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Mad Scientist

Entry updated 19 July 2021. Tagged: Theme.

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Although the Cliché of Mad Scientist as Villain is most familiar from sf in Pulp magazines and Comics, the notion that powerful minds are likely to become dangerously overheated is far older than sf. According to the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger (circa 4 BCE-65 CE), "nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit" ["There was never a great genius without a touch of madness"], and John Dryden (1631-1700) famously wrote in Absalom and Achitophel (1681): "Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide." (see Anti-Intellectualism in SF). There is much proleptic Satire of the mad-scientist trope in the Laputa section of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735). Rash or hubristic scientists like the title character of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) may not be literally mad, but are generally classed under this heading; the vivisecting experimenter in The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) by H G Wells is certainly not quite sane. Notable sf mad-scientist prototypes who experiment on themselves are the Antiheroes of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and H G Wells's The Invisible Man (1897). The former externalizes the split of his own personality; the latter's self-achieved Invisibility provides delusions of invincibility that feed his growing megalomania. An early twentieth-century novel using the term as title is Raymond McDonald's The Mad Scientist: A Tale of the Future (1908); it is unlikely that Nikola Tesla was an identified model here for the character. It seems clear, though, that through the wide fame he later gained as a figure of almost occult eccentricity, and as a constant generator of world-transformative schemes, Tesla became a significant underlier of the topos.

Dr Zarkov in the original Flash Gordon strip was influential, though this character was on the side of good and later became less loony. Another memorable figure from Comics is Superman's recurring foe Lex Luthor. H P Lovecraft created Herbert West – Reanimator (February-July 1922 Home Brew as "Grewsome Tales"; vt March 1942-November 1943 Weird Tales; 1977 chap), filmed as Re-Animator (1985). Further sf mad-scientist yarns include Sydney J Bounds's The World Wrecker (1956) and Philip McCutchan's sf thrillers. Rather more distinguished and ironic are Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Cat's Cradle (1963), Flann O'Brien's The Dalkey Archive (1964) – whose deranged scientist De Selby also haunts the footnotes of the same author's The Third Policeman (1967) – and Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; vt The War of Dreams 1974). The benignly scatty or dotty scientist – usually absent-minded – is a well-established humorous Cliché, as with the title character of Norman Hunter's The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (coll 1933) and its sequels, Gleamhound in J P Martin's Uncle stories, and Alan Moore's accident-prone "multi-storey mind" genius Abelard Snazz in various 2000 AD strips collected in Alan Moore's Twisted Times (graph coll 1986). Also comic, though unbenign, is the paranoid inventor in Bob Shaw's Who Goes Here? (1977). A more recent instance is the bug-obsessed Dr Enrique Borgos in Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign (1999).

Mad scientists are popular in otherwise mundane crime fiction and Technothrillers as creators of convenient McGuffins, most often Weapons. An example is Leslie Charteris's The Last Hero (13 July, 9 November 1929 Thriller in 2 parts as "The Creeping Death" and "The Sudden Death"; 1930; vt The Saint Closes the Case 1941; further vt The Saint and the Last Hero 1953). Edgar Wallace deploys a risibly mad biologist in "The Man Who Hated Earthworms" (in The Law of the Four Just Men, coll 1921; vt Again the Three Just Men 1933), whose titular phobia leads to attempted extermination of all worms, threatening Disaster to the Ecology. Sax Rohmer's villainous Dr Fu-Manchu creates various super-science Inventions to further his repeated Yellow Peril assaults on Western civilization; for his filmed exploits, see The Face of Fu Manchu (1965).

Also in film, Rotwang in Metropolis (1926) is a notable archetype and the James Bond franchise offers such examples as Dr No (1962) and You Only Live Twice (1967). Further cinematic mad scientists appear in Homunculus (1916), Dr Cyclops (1940), The Lost Planet (1953), The Fly (1958) plus its sequels and remakes, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), Scream and Scream Again (1969), Futureworld (1976), The Black Hole (1979), The Man with Two Brains (1983) and Back to the Future (1985). This list is far from exhaustive. A notable Television example is Professor Farnsworth in Futurama (1999-2003, 2010-2013).

Sophisticated treatments of the trope are still possible. One oversized character in The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) by Gene Wolfe is an avatar of both the Frankenstein Monster and Frankenstein, having experimented on himself in hope of gaining physical Immortality. Greg Bear's / <Slant> (1997) features a female scientist whose dangerous activities are shaped by the specific mental disorder of Tourette's syndrome (see Psychology).

The mad scientist's assistant has also become established as a Cliché figure, usually named Igor in memory of Bela Lugosi's character Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939) (see Frankenstein); the part was memorably played by Marty Feldman in Mel Brooks's Parody Young Frankenstein (1974). Multiple Igors feature in Terry Pratchett's Discworld sequence, introduced in Carpe Jugulum (1998) and developing through later volumes into a clan of stitch-faced characters (including female Igorinas) who are expert in transplant surgery and comic-sinister biological experiments. An Igor takes centre stage in the film Igor (2008). [DRL]

see also: Gothic SF; The Wild, Wild West.

further reading

  • Stuart David Schiff, editor. Mad Scientists (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980) [anth: hb/Fenimore]


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