Ex Machina, Frankenstein and Modern Deities
To what extent are deities superseded in two adaptations of classical myths, Frankenstein and Ex Machina?
Caleb, Domhnall Gleeson’s character from Ex Machina, has a particularly resonant line early in Alex Garland’s science fiction thriller. He is in conversation with Oscar Isaac’s Nathan, a reclusive billionaire who claims to have created artificial intelligence. ‘If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man’, Caleb declares, ‘That’s the history of gods’. The line detonates one complicated interaction between the 2015 film and the Pygmalion myth: the role of deities in the story being told. The extent to which deities are superseded in adaptations of the Prometheus and Pygmalion myths is my focus in this article. I have already introduced Ex Machina, which shares its core narrative with that of Pygmalion – man creates idealised female who is animated – despite relocating the story to the near future and transforming the statue Galatea into the android Ava. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is the Prometheus adaptation that will occupy the second portion of my discussion. Originally subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’, Frankenstein is the story of a man who, like the Prometheus of some myths, creates life and who, like the Prometheus of all myths, hubristically transgresses the natural order. It is necessary to disclose my understanding that Frankenstein and Ex Machina do indeed adapt the Prometheus and Pygmalion myths. The article is underwritten by this understanding, and whilst I will complicate the adaptation process, the nature of adaptation is not my focus.
My focus is deities: both in the Prometheus and Pygmalion myths and in Shelley and Garland’s versions. I am specifically interested in what happens to deities in the transition from source to adaptation: whether they survive the transition, whether they are relocated, or whether they disappear altogether. In short, I am seeking to examine the extent to which deities are superseded in Frankenstein and Ex Machina. To do this, I will be using a four-fold approach. Initially, I will interrogate the role of deities for those who originally engaged with Prometheus and Pygmalion. Having made this interrogation, I will advance the idea that science in Frankenstein and Ex Machina occupies a similar space to classical deities in the Prometheus and Pygmalion myths. This suggestion, which imagines a void left by classical deities being filled with science, raises my third question: where is authority located? Here I will address Frankenstein’s complicated relationship with Christianity and the Christian God. It is worth pointing out that throughout the article I will be quoting from the 1831 edition of the novel, which will become particularly significant in this section. My fourth and final intervention will specifically address the term ‘superseded’, considering whether deities are banished, replaced or reimagined in Frankenstein and Ex Machina.
The role of deities in ancient Greek society is my first point of inquiry. Only by interrogating what the divine meant to those who originally engaged with Prometheus and Pygmalion can I investigate the implications of the adaptive transition for deities. Ken Dowden provides a useful starting-point for this interrogation: ‘It is in the nature of the worship of the Greek gods to generate myths’ (42). Dowden’s assertion, which explicitly links ancient Greek religion and myth, suggests that mythic stories were a way of understanding deities. There is a clear ‘logic and function of this mythology’ (Campbell 149), which Dowden points to when he explains that ‘Myths might […] present for instance a supposed reason for a current religious practice’ (42). This has been consistent in my research: myths, inextricably intertwined with religious practices, served a functional purpose for the ancient Greeks. ‘Every locale had its stories of the gods’, develops Dowden, ‘not in isolation but relative to the landscape and the people of old, perhaps heroes, that had lived in it’ (45). My understanding is that deities were not inert or far-removed from human society: instead, they were actively mythologised and worshipped as means of coming to terms with the surrounding environment. Indeed, ‘the pantheon was far from a rigid system’ (Deacy 222), and deities (both within and outside the so-called pantheon) took on characteristics and purposes that served the locale.
Joseph Campbell’s third volume of The Masks of God provides an invaluable development of this understanding:
at no time in the history of properly Greek thought does the idea appear of a book of moral statutes revealed by a personal god from a sphere of being antecedent to and beyond the laws of nature. The type of scholarship characteristic of both the synagogue and the mosque, therefore, where the meticulous search for the last grain of meaning in scripture is honored above all science, never carried the Greeks away (180)
Campbell’s proposition that ancient Greek deities were not seen as being ‘beyond the laws of nature’ is clear in their representation. Zeus, Aphrodite and Athena, when glimpsed in statues from the Classical period of Greek art, look remarkably human. Campbell usefully contextualises this anthropomorphism, writing that by the fifth century B.C., ‘One can realize, after coming down through all these millenniums of religion, what a marvel of new thought the wonderful, earthly humanity of the Greek polis represented’. He continues, the ‘impact of this turn upon the panorama of mythology is evident, first, in the extreme anthropomorphism of the Greek pantheon, and then in the vague yet always felt presence of the force of Moira, destiny, which limits even the gods’ (179). What emerges, then, is an image of deities being concretely, locally and inquisitorially situated within the classical understanding and organisation of the world.
I now turn specifically to the myths of Prometheus and Pygmalion. In his book The Greek Myths, Robert Graves condenses documentation of both myths into singular narratives. He identifies four key stories involving Prometheus. Drawing from accounts by Hesiod, Hyginus, Apollodorus, Lucian and Pausanias, he narrates how the Titan Prometheus ‘formed [mortal men] in the likeness of the gods’ (34). Hesiod and Lucian are Grave’s sources for a story in which the Titan deceives Zeus with a sacrificial offering of ‘bones, hidden beneath a rich layer of fat’ (144), whilst Servius provides the basis for a third story in which Prometheus ‘gave fire to mankind’ (144). Graves cites Hesiod and Scholiast as sources for the fourth story: ‘Zeus had Prometheus chained naked to a pillar in the Caucasian mountains, where a greedy vulture tore at his liver all day, year in, year out’ (145). The Pygmalion myth is more limited in scope. Graves only recounts one story – drawn from Apollodorus, Ovid and Arnobius – in which ‘Pygmalion, son of Belus, fell in love with Aphrodite and, because she would not lie with him, made an ivory image of her and laid it in his bed, praying to her for pity. Entering into this image, Aphrodite brought it to life as Galatea’ (211).
Claude Calame’s suggestion that ‘an individual heroic tale is called upon to legitimate a particular cult practice through an intermediary poetic form’ (262) is valuable to my argument. It draws together myth and religion – which I have said were inseparable for the ancient Greeks – and inserts poetry. Calame’s classification of literature as a mediator between the divine and the mythological can be seen when one dissects representations of myths. As William Furley writes, ‘the Greeks themselves questioned the value of their gifts of burnt fat and bones to the gods’ (125). Viewed in this context, the story of Prometheus duping Zeus with the offering of bones acquires a socio-religious significance, as Jan Bremmer explains:
the original myth was aetiological in intent and aimed at explaining the strange gift of the “white bones.” […] Hesiod’s account clearly locates the origin of sacrifice at the precise moment that gods and mortals were in the process of parting their common ways (140)
It would be simplistic, then, to interpret Prometheus duping Zeus – although in Hesiod’s account Zeus is knowingly deceived – as a mere story. This mythical event, which would have been transmitted orally and survives in varying written accounts, bridges the gap between a mythologised past that explains the practice of burnt offerings and the religious practice itself. If deities actively informed an ancient Greek understanding of the world, I would suggest that mythical moments like this mediated, legitimated and developed this understanding.
As I now turn to Frankenstein and Ex Machina, I wish to advance the following proposal: in these works, science occupies a similar position to the classical conception of the divine. I am going to use two personal assessments of classical deities – that they were functional and illuminating – to structure my argument. Firstly, I am going to examine how the functionality of deities – for example in legitimating religious practices – could be seen to be supplanted by the functionality of science. Functional science, the kind that Frankenstein calls ‘real and practical’ (32), is at the forefront of Captain Robert Walton’s correspondence with his sister at the start of the novel. The Arctic explorer writes ‘you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many months are requisite; or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet’ (13-14). Indeed, Shelley wrote Frankenstein at a time when the functionality (or envisioned functionality) of science was keenly felt: ‘Advances in anatomy, chemistry, electricity, engineering and the exploration sciences were saving lives and creating vast new economic possibilities’ (Knellwolf and Goodall, ‘Introduction’ 1-2).
The opening scene of Ex Machina reveals a similar emphasis on science’s functionality, saturated as it is with what Langdon Winner terms ‘technological somnambulism’: the idea that society is sleepwalking into dependence on technology and a reconstitution of ‘human existence’ (107). The film starts with three shots of an ultra-modern workspace, which the viewer later learns is an office for the world’s largest search engine, BlueBook. The first shot shows employees at work on computers, whilst the second two show individuals using smartphones during their lunch breaks. Garland then cuts to the film’s protagonist, Caleb, who is shown in front of two computer monitors, earphones in. He receives an email informing him that he has won ‘first prize’, which prompts him to pick up his smartphone and text his friend to say that he has ‘won’. Here, Garland ominously cuts to the watchful eye of Caleb’s webcam, then back to his phone, which is being inundated by congratulatory messages. A fellow employee now runs over to hug Caleb, despite the fact that he has not verbally told anyone of his victory in the staff lottery to visit BlueBook’s reclusive CEO, Nathan. For me, the purpose of this opening is to reveal the subliminal functionality and necessity of technology, in which communication is unquestioningly mediated by devices and the internet. If Frankenstein opens with a spirited assertion of the function of scientific endeavour, Ex Machina tacitly unveils the mediating function of high-tech science.
I have suggested that Shelley and Garland offer science as one alternative to the functionality of ancient Greek deities. I will now propose that scientific discovery in Frankenstein and Ex Machina is in line with the ancient Greek conception of the divine as illuminating. One of Frankenstein’s professors as Ingolstadt University, M. Waldman, proclaims how the ‘modern masters’ of chemistry ‘penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places’ (38). Christa Knellwolf and Jane Goodall pick up on Ingolstadt’s association with the Illuminati, an Enlightenment secret society which aimed ‘to improve society through […] the practice of scientific research’ (‘The Significance of Place’, 195). Frankenstein expresses his impulse behind creating life in similar terms to Waldman: ‘Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world’ (43). The language and geographical associations are Promethean in imagery but not content. Instead of the deity Prometheus, it is science that is offered as the means of enlightening humanity. The same is true in Ex Machina. It is technology, not the goddess Aphrodite, that enables the Pygmalion figure of Nathan to create artificial life. ‘If you knew the trouble I had getting an AI to read and duplicate facial expressions’, Nathan intones to Caleb at one point. He continues:
You know how I cracked it? […] Every cell phone, just about, has a microphone, camera, and a means to transmit data. So I turned on every microphone and camera across the entire fucking planet, and I redirected the data through BlueBook. Boom. A limitless resource of vocal and facial interaction.
Ex Machina revolves around a Turing test in which Caleb has to decide whether Ava (Alicia Vikander) has feelings. As Nathan explains, ‘The real test is to show you that she’s a robot, and then see if you still feel she has consciousness’. The Turing test is a framework which enables the film to delve into human nature. ‘Did you programme her to flirt with me?’, Caleb asks Nathan at one point, which instigates a searching discussion about sexuality. Science is thus positioned as an enlightening force: something that shines a light on the human experience. I suggested much the same for ancient Greek deities.
So far, I have found that science is positioned as both functional and illuminating in Frankenstein and Ex Machina, two adjectives that I also ascribed to classical deities. However, it would be crude to suggest that science simply replaces deities in both works. As I turn to questions of authority, I wish to complicate my argument somewhat. I will briefly address authority in Ex Machina, before I turn to Frankenstein’s relationship with the Christian God, and what effect this has on authority. Caleb’s line ‘If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods’ is one of the few times in Ex Machina that religion is directly referenced. The use of the plural is significant, with Caleb framing Nathan’s authority within the expansive bracket of ‘gods’. Indeed, monotheism is only accidentally brought up by Nathan when he misquotes Caleb: ‘You know, I wrote down that other line you came up with. That one about how if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness I’m not a man, I’m God’. Other than this, the film does not directly address religion, though I will later find that religious subtext runs throughout. Furley describes how ancient Greek professions ‘had not achieved the ascendancy which they have nowadays over religion’ (117). ‘Of the prevailing preoccupations in science fiction’, writes Jasia Reichardt, ‘it is ethics or a sense of responsibility between the maker and his creations that stand out as the principal hurdle’ (138). Both of these statements are reflected in Garland’s film. Overall, Ex Machina seems to adapt the Pygmalion story with an emphasis on ethics – whether Nathan has the right to terminate his AIs, for example – rather than religion.
Frankenstein occupies a less secular position. I agree with Melinda Cooper’s notion that ‘Shelley is concerned with exploring the ethical and relational dimension of the scientist’s encounter with the monster’ (89): during his glacial encounter with the creature, for example, Frankenstein ‘felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were’ (79). However, earlier in the conversation, Frankenstein’s creation has said ‘Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed’ (77-78). Unlike Ex Machina, ethics in Frankenstein are tightly bound up with Christianity, as seen in the creature’s deployment of Adam, Satan and God in his condemnation of Frankenstein. In his embedded narrative, we learn that a discarded copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost has been fundamental to the creature’s understanding of the world around him:
Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. (100)
The creature’s resentment is thus filtered through the Genesis narrative. Marilyn Butler’s reading of the novel – ‘don’t usurp God’s prerogative in the Creation-game’ (404) – also positions the titular character as a divine transgressor of God’s authority.
However, it would be diminutive to read the novel as a Christian morality tale. Butler writes that ‘the plot of Frankenstein was either already associated with Lawrence’s style of radical science, or was imminently in danger of becoming so – until, that is, Mary Shelley removed most of the telltale signs’ (415). She is referring firstly to Sir William Lawrence, a prominent proponent of materialism whose academic skirmishes with John Abernethy at London’s Royal College of Surgeons in the years surrounding the first publication of Frankenstein in 1818 form a major context for the novel: ‘Their friendship with Lawrence probably ensured that both Shelleys wrote more accurately and less speculatively on scientific matters than they otherwise might’ (Butler 407). Butler’s point about removing ‘telltale signs’ refers to what Crosbie Smith calls the ‘significant 1831 transformation of Frankenstein himself into a character with greater appeal to contemporary Christian audiences’ (40). On the novel’s evolution from the 1818 first edition to the third edition published in 1831, Butler writes:
Our current understanding of Frankenstein is disproportionately impressed by passages introduced in what might be called the composite Frankenstein, the product of a decade and a half of religious-scientific controversy (405-406)
The Abernethy/Lawrence debate exemplifies this ‘religious-scientific controversy’ that was at its height at the start of the nineteenth century: ‘John Abernethy […] sought to unite religious and secular opinion with a formula acceptable to both. Materialist science […] could not, Abernethy acknowledged, adequately explain life itself. A mysterious ‘superadded’ force was needed, some ‘subtile, mobile, invisible substance’’ (Butler 406). Authority, then, is a charged word in relation to Frankenstein and deities. The creature’s assessment of his creator is that he has used his authority irresponsibly. Repeated Miltonic resonances in the creature’s language – ‘Evil thenceforth became my good’ (168), for example – imprint a Christian judgement onto Frankenstein, the failed God who has not tended to his Adam. Contextually, Frankenstein is surrounded by negotiations of authority: as Butler explains, ‘Lawrence took care to make the materialist position sound like the professional position’ (407). There is also the question of which is the authoritative edition of the novel: whether the 1831 edition’s greater distance from Lawrence’s radical science is Shelley’s desired reworking or a strategic alignment with conservative Christian views.
At this point it is worth considering my argument thus far. I started by interrogating what the divine meant for the ancient Greeks. Using two assessments of this conception of the divine – that it was functional and illuminating – I proposed that, in Shelley and Garland’s Prometheus and Pygmalion adaptations, science occupies a similar place to ancient Greek deities. Acknowledging that science replacing deities in Frankenstein and Ex Machina is a reduction, I investigated the nature of authority in both adaptations. I found that Garland’s film occupies a more obviously secular standpoint to Shelley’s novel, in which the authority of God (and Christianity as a whole) interacts with the novel both narratively and contextually. My final intervention will specifically address the term ‘superseded’. I will consider in turn whether deities are banished, replaced or reimagined in Frankenstein and Ex Machina.
Banishment is woven into the text of Frankenstein. The creature associates with the postlapsarian Adam through being ‘united by no link to any other being in existence’ (100). Significantly, he is unable to identify with the prelapsarian Adam at all and aligns himself more closely with the ‘fallen angel’ (77): ‘I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition’ (100). His choice of two Biblical figures associated with banishment is significant, particularly when he considers Frankenstein’s role in the dynamic:
I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator. But where was mine? He had abandoned me: and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him. (101)
However much banishment may run through the novel, the very fact that the creature sets his maker in opposition to God – positioning him as a failed God – reveals that deities themselves are not banished in Shelley’s novel. Ex Machina, in its brief reference to ‘gods’ and later conflation of gods and God, is clearly another work in which deities are not completely banished. J.R. Forasteros suggests that ‘Like God, Nathan is omniscient and omnipresent (thanks to his cameras) and thanks to his master keycard, virtually omnipotent’ and that ‘like Adam, Caleb is forbidden certain rooms, such that the keycard comes to mirror the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’. Furthermore, the Catholic News Agency reports that the ‘names are all Biblical’ and that Nathan’s forest-shrouded compound ‘evokes Genesis imagery’. The film does not, then, cleanly jettison itself from the divine.
I have already engaged with the notion that deities are replaced in both works, primarily through the suggestion that science occupies a similar position to the ancient Greek understanding of the divine. Frankenstein’s declaration that ‘Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate’ (31) is certainly a persuasive configuration of science for the reader of Shelley’s novel: Siv Jansson believes that ‘the scientific process activated by Victor excludes any sense of the humanity of the Creature and defines life only on scientific terms’ (x). However, the thorny relationship between the novel and God complicates the simplicity of the science/divine parallel. The same is true for Ex Machina. Is it possible to read God as a replacement of classical deities? I would suggest that this is problematic, not only because pluralised ‘gods’ are referenced in both Frankenstein (89) and Ex Machina, but because the connotations, representation and usage of deities such as Zeus and Aphrodite differ so greatly from those of the Christian God. The gulf between ancient Greek and Christian religion is the subject for another article, but Campbell’s assessment that ‘at no time in the history of properly Greek thought does the idea appear of a book of moral statutes revealed by a personal god from a sphere of being antecedent to and beyond the laws of nature’ (180) sheds light on the sheer extent of this gulf.
As I turn to the proposition that Frankenstein and Ex Machina reimagine classical deities, I also turn to this article’s conclusion. In considering the extent to which deities are superseded in both works, I find the reimagining argument most compelling. I have already considered the ways in which Christianity feeds into Shelley’s novel and Garland’s film, and how a singular God is presented alongside pluralistic gods. I have also looked at science occupying a similar position to the classical conception of the divine. In fact, it could be said that science becomes its own deity in Frankenstein and Ex Machina. As Reichardt puts it, ‘Although the task Victor undertakes is impossible in scientific terms, the fact that he calls on science to realize his dream gives it a rational association’ (137). What this constitutes, I believe, is a reimagining of the divine. The fact that Shelley intertwines John Milton and William Lawrence and that Garland underwrites technological somnambulism with Biblical allusion demonstrates that these works occupy an entirely different social and theological terrain to the original stories of Prometheus and Pygmalion. I would argue that deities are reimagined in Frankenstein and Ex Machina to such an extent that even the creations in both works become deified: ‘Every reader of science fiction knows that respect, appreciation and due acknowledgement are the basic requirements of man/machine interaction, whether the machine is made of metal, plastic or, like androids, of proto-human parts’ (Reichardt 138). Although the creature is a ‘catastrophe’ in Frankenstein’s eyes (45), he is also described as his creator’s ‘master’ (128) and compared to the fallen angel, whilst Ava is able to short-circuit Nathan’s compound at will and has a superhuman ability to accurately read ‘micro-expressions’. It is for these reasons that I believe the transition from source myth (Prometheus and Pygmalion) to adaptation (Frankenstein and Ex Machina) is marked by a radical reconfiguration – a reimagining – of deities.
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