Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Breakthrough

While I was reading Daphne du Maurier's short story, The Breakthrough, which is the second in the collection entitled Don't Look Now and Other Stories, I found myself wondering whether du Maurier had read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and if so, whether she was consciously writing a response to it.

While The Breakthrough is not about reanimating a body but about capturing, literally, life's energy at the moment of death so that energy can be reused in the world and not "wasted" in heaven. In both stories, the premise is that life is a combination of body and spirit (or energy or soul) and that the spirit can be isolated from the body and manipulated. In both stories, the scientist who is playing God and manipulating that energy achieves what he attempts and then recoils in horror from what he has wrought.

The Breakthrough, published in 1966, is a first-person story about an electrical engineer who goes on a short assignment to a rogue project lead by a charismatic "mad" scientist, Mac, who is perfecting a computer aptly named Charon (i.e., the mythological ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the newly deceased across the River Styx that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead). The protagonist, Stephen/Steve, helps with the electronics that produce the voice that can hypnotise people and animals in order for them to release their energy to the computer system at the moment of death.

The Breakthrough is a wonderfully spooky sci-fi thriller that is the perfect blend of realism, the supernatural, and philosophy. One of my personal maxims is that technology will force humanity to deal with and tame our self-destructive tendencies and it was a pleasure to see that idea played out so well in this story. In other words, this story shows that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should it.

The Breakthrough was written almost half a century ago; Frankenstein was written almost two hundred years ago. In Shelley's story, Frankenstein creates a monster when he plays God; in du Maurier's story, Mac learns compassion when he does. He finds his own soul in allowing that of another to pass to the afterlife. Like most of du Maurier's stories, her title is double-edged. The breakthrough that Steve and Mac achieve is two fold--they find out how to capture a person's soul, and they find out how to put that knowledge back on the shelf and that is the real breakthrough and one that still makes me hopeful for the future.

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