Edward Willett

The Space-Time Continuum: Frankenstein, the first science fiction novel

This is my Space-Time Continuum column for the latest issue of Freelance, the magazine of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. It’s a modified version of a column I wrote ages ago as one of my newspaper science columns. It seemed appropriate to bring that old column back to life…bwah-ha-ha!

freelance-oct-nov-2016-for-web-1As I write this, it’s about three weeks until Hallowe’en, a time when people’s thoughts turn to monsters. While in this modern age there are a great many more monsters to choose from than there used to be, there’s no doubt that one of the most popular (which is an odd thing for a monster to be, perhaps, but still) is the one created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, assembled from pieces harvested from multiple corpses and reanimated through the miracle of electricity.

It’s probably a safe bet that those who choose to dress themselves as Frankenstein’s monster on Hallowe’en don’t do so to honour the birth of science fiction—and a new way of looking at the world—but the novel that gave us the monster, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, marked both.

At first glance, Frankenstein seems like just another Gothic novel, full of dank castles, wandering spirits, mysterious, brooding characters, barren moors, and strange doings by midnight.

But Gothic novels relied on superstition and magic, and Mary Shelley, a bright, thoroughly modern 18-year-old, had no time for such things. She saw vast changes being wrought in society through the revolutionary idea that the world could be understood as the product of natural forces, not supernatural ones, and that those forces could be harnessed and used. Mary became the first writer to use science as the springboard to a tale of imagination, and in so doing, not only launched science fiction, but also ignited a debate on science’s role in society that continues to this day.

Mary Shelley was born in England in 1797, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814, and two months later, left England with him. They were married in 1816, after the death of his first wife. Before they were married, she had a son by him, who died in infancy.

The year they married, Mary, Percy and another writer spent a rainy summer at Lord Byron’s house on Lake Geneva. They passed the time by reading ghost stories; Lord Byron suggested they each attempt to write one. At first, Mary couldn’t come up with an idea; but then, one night, the conversation turned to the nature of life, and whether it might someday be possible to return life to dead creatures, possibly using electricity, which had been shown to make an amputated frog’s leg twitch.

That night, Mary dreamed: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…”

The next day she began writing Frankenstein. Published anonymously on March 11, 1818, it became a huge success, and hasn’t been out of the public consciousness since.

The story, in brief: a Captain Walton writes to his sister from his ship, on an expedition to the Arctic. The crew saw a monstrous creature driving a sledge across the ice; the next day they rescued a man, Victor Frankenstein, who told Walton a terrible tale of his successful quest to create life, and the horror he felt when he succeeded.

Within Victor’s narrative are several chapters from the viewpoint of the creature itself, describing how he was driven out and betrayed by his creator. Victor tells Walton he promised to create a bride for the monster, but couldn’t bring himself to fulfill his promise. In revenge, the creature killed several people dear to Victor, who has been pursuing the creature ever since.

Victor dies; the creature appears on the ice-bound ship and, torn by grief, remorse and self-loathing, swears he will kill himself. He disappears into the cold and darkness.

At the time Mary wrote, chemistry, physics and physiology were advancing rapidly; railroads were being built, gaslights illuminated factories and would soon light cities, a steamship would soon cross the Atlantic. In the dawn of the scientific age, anything seemed possible: as the chemistry professor Waldman says in Frankenstein, modern researchers “ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air that we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its shadows.” By contrast, the magicians and alchemists of the past “promised impossibilities, and achieved nothing.”

But in Frankenstein, the promise of scientific advancement was balanced against its cost. Today, we do bring people back from the dead, shocking their fibrillating hearts with electricity. We alter life through genetic engineering. But in the era of nuclear weapons and global environmental devastation, we also know that scientific advancement is a two-edged sword. Our creations can turn on us…just as Victor Frankenstein’s did.

Forget Boris Karloff with bolts attached to his neck, and read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the world’s first science fiction novel. As is usally the case, the book is better.

 

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