Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is the tale of Victor Frankenstein’s alien creature. Victor intends his creature to be beautiful, and builds a mechanically sound but grotesque man using cadaver spares from charnel-houses. Only when he rejects the dark arts of the old-world alchemists and turns to the new unbridled science, is Victor gifted his terrible triumph of creation.
Between the first edition of Frankenstein in 1818 and the second in 1831, the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830) was published, dramatically increasing the age of the Earth. The new geologists were industriously rooting reptilian bones out of the mud; extinct monsters brought back to life.
The idea of Frankenstein’s creature leaps into the science fictional future of artificial life. It is the nature of life itself that is under the microscope, the quest to unravel the agency through which dead matter is given the vital spark of life.
Less than ten years after Frankenstein came the Burke and Hare murders. The 19th century saw science rapidly develop our understanding of human anatomy. But before 1832, there was a lacking lawful supply of cadavers for the study of anatomy in British medical schools, such as the one at Edinburgh. As medicine began to blossom, demand mushroomed.
But there was a problem. The only legal supply of cadavers – the bodies of executed criminals – was falling, due to a sharp reduction in the execution rate. This state of affairs attracted criminals willing to get cadavers by any means.
The Burke and Hare killings (also known as the West Port murders) were committed in Edinburgh, between 1827 and 1828 by William Burke and William Hare. Understanding the economic principle of supply and demand, Burke and Hare made their victims insensible with drink, smothered them, and then sold the still-warm corpses of their 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. Their principal customer was Professor Robert Knox. Understandably, the activities of body-snatchers (aka resurrectionists) gave rise to public fear and revulsion.
In 1967, the same year that Professor Christiaan Barnard made the first successful human-to-human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital, Capetown, South Africa, author Larry Niven invented the fictional crime of organlegging in The Jigsaw Man. A portmanteau of the words ‘organ’ and ‘bootlegging’, and meaning the piracy and smuggling of organs, Niven’s vision was of a future where the transplant of any organ was medically possible.
In theory, organ banks could be used to extend life indefinitely. In Niven’s ‘reality’, this proved tricky. To maintain communal organ banks, donors are needed. But when the death rate is reduced (via the organ banks), the number of donors decreases; another problem of supply and demand. The system is fundamentally flawed.
In the real world, organ theft is the stuff of urban legend. However, BBC reports in 2006 suggested that the sale of organs taken from executed death row inmates appears to be thriving in China. One associated hospital said it could provide a liver at a cost of £50,000.
Michael Marshall Smith’s Spares (1996) foresees a future where ‘Farms’ of clones (spares) are kept as the ultimate insurance policy of the rich and powerful. Lose an eye, limb or bollock, no problem. Money talks. Your body double is mutilated, and you get your replacement part.
Smith’s book bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Bay’s movie, The Island (2005). It is 2019. Most of the outside world has been contaminated. A community of people, rescued from the toxic environment, believe they are living in a utopic, isolated colony. The reality is darker still. The colonists are actually clones. Walking and talking spares, whose sole purpose is to provide medical insurance for their celebrity sponsors.