Today I’m happy to share a guest post about mad scientists by Lev AC Rosen! His debut novel, All Men of Genius, was one of my favorite books I read last year (my review). I was quite drawn to the idea of this steampunk novel inspired by both William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and it ended up being just as wonderful as it sounded. The story mainly follows Violet, a young woman with an extraordinary gift for mechanics. Unfortunately, the academy of her dreams only accepts men, but she gets around this little problem by pretending to be her twin brother—and, of course, chaos ensues! I found All Men of Genius delightfully entertaining, at times both humorous and heart-warming.
Please give a warm welcome to Lev AC Rosen!
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Science.
Mad science is like pornography; difficult to define beyond “you know it when you see it.” After all, mechanical limbs were seen as mad science in the Victorian era, but now we use them all the time for amputee victims. What if the scientist is nuts, but his/her invention seems pretty useful (think of those neurotic computer geniuses). So when Kristen suggested my favorite mad scientists as a topic, at first I was very excited (cause, awesome), but then I started getting caught up in what exactly it meant. So I’m going with the pornography definition. If you disagree, think a scientist isn’t mad enough, or think I’m missing someone, just chime in in the comments. There’s enough mad science to go around. Also, I thought it would be déclassé to mention the mad scientists in my own book, All Men of Genius, but rest assured it is filled with mad science, including flying ferrets, killer robots, mind-altering chemicals and foul-mouthed rabbits. But I’m not including any of that on the list. That might just come across as shameless self-promotion.
So, anyway. Favorite mad scientists.
Let’s start with the classic: Dr. Jekyll. Most Victorian mad scientists, like Jekyll, or Frankenstein, were mad, in my opinion, because their science was about manipulating the soul. With Frankenstein, that meant creating life, but with Jekyll, it was more interesting – it was about distillation. He wanted to purify himself, not through religious devotion or attempting to live a better life, but with chemistry. What’s more fascinating is that once this goes horribly wrong – that is, once he creates Mr. Hyde, who is not, it is worth noting, a creature of pure evil, but merely one free of conscience – he becomes addicted to becoming Hyde. Jekyll isn’t pure good – in this regard, his experiment failed. Instead, what happens is he becomes a man who shrugs off Victorian morality (in fact, most forms of morality) and lives a life without second thoughts, doing what he wants, being debauched and not suffering any guilt over it… until he turns back into Jekyll. And he admits to liking being Hyde – the freedom that comes with it. After Hyde kills a girl he tries to stop, to keep away from the potion, but starts transforming without it, and eventually, he kills himself. As a parable, it’s fairly obvious, but for the Victorian time, this addiction to amorality is fascinating and dark. It’s not the lure of being bad that seduces Jekyll, you see, it’s the lure of not having any guilt about it. He’s already bad. And that’s sort of a wonderful way to show a mad scientist – his madness stems from his own repression of his inner madness… which just serves to make him crazier in the end.
Dr. Frankenstein is also up here, I don’t want to leave him out. But Victor’s main source of madness is his ego – the idea that he can create life, thus proving he is just like God. I generally think that this is sort of the background madness for all mad scientists, and since Victor, other forms of crazy have been piled on top of the huge ego. And, as Victor pretty quickly feels bad about what he did, he then becomes crazy with guilt. He’s worth noting and he is fascinating (the book is one of my favorites), but in terms of real madness, he’s pretty low on the totem pole.
Dr. Feelgood, as Sidney Gottlieb was known, is going to be the only real-life historical figure on this list. Because I don’t feel comfortable diagnosing the “madness” of actual people. But in Dr. Feelgood’s case, I’m going to be talking more about the legend (which has to be at least 50% exaggeration and rumor, right?) than the actual man, who obviously I have never met. So, Dr. Feelgood wasn’t just the MKULTRA guy who said LSD is the way to mind control. He’s also the guy who said “let’s send Castro a poison wetsuit” and “let’s poison Castro with thallium, so his beard falls out and he is powerless.” He liked poisoning a lot. But mostly he’s known for the whole “let’s test LSD on people and make them go insane.” Now, I’m not entirely sure about the reasoning behind this, and maybe it’s not as crazy as it sounds, considering how much was known about LSD at the time. I don’t know. But he’s on this list because he became the iconic figure of the 60s drug-obsessed mad scientist, which lead to my favorite mad scientist, who I’ll get to right after…
Dr. Horrible. What’s great about Dr. Horrible is that we get to see him go mad. And he goes mad for love. Awww. He’s really the most sympathetic on the list; all he wants is to use his scientific genius to, like, steal crap, and maybe get Penny to notice him. But that damned Captain Hammer steals her. And then a horse threatens his life. So he finally gets the nerve up, mostly, to kill Hammer, and of course can’t quite do it, so everything goes horribly wrong and Penny dies, making him cold and, I believe, genuinely mad. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the promised sequel. But I do love seeing the transformation, and how his science, although used for crime, come from a place of love.
And finally, my favorite mad scientist: Walter Bishop. I know he’s old enough to be my father, but if Walter asked me back to his place, I would go in a heartbeat. You just know it would be so much fun. And Walter is genuinely mad – crazy in a sort of “pulling ideas out of nowhere, maybe this will work, maybe it won’t, have more drugs” sort of way. Yes, everything he does is wildly dangerous, and yes he’s sort of a doddering old man, but he just makes it all look like such fun. And he’s a great blend of good and bad; willing to do what it takes for a greater good, even if it means a bit of evil. I just… cannot describe my love for him. Terrifying and funny and sweet and insane all wrapped up in one package. Who wouldn’t go home with that?