The image of the Mad Scientist is deeply ingrained in our popular culture. It’s a scientist with a plan that none other dare to attempt, due to the sheer insanity and peripheral casualties that usually occur. We can’t get enough of them, from Victor Frankenstein to Lex Luthor to Dr. Horrible. Anthologist John Joseph Adams has brought together 22 stories in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination an impressive book that purports to be guide for the singular, misunderstood genius, and it covers the range and depth of their insanity.
There’s no doubt that the Mad Scientist is a reaction to the great leaps and bounds that science has brought society. Mary Shelley’s titular Victor Frankenstein came at a point with incredible leaps and bounds in the scientific community, especially when it came to biology. Over the course of the twentieth century, we’ve seen advances in modern healthcare with the introduction of penicillin and the creation of the atomic bomb. We’ve gone to the Moon, all the while developing missiles that could destroy a city across the world. It’s interesting that we have such reverence for the character while their real life counterparts are rarely as venerated. The villains of the comic books are funny, bumbling folk, easy pickings for the heroes of the story. They’re funny, ironic, in a way.
As a result, it’s the humorous stories that really stand out in this book: The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is an unexpectedly hilarious read. Stories such as Professor Incognito Apologizes: an Itemized List by Austin Grossman, Father of the Groom by Harry Turtledove, Ancient Equations by L. A. Banks, Rural Singularity by Alan Dean Foster and The Angel of Death Has a Business Plan by Heather Lindsley had me in stitches throughout. They’re pointed deconstructions of the elaborate plans that are frequent in the Mad Scientist world, undercut by a dose of reality, some unexamined element, or the workings of those who they depend upon.
Indeed, it’s the stories where the Mad Scientist is taken overly seriously where the volume doesn’t quite work: The Executor by Daniel H. Wilson is a ponderous story to get through, joining a small number of stories that didn’t work well.
Then, there are the outliers: the ones that don’t quite fit between the two extremes. Harry and Marlowe Meet the Founder of the Aetherian Revolution by Carrie Vaughn, (joining two other stories, Harry and Marlowe Escape the Mechanical Siege of Paris and Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil, published through Lightspeed Magazine) is a fun steampunk adventure story that is equal parts pulp and science fiction. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss is a brilliant examination of the consequences of the scientist’s actions through the eyes of the daughters of some of the well known monsters in literature.
Throughout The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is an appreciation for motivation. Behind every Mad Scientist is someone who doesn’t quite tick in the normal way, and for every plan that they’ve come up with is an elaborate motivation behind it. Sometimes, it’s someone who just hasn’t gotten their due in society. Some are trying to get away from everything, others are trying to remake the world to be a better place (casualties be damned), while some are just mentally ill. Regardless of the reason, it’s the stuff of a fantastic story.
While Superheroes and their nemesi are generally found in the comic book store, there’s been a couple of similarly themed anthologies lately: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, and Superheroes, edited by Rich Horton. While we always tend to root for the good guys, it’s the bad guys that make for a better story, who tend to have more variety than their lawful counterparts, who generally tend to fall into the Batman/Superman extremes (Vigilante vs. Unambiguously good). Mad Scientists have no such qualms, and run the gambit from bad (but with noble intentions) to really bad (trying to destroy cities). They seem to make for more interesting stories across the broad.
The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is the book for anyone who appreciates the stuff of comic books, and it’s a tribute to Adams’ style that the outlandish characters that are usually better suited for a more visual field. While not all of the 22 stories here worked for me, collectively, it’s one super read. Muwahaha!
* Disclaimer: John’s my boss over at Lightspeed Magazine, but I had no part in the conceptualization, publication or editing of this anthology.