Faust Should’ve Taken a Humanities Course

I’m going to publish a review for Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife tomorrow—but first, I want to talk about how some of the best lessons in ethics and science I’ve ever gotten came from literature. The Echo Wife is just the latest version of a very old story: the story of Faust.

Beniamino Prior as Faust, 1975 (Image via Wikicommons)

When I was in junior high, I fell so in love with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park that I read at least one copy to death and had to replace it. I read Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic novel. Then, in college, I read Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Reading that last text cemented in my mind the connections between all of these stories as tales of how the relentless pursuit of science must also be accompanied by constant questioning about the ethical and long-term implications of that pursuit. Sure, Jurassic Park would’ve been a lot less exciting if the scientists that paused to ask, “Yeah, but what if our fail-safes fail?” Frankenstein would’ve had a lot less pathos if the eponymous doctor had stopped to think about his responsibility to a creation he abandoned when the consequences reached up to slap him in the face.

The Echo Wife brought all of these ideas roaring back to me. As a story about scientific achievement without even a dollop of thoughts about the ethical ramifications of what the scientists were doing, The Echo Wife shines a strong light on all of the things that the scientists should’ve thought of before they ever started work on clones. This and the other books I’ve mentioned make me lament the division between the sciences and the humanities. How much we can learn from each other! Knowledge of science makes mystery, science fiction, and thrillers better. (Cory Doctorow, for example, does amazing things in his cyber thrillers with the terrifying capabilities of surveillance and data-mining technology.) I’m fairly clueless about chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, and so on, but authors like Michael Crichton, Patricia Cornwell, N.K. Jemisin, and others have taught me a lot about those subjects that I wouldn’t’ve been able to understand in a conventional classroom. (Pretty sure the bits about time travel are impossible, though.)

Conversely, I believe in the power of literature to teach ethics, empathy, complexity, and more—all lessons everyone needs, not just STEM students. I took several philosophy courses in college, but nothing really got those lessons across the way that a story could for me. The most powerful tool literature has of conveying its lessons is putting readers inside the heads of characters, forcing us to see things through their eyes and thinking about events from their perspectives. Frankenstein is a fantastic example of this. We spend a lot of time in that book listening to the creature tell his story of loneliness, regret, anger, and revenge—more time than we spend with the doctor himself as he works out the science. Because of our vantage point, we are pushed to think very carefully about consequences rather than the glories of cheating death with science. I certainly wasn’t thinking about scientific possibilities at the end of Frankenstein. I was thinking about how the creature felt after being abandoned by a father figure, the man who gave him life.

One last thing. Reading Faustian stories—especially science fiction—is a lot of fun. The philosophers might be brilliant, but their prose doesn’t exactly have me turning the pages.

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