|Cloggie science fiction: Gutenberg Reviews 1: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus|
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Originally published 1818
approx. 125 pages
The first book I'll review is _Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus_, which is the first true modern science fiction story, according to Brian Aldiss in his critical overview of the field _The Billion Year Spree_
It certainly has had its impact on not only science fiction, but the whole of English literature. Written when Mary Shelley was only nineteen and published in 1818, it's a novel in the then wildly popular Gothic tradition.
According to legend, Shelley wrote the novel when Lord Byron and his physician John William Polidori were guests at the household of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Geneva. Lord Byron had proposed that each of them, should write a ghost story. The results were Polidori's _The Vampyre_ and Mary Shelley's _Frankenstein_.
If you expect _Frankenstein_ to be a modern science fiction story you will be disappointed. The manner in which Frankenstein brings his creature to life is glossed over, nor are any of the implications of artificial life explored. Instead _Frankenstein_ is more of a moral fable.
In fact it fits in the literary tradition of Faust: the man who sells his soul to gain knowledge forbidden to him and all of mankind. What makes it science fiction is that it's science that's Frankenstein's downfall. It's the ultimate source of the tired old sci-fi b-movie creed of "There Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know".
I suspect the basic story is familiar to anybody reading, considering the many times it has been adapted for theatre, film and tv. Though in most cases these adaptations were not entirely faithful to the book and certainly some of the cliches associated with Frankenstein are wholly a later invention.
And even more faithful adaptations omit much of the soulsearching of Frankenstein in the original book--perhaps with good reason. Remember, _Frankenstein_ is primarily a Gothic tale, written by somebody who was married to Bysshe Shelley and hung out with Byron... Some "woo is me, how my soul suffers those terrible anguishes" is going to be present. Sometimes a bit too much, even for me.
On the whole I'm undecided about _Frankenstein_: it's undoubtedly a book you want to have read, but whether it's a book you want to read? Like the curate's egg, some parts of it are excellent, some parts less so.
From here on there will be SPOILERS:
The story is told from a number of sources, starting with a series of letters by one captain Walton to his sister in England, telling her about the Arctic expedition he is undertaking. After the first three letters set the scene, he tells in the fourth letter about two incidents that happened. They first spotted a gargantuan being on a sled, moving steadily northward and the day after another man, again in a sled came alongside the boat, then packed in the ice, and wanted to come aboard, but only if they went northwards.
This second man is Victor Frankenstein, who is in pursuit of the first figure and ravished by a sombre melancholy, though at times both intelligent and kind. Captain Walton is impressed by him and slowly coaxes the story of what he was doing so far in the Arctic, at which point Frankenstein tells his story.
He begins by telling about his happy youth in Geneva, spend with his parents, siblings and adopted sister Elizabeth, whom he loves, not to mention his friend Henry Clerval, a sensitive poet and kind friend.
He tells how he got interested in natural philosophy, how he yearned to discover the secrets of heaven and earth. At first he's unimpressed with he modern practitioners of the study, founding his hopes on the old alchemists and other discredited philosophers of antiquity. When he goes studying at Ingolstadt at the age of seventeen, he's set straight and deeply immerses himself in the studies of natural philosophy in all its facets. There comes a point in which he has learned all there is to learn and now he's certain he can see through the secrets of heaven and earth; he can create life.
Which he proceeds to do.
All of the previous has taken up a fair bit of the book already, but now the good stuff begins. He tells of his preparations, the hours, days, weeks, months he spend on creating his being, until, one fateful, dark night it comes to life-- and it is horrible, ugly, a wretch.
Frankenstein cannot stand it and flees in horror from his house, into the streets of Ingolstadt. Where, the next morning he promptly meets Henry, his old friend, who had come to visit him and study there also.
He's overjoyed to see Victor, but sees Victor's in a terrible state, a nervous fever, which confined him for a few months. Finally he recovers and he and Henry spend summer in Ingolstadt and will return to Geneva at some point, when a letter from Frankenstein's father brings bad news: his younger brother William is cruelly murdered. He speed homewards and on his journey homewards, he spies his creature for the first time since he gave it life and has a horrible suspicion that this is his brother's murderer, that indirectly he has caused his brother's death. Matters are even more complicated then he knew, because the family's servant and friend, Justine, is convicted of William's murder
I found this whole part of the novel nearly unreadable, what with Frankenstein's constant laments and outright whinging. One of those characters where every misfortune is fodder for angst, who's convinced his soul's terrors are so much more worse then their friend, who's hanged.
Anyway, shortly after he meets his creature again, who proceeds to tell him what happened to him in the long months between his creation and the present. How he first spend time in a forest near Ingolstadt, then tried to approach nearby peasants but got rebuffed, but found shelter by a trio of poor French emigres, whom he comes to regard as friends. They do not know he exists, because he hides himself in the shack next to their small home, but through his observations of them and their obvious love for one another, he becomes human, learns to speak, read and write.
Anxiously he awaits the day he can announce his presence and win their love, but when it comes, it's a big disappointment for him: they reject him, like he's always rejected by mankind. Bitter, he swears revenge and having learned the whereabouts of his creator, he murders William in a moment of anger and pins the murder on Justine.
I found this the best part of the novel and felt for the poor creature.
Having told that, he suggests a bargain to his creator: make me a wife and he'll quit the world of man, to live in the jungles of South America.
After some hesitation, Frankenstein agrees and moves to England to fulfil his promise. Halfway through it, he realises that he cannot unleash the horror of a race of his creatures upon mankind and he destroys his second creation. The monster, furious swears revenge and tells Frankenstein he'll be with him on his wedding night, then leaves and murders Henry.
Frankenstein takes precautions and plans to kill the wretch on that wedding night, but instead, of course, the monster kills his bride, Elizabeth.
Now it's Frankenstein's turn for revenge and he haunts the monster throughout Europe, Russia and finally the Arctic. That was the first man the expedition had seen, Frankenstein's monster, luring Frankenstein onto the ice.
After the telling of the story, Frankenstein dies and Captain Walton surprises the monster who comes to pay homage to its creator, too late. The monster tells him he'll walk into the ice and die there, then slips overboard.
 I don't always agree with Aldiss on his theories about science fiction, but I think he makes a good case there.
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Webpage created 07-09-2001, last updated 15-01-2002