Bookworms: Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
Science fiction literature is all about technology, humanity, and the everlasting clash between the two. Sometimes that clash is contemplative, other times violent, merely esoteric, or humorous, yet the conflict remains at the core of the story. 2001: A Space Odyssey traces humanity’s tenuous relationship to tech through time. Captain Nemo’s amazing submarine, a technological marvel, allows him to wreak vengeance on his enemies, without which he would be an impotently angry man. GLaDOS is a generic lifeform and disk operating system that is brought to life, and subsequently killed, through a very bizarre set of technological circumstances involving portals and mythical cake.
But where did this idea begin? When did people first begin to use literature as a medium for discussions about technology, and its effects, both malignant and benign? Technology is as old as the first tool and stories are as old as speech, but perhaps the first true modern science fiction novel is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Written in 1818, it is the classic which spawned a Golden Age of science fiction and inspired many of the 20th century’s science fiction masters.
Frankenstein is the simple story that became the classic plot: scientist creates monster, monster turns on scientist and murders scientist’s family and scientist escapes long enough to impart his incredulous tale to another who records it for posterity. Scientist dies. Every so often, the monster gets an update: a robot, a jet plane, an artificial intelligence, a computer virus, a shark (the list is long and not always distinguished), but the basic message is always the same old “don’t mess with technology” refrain. But why the warning? Hasn’t technology given humanity better health, more food, secure shelter, airplanes, wifi, and shiny gadgets? Why does it seem like science fiction is warning us away from technology?
For Mary Shelley, the answer is in the macabre. Literally. The literary vogue of her day was gothic spook stories. Named for the angular, dark and (at that time) old gothic architecture that dominated the European landscape, it was fashionable to set all manner of horrific happenings inside the crumbling structures of a fading age. An entire genre of creepy fiction was created which gradually emerged from the haunted castles and churches and into a more general setting, while remaining true to the original mood of the gothic structures. Frankenstein was born out of a particularly dreary weekend when literary friends Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Polidori and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (this was before she married Percy Shelley) were holed up in a countryside retreat during a bout of inclement weather. They were discussing literature, and challenged each other to a contest: who could write the best gothic horror story? A few weeks later, they met back up and read each other’s stories. Obviously, Mary Shelley won the contest as the other three stories are lost to history. (Sort of. Lord Byron managed to write a scrap of something that Polidori turned into a prototype vampire novel, but both were completely upstaged by Bram Stoker years later.)
Author’s Note: It still seems to be the case, perhaps due to various melodramas and careless application, that in common usage the monster from the novel is referred to as Frankenstein. In fact, the monster is never named, nor does he ever name himself. Frankenstein is the surname of the lamentable scientist Victor who creates the monster of legend.
Young Victor Frankenstein, enamored with natural philosophy (science) creates a being from the harvested flesh of recently deceased people. However, at the moment life is infused, Victor is so horrified with what he has created that he abandons it. The creature, awakening to a world it knows nothing of, is constantly and completely rejected due to his hideous appearance. This causes the monster to retaliate against Victor and eventually murder his family and close friends. Victor engages in a lifelong hunt, seeking to destroy the monster, but eventually fails and dies as a result of the stress and physical exertion. Technology and science are central to the story as life is only imbued through some manner of apparatus, and the creation of the being is possible through a careful study of biology and chemistry. The exact mechanism is unknown, as Victor constantly and vehemently refuses to reveal the particulars of his accomplishment for fear they will be repeated. (Forgot bolts in the neck and lighting strikes and shrieks of “it’s aliiiive!” as those come from later dramatizations of the story and are not present in the actual novel.)
The very real result of Victor’s dalliance with scientific devices is the creation of a devil. Thus Victor is tormented and ruined. He himself constantly urges those listening to his story to avoid his path, to refrain from overzealous scientific inquiry, and to lead a better life of contemplation and union with nature over a desire to understand nature’s machinations. In every way, Frankenstein is the classic of science fiction. It is not too bold a claim to say that the overwhelming majority of today’s science fiction, and that of the last 100+ years, has been directly influenced by Mary Shelley. Why do we write about science gone wrong? Because that was necessary to fulfill the horror requirement of the gothic literature that Shelley was writing, and since she did it, we follow her hallowed footsteps. To be sure, through the long and colorful history of science fiction, many authors have reinvented the paradigm or sought to create a new one, but the influence remains strong. One of the greatest science fiction authors of the 20th century, Isaac Asimov, made an entire career out of consciously trying to reverse what he called the Frankenstein Effect, or the tendency of the creation to strike against the creator. What if, instead, our creations were benevolent and helpful friends? Asimov wondered what would happen if they weren’t monsters? Hence the many many robot novels and short stories, starting with “Robbie” the touching story of a little girl and her eight foot tall robot playmate. Even GLaDOS, of Portal 1 and 2 fame, is a direct descendant of Frankenstein’s monster. She is created by scientists to aide in their research, and she goes insane and murders them all. And then cheerfully continues scientific research on any humans she can ensnare with the promise of a tasty treat and a good time (while portal jumping is fun, the cake is a lie).
If you enjoy science fiction, and have never read the first incarnation of the modern genre, you owe it to yourself to read Frankenstein. The novel is a bit long in parts, and certainly doesn’t have all the run and gun and quippy action that modern science fiction contains, but it will grip you by the throat and whisper horrors in your ear. You will weep for the tragedy that befalls Victor, and you will howl with rage along with the monster at the injustice of a cruel world. There is passion, intrigue, mystery, and madness in Frankenstein and two of the most vivid characters ever created, that of man and monster. You will not be disappointed.
As a ardent fan of science fiction and a lifelong student of the genre, this is the first in a series of reviews I will bring to NerdSpan that cover the very first entries into the world of tech and terror. Look for Dracula (more fantasy, but still seminal), Jekyll and Hyde, and The Invisible Man. As a kid I was amazed at how old so many of the things I saw on TV and in the movies really were and I was fascinated to read the original tales. Sometimes the experience is rewarding, sometimes the craft has improved with age. Frankenstein is an example of the former, and while I found Dracula to be an example of the latter, both were well worth the read.
Dracula is coming up next, might want to get your garlic ready…