Monday, May 26, 2008

Books: These sharks aren't going to get larger, smarter, and more lethal by themselves.

Where would horror be without the mad scientist? We'd have no Frankenstein's monster. Godzilla would be pointlessly unstoppable. The Invisible Man would be tediously opaque. No giant insect swarms would threaten the heartland. 28 Days Later would be about a charming, but otherwise uninteresting bike messenger going about his daily routine.

Who brings extinct and absurdly dangerous animals back to life through the magic of cloning? Who makes sexy jungle-cat women? Who is there to tell us when humanity is simply too degenerate to survive?

Mad scientists, that's who!

Daniel H. Wilson and Anna C. Long's light and loving tribute to this crackpot stalwart of the Evil Community, the Mad Scientist, has a great feature that is one of those "of course, why didn't I think of that" concepts. After providing dryly tongue-in-cheek thumbnail sketches of a variety of fictional and historical scientific figures, the authors diagnose them using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition Text Revision or DSM-IV-TR, as those in the head-shrinking game call it.

Aside from a clever way to tackle fictional characters, the analysis summaries sometimes provide humor by juxtaposing the emotionless jargon of the psych-biz with the over-the-top wackiness of these characters. For example, Dr. No's overall assessment read "serious impairment: murderous tendencies; flat affect; no friends." Seth Brundel of The Fly fame is described as having a "unique medical condition: DNA combined with housefly DNA." One imagines med students looking at a chart and nodding, "Yes, I see. Housefly. Interesting."

The book treads a little lighter when dealing with historical figures. It avoids some obvious candidates, most notably Josef Mangele. The authors assumed, correctly I'd wager, that the comedic tone of the book would simply be overpowered if one had to tackle the grim brutality of Mengele's particular brand of mad science. There's also the question of whether it is cool to put out a psychological diagnosis for a real human in the same way you'd do it for a fictional figure. If the book were more serious about its approach, one could take issue. As it is, though, it is really too much of good-natured and slight project to be taken so seriously.

Look for The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame at your local vendor of readable materials. Expect a 14 Washingtons price tag and the Citadel Press logo on the spine.

The image is from a t-shirt from artist Joshua Kemble. If you want to rock the League on your torso, you can secure yourself on the tees at Threadless.

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