We all know the story. An arrogant scientist raids graveyards to sew together a superman only to be disgusted and horrified by his creation, which then turns on him. We also know all the film variations: Victor Frankenstein screaming, “Alive! It’s alive!” The bolts on the neck. The Tesla coils. And of course, “It isn’t Igor. It’s Eye-gor.”
But let’s go back to the original 1821 novel, written by a very young Mary Shelley. She was only 18 when she started work on this novel. And contrast its prose with that of contemporary and later novels of the early nineteenth century. In an era when Melville and Dickens wrote thick, wordy prose, Shelley shook up the literary world with a lean piece of work. Frankenstein in print barely reaches 300 pages, often falling short depending on which edition you read.
Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t the mad scientist played by Colin Clive or parodied by Gene Wilder. If anything, he’s the eighteenth century equivalent of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Medicine is changing, dammit, and Victor Frankenstein is going to use it to change the world. Only Steve and Bill gave you the mouse and friendly graphical interfaces. Vic played with dead bodies and lightning (Shelley is intentionally vague and suggests alchemy is involved.) and realized he went too far. As for his monster, hideous he may be, but he’s not the flat-headed mute played by Boris Karloff and Peter Boyle. He is a large caricature of a man with super strength and speed, as tragic a figure as the creator with whom he shares a mutual hatred.
What’s amazing is how well this story holds up, and maybe that’s the secret of its appeal. It is written in the warm afterglow of the Enlightenment, and Frankenstein shows the dark side of that period.
But if Shelley’s human, bare-bones version of this classic tale is not your speed, well…
How about something more recent?
Microsoft: The First Generation
As with Apple, Microsoft was built by a group of passionate workaholics. Cheryl Tsang takes eleven of Microsoft’s first generation of employees and paints a portrait of a startup where 16 hour days and seven-day work weeks were the norm. It wasn’t really expected. With the exception of two of Tsang’s subjects, they were young men and women who got caught up in designing and building technology that did not yet exist. The company began as a startup in New Mexico creating computer languages for microcomputers, moved into applications when Apple began work on the Macintosh and, once Windows, Xenix, and OS/2 (jointly designed by IBM) were established, pioneered CD ROM multimedia.
To a person, everyone Tsang profiles had a hand in taking Microsoft from a small shop of seven employees to a juggernaut that eclipsed IBM and Hewlett-Packard. And they all retired young when the long hours and grueling effort took its toll. They left with few regrets, and all of them give insights into the personalities of Bill Gates – sharp, confrontational, and occasionally so wrapped up in his work that he had to be steered toward his gate at the airport – and Steve Ballmer, a man so busy Sunday mornings were the only time to get a meeting with him.
I was disappointed there wasn’t more about Paul Allen, Microsoft’s cofounder. Allen left in the early eighties to deal with an illness, but it still would have been good to hear more about him. Like Steve Wozniak at Apple, Allen remains something of an enigma to many.
The other thing Tsang manages to capture was the almost pirate mentality at Microsoft even after the company went public. There were no memos, no agendas, no committees. People discussed projects in the halls, even poking their heads into Bill Gates’ office to pitch an idea. That disappeared some time in the 1990’s when the company became so large that bureaucracy set in. It’s a different Microsoft now.