastering oneself you could just drink a potion and amplify all of your best qualities? A tempting idea, but Dr. Jekyll learns the hard way that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement.
The scientists in Jurassic Park find a way to extract dinosaur DNA and use it to clone new incarnations of those creations. And in the words of one of the film’s protagonists, those “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And…of course…they shouldn’t have. For soon the wildlife gets free, and then the humans learn that nature had given them a great gift in separating their species from these true apex predators!
But why is this the central message of these stories? Why have authors felt it so important to caution us against playing God? Magic potions and cobbled together bodies are pure fantasy, not reality. Are there any true-to-life examples of people unleashing unforeseen tragedies by reaching further than they knew how to control?
Earlier this year my wife and I watched the miniseries Chernobyl, which related the events of a nuclear power plant’s meltdown near the city of Pripyat in 1986. From the very outset this event was tragic on a local scale. An earth-shattering explosion in the middle of the night and engineers coming down with a strange illness and dying painfully. But beyond that an even bigger problem had just been let out of the bottle. There followed the spread of an inorganic disease, an intense radiation that could both kill instantly and over a lifetime, infecting thousands and rendering a thousand square miles as uninhabitable.
Just how many thousands have died or are dying from this nuclear fallout is unclear. Current estimates range as high as the tens-of-thousands. In either case, it was a man-made failure that was as lethal as a natural disaster.
And the question of course is, but why? What was it that caused this failure? That is the main mystery at the heart of the miniseries, and in the end the answer is simply that the people responsible were dealing with powerful forces that they did not fully understand. They created a disaster, simply by not knowing that their particular sequence of steps even could result in that disaster. They were trying to pinch at a beach ball with a pair of tweezers.
Perhaps this recent event was in the filmmakers minds when they made Jurassic Park, but what about for Frankenstein and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? There weren’t people making nuclear power plants back when those stories were written, so what horrible cataclysms did those authors have to caution against?
Or what about going even further back? As I said, this is one of the most prevalent themes in all of literature. Why does it show up in Icarus flying too close to the sun, in Pandora opening her box, in Prometheus stealing fire for mankind, in King Midas wielding the power of golden touch? Clearly the ancient Greeks had a deep mistrust of people dealing with elements that were beyond them! But why?
Because massive tragedy is not dependent on great technology. Perhaps there were no nuclear power plants in among the Ancient Greeks, no weapons of mass destruction, no international travel to spread globe-wide diseases…but there were always leaders who outstepped their bounds, and it was their people who then paid the tragic price for that.
For example, the Greeks only came into power at the sunset of the Persian Empire. The Persians were preceded by the Babylonian Empire, and before that the Assyrian. Each of these kingdoms pursued their conquest with a voracious appetite, overextending themselves, weakening their borders, and finally falling to their own hubris.
And the Greeks paid sharp attention to history, and they would not have missed this pattern. So perhaps their motivation for weaving that element of hubris into so many of their tales was to caution their own leaders from repeating the same mistake!
But…they did. And when the Roman Empire rose next, it was over the dead bodies and broken spirits of the Grecian populace. How ironic that the Greeks, of all people, could not resist flying too close to the sun.
A More Ancient Tale)
And perhaps these stories have their root in the very beginning of humanity. It has always been within us to build towers to reach to heaven, until God smites us back down to earth. It has always been our nature to reach for fruit that was not meant for us, and reap the consequences that follow.
It is an idea I intend to replicate in my remade version of The Favored Son. There were shades of hubris in the first, but with this second I intend to more fully make the villain’s downfall be one of toying with forces that he does not understand.
Of course we won’t see the full realization of that with the first piece that I publish this Thursday, but I will be planting the seeds of it there. See if you can pick up on it as it happens, and I’ll see you then!