The Cloning of Mary Shelley by Robert McGinty
The Cloning of Mary Shelley
I leave in the early hours of dreary November, creeping from the house liked a cursed creature, passing wraith-like through the sleeping village, shouldering the bag of stolen papers that have provided me with a name and a destination.
As I walk I fight memories: memories that are not mine; memories of experiences and knowledge beyond my years; memories that force me to flee.
I catch the first train north. By the time my parents have woken I will be far away, in search of answers.
I’m in the lab when they send the news. The edges of my vision flare crimson and black so I know it’s the parents. Their mindsent message drops across my retina.
My hands are shaking. I clutch the table top and breathe deeply. I complete and store my racks, methodically tidy the workstation and place the equipment in the sterilizer. I head out through the decontamination locks as calmly as I can.
In the changing room I tear off my glasses and respirator, tug back the hood of my bio-suit. The air-conditioning hums steady and cool; my mind races fast and hot.
The experiment is out of our hands. Shelley knows. She threatens everything – my career, all I have worked so hard to achieve.
The train steams north while the low sun peers across the barren land. I read the Prometheus Solutions Technologies prospectus, mostly glossy pictures of rich lives made healthier and longer, as endless as a limitless bank account. The company offers a range of services: bespoke cloning of replacement body parts; ranges of anti-ageing therapies; the resurrection of well-loved pets.
But those are the official services; it is their unofficial projects I am interested in. I lay the prospectus aside to read Professor Jo Walton’s private correspondence with my parents, learning the details of their illegal cloning experiment.
Jo Walton is the Frankenstein to my Monster. I feel monstrous: haunted by memories that are not mine, by people I have never known, unquiet ghosts in the catacombs of my brain cells.
Her brain cells; her dead; her memories.
Who is this person overwhelming me? Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, MWS(A) in the notes. A chemical in a jar; a thought experiment made flesh.
She is me. I am her.
What right has Jo Walton to play god with her existence, to clone this material without consent?
The parents are as culpable as myself. I’ve been discreet - they called her Shelley, for Christ’s sake! And they made hard copies of our correspondence. Who does that these days?
True, they told me of the bad dreams and the so-called memories, and I dismissed them. Memories, I told them, are not inheritable units of information. But what if I was wrong, and the personality of Mary Shelley has emerged and remembers her former life?
There’s no point laying blame. Shelley has the evidence. Our fate depends on her. I must meet her. Naturally, her neural lace is locked; she’s not receiving mindsent messages. Guarding herself I suppose, trying to make sense of herself before she acts.
Well, work for Prometheus and you’re bound to get burned. The company has complete deniability, of course. My expenses have never appeared in any official accounting. The ‘literary range’ will be hung about my neck alone. If the ban on reproductive cloning were to be lifted they would not hesitate to claim the glory and the profits of my work, but as it is, I will take the fall to protect their shareholders.
Will I be portrayed as the mad scientist so beloved of the media? When the story breaks and journalists find the teenage Austin in Essex, the Bronte triplets in Devon, the infant George Elliot in Cumbria – will they infer a weird obsession with famous writers? The answer is simple: their relations all took locks of their hair and kept them intact with perfect provenance. It’s almost as if they foresaw the cloning technology of a few centuries ahead.
The religious will say I have trespassed on God’s domain, that I meddle in the sacred. All that old stuff. Yet science must push on, it must be creative, mad or not. Scientists are artists too: they must discover new forms to unlock the potential of the future; they must take risks and test boundaries – and sometimes they must stretch antiquated laws.
I take rooms in the Old Town. No-one is looking for me; I am not a missing person. Her memories are taking possession of me; I am beginning to think of myself as Mary Shelley.
I spend time re-reading her novels, shyly at first, almost embarrassed, but then breathless, enthusiastic. It’s like meeting up with very intimate old friends: we’re both much changed, but somehow, we still feel the old magic.
Frankenstein retains a raw power: the terror of the creature; the pity of its friendless plight; the savagery of its revenge. I cannot help but identify with the creature, but recoil at its violence.
My book has become an industry. My creature looms bolt-necked and flat-headed from movie posters: a mute, brute, hulking murderer. Those filmmakers miss the point, perhaps intentionally. It is not the creature who is the monster, it is the scientist Dr Frankenstein, the man who cannot fulfil his moral duty to the being he has galvanized into life, who is the true monster.
Jo Walton works here, in this very city. I have her home address. When I confront her, will she also fail in her duty to me, and abandon me to my fate? Will she force me to act the monster?
I confess I grow ever more doubtful as this waiting goes on. Can it be that I fear Shelley? I dread our meeting, but I know we must.
Have I crossed a line in my work? Is this the cause for my unease?What will she want from me? To know why she is here? What can I tell her that will justify myself in her eyes?
I will tell her that our world is dying. That we are dying. That we have sabotaged our environment and fallen into sterility.
I have learned so much that will help us. I fear Shelley because she might persuade me to stop.
I cannot allow that.
I am Mary Shelley.
I remember my husband, drowned in cold lake water. I remember my dead children. I remember my failure by the fire to rub life into my daughter’s limp body. I remember the endless illnesses and mortalities of my own time; the incessant accumulations of premature deaths that robbed my world of so much potential.
In this future time, we are all Frankenstein’s monster, all shaped by science, all beneficiaries of science’s dialogue with nature. From gene-targeted medicine to IVF to the beating lab-grown heart – how can such prizes of humanity’s ingenuity and curiosity be considered monstrous?
I believe science can have noble intentions. I believe Jo Walton may have noble intentions. But I need her to know me, I need her to persuade me that I am here for a good reason.
This is her house. I am ready to meet my creator.
She is standing outside on the street, staring up at my window.
My heart catches. I am frightened.
I watch her walk up the pathway. As she comes closer I recognize her face: the face of a dead woman come to life.
I want to run, I want to get away: but she deserves better.
I cannot let myself disown what I have created.
She’s at my door.
Robert McGinty studied English Literature and History at Edinburgh University and Library and Information Studies at Robert Gordon University. He writes and works in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and son.
He was a recipient of a 2016 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in the Children’s and Young Adult fiction category and is currently completing his second Young Adult novel, ‘The Dead Men of Pendragon House’. Two of his short stories, ‘The Family at the End of All Time’ and ‘Voyager’, have recently been published by online review The Ogilvie.
Science flasks image by Republica on Pixabay.