Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture

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9780393045826: Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture

From "Frankenstein" to "Jurassic Park", the mad scientist is one of the modern world's most instantly recognizable cultural icons. This is an exploration of popular culture's perennial fascination with demented doctors, crazed clinicians, and technologically obsessed fiends. A prototype outsider, shunted off to the sidelines of serious discourse - to B-movies, pulp novels and comic books - the mad scientist, the author argues, serves as a necessary lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the consequences of modern science and technology. Skal chronicles the mad scientist's quest for world domination, from 19th-century literature to the snap-crackle-scream apotheosis of 1930s Hollywood to the mad-science mystique that colours the cult of the computer, UFO abduction folklore, and the demonization of contemporary medicine.

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Review:

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

About the Author:

David J. Skal is a leading historian of horror and monsters in film and popular culture. He is a frequent talk-show guest and has appeared on Charlie Rose, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Fresh Air. He lives in West Hollywood, California.

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David J. Skal
Editorial: W. W. Norton & Company (1998)
ISBN 10: 039304582X ISBN 13: 9780393045826
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David J. Skal
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Skal, David J.
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