The words "mad scientist" inevitably summon up the picture of a deranged, obsessive individual with a lab coat and bad hair, working on some grandiose project that probably means trouble for humanity at large. Behind this cartoonish figure, however, lurks a complex series of ideas, emotions, stereotypes, and archetypes. In Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, David J. Skal investigates the whole issue of "our multilevel cultural waltz with the maniac in the lab coat" over the last two centuries.
The first few chapters focus on the origins of the mad-science mentality in the early 19th century. The age of Darwin and the Industrial Revolution saw the birth of many of the stock figures and themes of horror and science fiction: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dr. Moreau; creation of new life forms, contravention of natural law, science out of control. Then, in the early 20th century, the new medium of film helped make all of these into staples of popular culture. Succeeding chapters deal with types and trends in the mad-science phenomenon, touching on a variety of subjects, such as the classic horror movies of the 1930s, nuclear-age mutation and invasion fantasies, medical horror, the union of man and machine, apocalyptic entertainment, and "Alien Chic."
Movies certainly play a significant role in the whole mad-science phenomenon; Screams, however, is much more than a catalog of the classic horror and sci-fi entries. Skal's insightful, eloquent history gets at the psychological and social roots of our uneasy relationship with science and technology, and our attempts to master the fear of them.
Screams includes abundant notes, many black-and-white illustrations, and an appendix listing dozens of mad scientists from popular culture. Highly recommended. --M.V. Burke