This is the semi-regular feature in which we look back at the seminal works of science fiction. The stories that outraged, baffled, and appalled; the books that posited answers a generation before anyone thought to ask the questions; the novels that bent society’s collective consciousness around them and seeded popular culture and humanity’s vision of itself to this day.
This month, Frankenstein.
In 1851, in a house near Lake Geneva, George Gordon Byron challenged his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, Percy’s wife Mary Shelley, and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont to each come up with a ghost story. Eighteen year-old Mary came up with Frankenstein, which she later turned into a novel and published.
200 years later, Frankenstein is a cultural touchstone. It is the clichéd metaphor of choice when we talk about the most unsettling issues our species faces: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and humanity’s relationship with nature. It may be one of the most relevant novels, as viewed from the early 21st century, ever written.
Frankenstein is nominally the story of an ambitious young scientist and his ultimate creation: an artificial human, assembled from bits of corpses, animated with electricity. Structurally, it is the written account of an Arctic explorer who meets the emaciated and desperate Dr Frankenstein and recounts his tale; which, in turn, contains the story of the Monster.
The novel is credited as being the source of two of science fiction’s most enduring tropes: the hubristic scientist pursuing forbidden knowledge, and the monstrous creation, abhorred and feared by its creator. Its accounts of Frankenstein’s work with cadavers are precursors to modern zombie stories; and, in some ways, it is the first modern horror novel.
Frankenstein is nearly comically prescient. Should we create life, if we can? What responsibilities do we have to our creations? Where does life come from; what is the ‘spark’ that animates living things, and how does it come about? These are some of the most pressing questions of the modern era. With its confusing structure and sometimes irritating style, it’s an open question as to how much of Frankenstein’s reputation is due to the degree to which it has been vindicated by history. Chillingly, Mary Shelley’s later novel, The Last Man, tells of a 21st century in which the globe has been ravaged by a plague.
Frankenstein is a novel about failure. The titular character himself fails to make a great contribution to humanity. He fails in his duty to his creation, and to protect those he loves. The nameless monster himself (often erroneously referred to as ‘Frankenstein’) fails to win any fellow-feeling from mankind, or to persuade his creator to give him a companion. Even the narrator of the outermost layer of the novel, Robert Walton, fails to reach the North Pole.
Mary Shelley’s life would be characterised by futility, too. She was scorned by English society because Percy Shelley was already married when she eloped with him. She lacked the foresight to publish under a pseudonym, and many contemporary critics questioned whether she was even the novel’s author. While Frankenstein was a contemporary literary phenomenon — decried in establishment circles but “universally known and read”, according to a friend of Percy Shelley — it brought no fame or fortune to its author.
The novel has shortcomings. Despite its modern themes, it is undeniably steeped in the Romantic tradition, with its laboured paeans to the beauty of nature and the exhausting cataloging of its characters’ emotions. The framing, too, is hard work; the ‘found record’ authenticity of Walton’s account is at first reminiscent of Dracula, the other quintessential Gothic novel, but by the time Walter recounts Frankenstein’s words in turn recounting the Monster’s, it’s all quite confusing.
A bigger problem is that, for this reader at least, the Monster himself lacks credibility. While he is definitely a deeply sympathetic character, capable of sensitivity and eloquence, his calculated, self-aware descent into evil seems implausible. Can sensitive, intelligent beings knowingly embrace evil for evil’s sake? Modern readers are used to ‘evil’ coming in the guise of greed, misaligned incentives, wrong-headedness, or ambition; most characters we think of as ‘evil’ are justified to some extent in their own minds. Frankenstein’s Monster describes his journey to pure evil with total clarity, without seeking to justify or defend his actions.
But quibbles of this kind slightly miss the point. The questions Frankenstein raises aren’t easily answered. This is a novel written by a nineteen year-old, which has signposted modern science and its ethical questions in a way no other has. It is both an arrestingly horrid gothic novel and a deeply moving story of failure. Pick it up, to find out where science fiction came from.