Contents Index

Frankenstein and the Origins of Science Fiction

Brian Stableford

From Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors, ed. David Seed (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 46-57

[{46}] Frankenstein is one of those literary characters whose names have entered common parlance; everyone recognizes the name and everyone uses it. The recognition and the usage are often slightly uncertain -- most people know it from the film versions, which are significantly different from the book, and some people have to be reminded that the name is that of the scientist, not the monster that the scientist made -- but this uncertainty is not entirely inappropriate to a work whose implication and significance are rather problematic.

The popularity of Frankenstein both as a literary classic and as a fuzzy set of ideas bears testimony to the remarkable vividness of Mary Shelley's vision, but it also reflects the protean quality of its central motifs, which can be interpreted in several different ways so as to carry several different messages. The most common modern view of the story -- aided and perhaps sustained by Boris Karloff's remarkable performance in the 1931 film version and its sequel -- is that it is an account of the way in which 'monstrousness' arises, involving diseased brains, inadequate control over one's actions and resentment against the unthinking horror with which most people react to ugliness. The most common view based on the book alone sees it as an allegory in which a scientist is rightly punished for daring to usurp the divine prerogative of creation. A closely-related interpretation regards Victor Frankenstein as an archetypal example of a man destroyed by his own creation; in this view the story becomes a central myth of the kind of technophobia which argues that modern man is indeed doomed to be destroyed by his own artefacts (and that such a fate, however tragic, is not undeserved).

There are, of course, more convoluted interpretations of the text to be found in the voluminous academic literature dealing with the {47} story. Among the most widely-cited are accounts which see the story as a kind of proto-feminist parable about the male usurpation of the female prerogative of reproduction, and accounts which see it as an allegory of the evolving relationship between the ancien régime (Frankenstein is a hereditary peer) and the emergent industrial working class.

So far as can be ascertained, Mary Shelley does not appear to have had any of these theses in mind when she wrote the book, but champions of these various meanings are usually content to interpret them as the result of a coincidence of inspirational forces in which the author's role was that of semi-conscious instrument. Support is lent to this view by the fact that Mary Shelley was only nineteen years old when she completed Frankenstein and by the fact that all her other books -- with the partial exception of the majestically lachrymose jeremiad The Last Man (1826) -- failed to excite the contemporary audience and are now rarely read or studied. However, the fact remains that Frankenstein is one of the most powerful stories produced in the course of the last two centuries and that it has better claims than any other to have become a 'modern myth' (whatever one understands by that phrase).

* * * * *

Frankenstein is often called a Gothic novel, on the grounds that the popular horror stories of its day mostly shared a set of characteristics which justified that label, but it ought not to be thus classified. Despite certain similarities of method and tone, its subject matter is very different from that of the classic Gothic novels. Horace Walpole's definitive The Castle of Otranto (1764), Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk (1796) and Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) all involve sinister ancient edifices, evil conspiracies, hideous apparitions (invariably interpreted as supernatural, though sometimes ultimately rationalized), the threat of sexual violation, and intimations of incest. The pretence that Frankenstein -- which employs none of these motifs -- belongs to the Gothic sub-genre serves mainly to obscure the remarkable originality of its own subject-matter, which is broader and more forward-looking.

Victor Frankenstein might be regarded as a distant literary cousin of the diabolically-inspired (or seemingly diabolical) villains of the Classic Gothic novels, but his personality and his ambitions are very different. Although he takes some early inspiration from {48} occult writings of a kind which the inquisitorially-minded might regard as the devil's work, he undertakes a decisive change of direction when he decides that it is modern science, not ancient magic, that will open the portals of wisdom for scholars of his and future generations.

By virtue of this move, Frankenstein began the exploration of imaginative territory into which no previous author had penetrated (although that was not its initial purpose). For this reason the novel is more aptly discussed as a pioneering work of science fiction, albeit one that was written at least half a century before its time and one which does considerable disservice to the image of science as an instrument of human progress.

It is entirely appropriate that Brian Aldiss should have worked so hard to establish Frankenstein as the foundation-stone of the modern genre of science fiction; the underlying world-view of the novel entitles it to that position. Its only significant competitor in terms of content is Willem Bilderdijk's A Short Account of a Remarkable Aerial Voyage and Discovery of a New Planet (1813), which is far less plausible and was far less influential, remaining untranslated into English until 1989. (The third book of Jonathan Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver, 1726, must be disqualified on the grounds that its vitriolic parody of the activity and ambitions of scientists alienates it completely from the kind of proto-scientific world-view which Mary Shelley is ready to embrace, albeit in desperately anxious fashion.) On the other hand, given the nature of the most common interpretations of the text, it is by no means surprising that Isaac Asimov should have felt that the technophilic optimism of his work -- which was, of course, central to the historical development of genre science fiction -- was framed in frank opposition to a 'Frankenstein syndrome'. The central myth of Frankenstein seemed to Asimov to be an ideative monster, which must be slain by heroic and sinless robots for the benefit of future generations.

Ambivalent attitudes to science are not particularly unusual in works of speculative fiction. A great deal of the fiction nowadays categorized as science fiction is horrific, and much of it is born of a fear or even a deep-seated hatred of the scientific world-view, whose acknowledged intellectual triumph over older concepts of natural order seems to many observers to be unedifying and undesirable. Given this, it would not necessarily be inappropriate to trace the origins of the genre back to a science-hating ancestor -- but it is not at all clear that the author of Frankenstein set out with {49} the intention of attacking or scathingly criticizing the endeavours of science, even though many modern readers think that the text carries a bitterly critical moral.

Mary Shelley's life story strongly suggest that she was not the kind of person who might be expected to produce an anti-scientific parable. Her action and the opinions she held in the years which led up to the writing of Frankenstein were such that one suspects that she might have been rather distressed to discover that so many readers interpreted her work in that way, although it must be admitted that she did little to discourage such an interpretation. If, however, one assumes that she had no such intention, there remains the problem of explaining how and why the book turned out to have such a semblance at all.

The full title which Mary Shelley gave to Frankenstein is Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. In attempting to assess the significance of this choice it is necessary to bear in mind her beloved husband's fascination with the character of Prometheus. To a devout atheist like Percy Shelley, Prometheus was a great hero whose condemnation to be chained to a rock throughout eternity while eagles came daily to devour his perpetually-regenerated liver was firm proof of the horrid unreasonableness and downright wickedness of godly tyrants. Shelley knew quite well that the atheism he proclaimed so loudly and the free love which he and Mary preached and practised so brazenly were -- in the eyes of his enemies -- tantamount to Satanism but like Blake before him he was fully prepared to champion Satan himself, let alone the safely-obsolete Prometheus, as a revolutionary light-bearer unjustly slandered and condemned by a monstrous God. To Percy Shelley -- and to Mary too, at least while Percy lived -- no modern Prometheus could possibly be reckoned a villain, and any terrible fate a modern Prometheus might meet must be reckoned as a tragedy, not an exercise of any kind of justice, divine or otherwise.

Given all this, it is unlikely in the extreme that a book which Mary Shelley elected to call The Modern Prometheus was planned as an assault on the hubris of scientists, or a defence of divine prerogative. It is true that Mary Shelley added a new introduction to the revised edition of the book issued in 1831, in which she seemed not unsympathetic to the demonization of Frankenstein (and also to the notion that she had been a mere instrument of creative forces for whose product she was not to be held responsible), but this was nine years after Percy Shelley's death -- which {50} circumstance had forced her to compromise and make her peace with all the tyrannies of convention that he was able to despise and defy quite openly. (In Victorian terms, even the most determinedly heroic woman had far less leeway than a man.) Even if the 1831 introduction can be reckoned sincere -- and it almost certainly cannot -- it must be reckoned the work of a person who bears much the same relation to the author of Frankenstein as the humbled Napoleon who came back from Moscow bore to the all-conquering hero who had set out.

The fact remains, however, that whether Frankenstein's fate was intended to be an awful warning to scientists or not, it certainly looks that way. How could this have come about?

* * * * *

The text of Frankenstein begins with a series of letters written by the explorer Robert Walton, who has been trying to navigate his ship through the Arctic ice in the hope of finding a warm continent beyond it, akin to the legendary Hyperborea. Modern readers know full well that this was a fool's errand, but that was not at all certain in 1818. Thus, although Walton's situation is clearly symbolic -- one of the Gothic conventions which Frankenstein does adopt is that the weather is symbolic of human emotions, so his entrapment in the ice signifies that Walton's noble ambitions have unfortunately alienated him from the warmth of human companionship -- it should not be taken for granted that Mary Shelley saw him as a lunatic who should have known better. Nor should we assume that Walton's encounter with Victor Frankenstein, who is similarly lost in the ice-field and in whom Walton recognizes a kindred spirit, was in her eyes a meeting of damned men.

Victor's story is essentially that of a man who once had 'everything' but lost what he had through desiring even more. The 'everything' which he had includes material goods, but its most precious aspects are friendships and love, embodied in his relationships with Henry Clerval and his cousin Elizabeth. His ambitions become inflated when he leaves home for university, where he becomes enamoured of the grandiose dreams of Renaissance magicians like Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. One of his teachers dismisses this fascination with frank contempt, but another points out that modern scientists are beginning to achieve results even more marvellous that those which the optimists and charlatans of earlier eras had claimed. Victor then makes his crucial intellectual move, turning his attention {51} to science -- specifically to the science of electricity, the 'vital fluid' whose implications in the mechanics of muscular movement had recently been demonstrated -- as a possible means to achieving an unprecedented victory over the greatest of all tyrants: death.

(It is worth noting here that Mary Shelley, even at the tender age of nineteen, had good cause to be preoccupied with the oppressions of this particular tyrant. Her mother's glittering intellectual career had been cut short when she died shortly after bearing Mary, and Mary's first child by Shelley had already died before the fateful night at the Villa Diodati which set in train the sequence of events ultimately leading to the writing of Frankenstein. The death of Shelley's first wife Harriet -- who drowned, probably by suicidal design, while Mary was engaged in the writing of the book -- freed Shelley so that he and Mary could marry. This last episode presumably added an uncomfortably guilty ambivalence to her preoccupation with mortality.)

While Victor is completing his experiments in resurrection he becomes withdrawn and intellectually isolated, no longer able to find any joy in social intercourse. This process reaches a frightful climax when the work is finally complete; the patchwork man which he has made has only to open a cold eye for Victor to be suddenly overcome by repulsion at what he has done. When the monster departs in confusion, Victor gladly reverts to type, renewing his relationships with his friend and his family -- who gratefully nurse him back to health when he falls terribly ill.

One of the more ingenious academic interpretations of the plot suggest that from this point onwards much, if not all, of what happens is a hallucination of Victor's and that the monster which subsequently appears to him is a projection of his own personality, his own doppelgänger. Although this is superficially the most bizarre of the academic reinterpretations, its adherents rightly point out that it does make rather more sense than the literal interpretation of the puzzling events which follow.

When Victor's young brother is murdered Victor becomes afraid -- and later becomes quite certain -- that the monster is the murderer, and yet he does not say a word to prevent the wrongful conviction of an entirely innocent servant. The immorality of this inaction is so striking as to have convinced some readers that Victor himself must be the true murderer, and that his subsequent account of the monster's activities, like his failure to speak up for the servant, is a pathological denial of his own guilt. Although this interpretation is certainly over-ingenious as {52} an account of the author's intentions, and does not sit well with the conclusion of the story, it must be admitted that the monster's story is hardly more credible and that the monster's explanation of his own motivation is, in its way, every bit as peculiar.

The monster tells Victor that he too has craved the fellowship and love which provided a safe refuge for the sick scientist, but that it was denied him absolutely. He was rejected by his creator at the moment of his first awakening, and was subsequently reviled by everyone who caught sight of him; even his desperate attempt to make a home with a blind man had inevitably come to nothing. It was, he claims, the madness born of this rejection which led him to kidnap a child, and the revelation that the child was the brother of his creator that drove him to murderous frenzy. In consequence of all this the monster demands that a companion be made for him, given that he is too repulsive to be accepted into the community of men.

Victor initially agrees to this request, and sets out to accomplish it on a remote islet in the Orkneys, but he is no longer insulated by obsession, and becomes terrified of the thought that he is giving birth to an entire race of monsters whose co-existence with mankind will be -- to say the least -- problematic. This prospect causes him to abandon the work, and no immediate repercussions ensue. In time, though, the monster sets out to exact his revenge, not upon Victor himself, but upon his friends and loved ones. First, Clerval is murdered -- Victor is charged with the crime but eventually acquitted -- and then, on her and Victor's wedding-night, Elizabeth.

Isolated once again by these deprivations, Victor has little difficulty recovering the motive force of obsession, but this time his obsession is to rid the world of his creation, and the consequent pursuit has led him into the Arctic wastes. He looks to Walton for aid, but when he learns that his host has already turned back from his own quest and is now heading out of the ice-field he realizes that he cannot carry through his purpose. He gives up and dies.

The final confrontation with the monster -- the only corroborative evidence of his actual existence -- is left to Walton. He finds Victor's adversary every bit as fearful as Victor led him to expect, but also confused, agonized and contrite. One of the few books the monster has had the opportunity to read, since he learned the uses of language by secretly observing a family at work and play, is Goethe's Romantic classic The Sorrows of Young Werther, which {53} waxes lyrical about the appropriateness of suicide as a solution for those bereft of any meaningful connection with their fellows, and it is hardly surprising that the monster chooses to continue into the wilderness of the Arctic ice.

'I am content to suffer alone while my sufferings shall endure', the monster says, regretfully; when 'I die, I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory' [Walton 15]. He could not possibly have guessed how prophetic these words would prove to be.

* * * * *

We are nowadays familiar with the circumstances of Frankenstein's genesis, on the stormy night on which Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Dr Polidori amused themselves at the Villa Diodati by reading tales from a volume entitled Fantasmagoriana, which consisted of horror stories translated from German into French. They subsequently agreed that each of them would write a horrific tale of his or her own -- although Polidori was the only one apart from Mary to produce anything substantial, and that was eventually published without his knowledge, under circumstances which caused considerable embarrassment to him (and, of course, to Byron, to whom the work was falsely attributed).

The significance of the story's first inspiration to an understanding of the construction of Frankenstein is that its author was charged from the very beginning with the task of writing a horror story. The particular horror story she settled on grew from a fragment of an actual nightmare she experienced soon afterwards. If Mary's later claim is to be believed -- and there seems no reason to doubt it -- this nightmare displayed to her a creator's first confrontation with his creation.

Thus, Mary did not begin the work of ideative elaboration with the premise of her story, but with its crucial image. The beginning and the end of the story are both extrapolations of that single instant, the one constructed in order to explain how it came about and the other to follow it to its implicit conclusion. Both are consistent, to a degree, with the visionary moment, but they are not really consistent with one another, in the way that they would have been had the author extrapolated an ending from the apparent premises contained in the beginning. Because the fact that the story was to be horrific was accepted as an axiom, {54} much of what was eventually presented as the logic of the story -- the 'explanation' of how the nightmare confrontation came to take place -- was formed by way of ideative apology, not as a set of propositions to be examined on their own merits.

Given all this, it is not entirely surprising that the logical patchwork which leads up to the true point of origination is somewhat ill-fitting. Had the author actually started to make up a story about a 'modern Prometheus' she would surely have come up with something very different; that first awakening of the resurrected man might have been a joyous and triumphant affair had it not been already set in place as the horrific raison d'être of the whole exercise. Alas for the modern Prometheus, his endeavour was damned before he was even thought of, let alone characterized.

The reason Mary made poor Victor Frankenstein a scientist, therefore, had nothing to do with a desire to comment on science as an endeavour. It was simply the result of wanting to do something different from the Gothic novels of supernatural horror which had already become tedious and passé. The preface to the first edition, which was probably written by Percy Shelley on his wife's behalf, treads a delicate argumentative line in speaking of such matters. 'I am by no means indifferent to the manner in which whatever moral tendencies exist in the sentiments or characters it contains shall affect the reader', 'Mary' says, 'yet my chief concern in this respect has been limited to avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day and to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue.' 'She' further insists that 'the opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind'.

There is certainly some self-protective rationalization here -- the author of the preface is shrewdly anticipating and trying cleverly to deflect the charge that the book promotes atheism -- but 'she' is not trying nearly so hard to do that as she was later to attempt in the 1831 introduction, and it must be noted that 'any philosophical doctrine whatsoever' includes science as well as religion.

If the build-up to the moment of confrontation between creator and creation is a fairly haphazard rationalization, then so is the subsequent unfolding of that horrific moment in the later pages of Frankenstein. What happens in the remainder of the novel makes {55} little sense -- rationally or morally -- precisely because the horror of that moment can never be undermined or reduced, and thus can never undergo any kind of imaginative transformation, no matter how hard the unfortunate monster tries to find a solution. The machinery of the plot remains the inescapable condition of the key characters, no matter how they may regret it. Victor and the monster are sealed within it and united by it, all possible avenues of escape being ruled out by the fact that this is, essentially and definitively, a horror story. It is only to be expected that the narrative expansion of the crucial moments should seem to some readers to be akin to a hallucination -- especially to the kind of hallucination which allegedly packs a lifetime into the space of a single incident.

Thus, while the long prelude which precedes and sets up the visionary moment invents -- more or less by accident -- the modern genre of science fiction, the long coda which follows and expands upon it constitutes -- again, more or less by accident -- a giant leap for the not-so-modern genre of delusional fantasy which had recently been invented by E. T. A. Hoffman. This double triumph assured that the book would become a landmark in the evolution of modern imaginative fiction as well as a popular success. It is a landmark, because rather than in spite of its inherent internal contradictions; because of its struggle to be something other than it is. It is a great book precisely because its author could not and would not settle for writing an ordinary book, which would hang together by reproducing some familiar pattern of clichés.

* * * * *

It would, of course, be foolish to regret that Frankenstein is the kind of book it is, or to wish that Mary Shelley had written another book instead. Life being what it is, we have to be grateful for whatever we have, and Frankenstein-the-novel is a book well worth having even if Frankenstein-the-myth is a nest of viperish ideas we could well do without. Given, however, that Frankenstein is a pioneering work of science fiction is might by appropriate to wonder what Mary Shelley -- doubtless with Percy's active encouragement and assistance -- might have achieved had she decided, once the beginning of the story had been written, to cease taking it for granted that what she was writing was a horror story and had cast aside the nightmarish seed.

{56} So let us, briefly, wonder . . .

What if the scientific miracle that Victor Frankenstein had wrought had been allowed to be a miracle indeed, and the resurrected man no monster at all? What if the monster, in spite of his ugliness, had been allowed to win the respect of others with his intelligence and moral sensibility? (Perhaps, like Remy de Gourmont after his face had been ruined by discoid lupus, he might have become a recluse illuminating the work with the wise produce of his pen!)

What if Victor, and Mary, had been allowed to proclaim that a Promethean man of science -- a bringer of energetic fire and a creator of new life -- would be the greatest benefactor imaginable by man, and that the day of such fire-bringers and creators was indeed at hand?

What if Victor, and Mary, had boldly proclaimed that there are no divine prerogatives except wilful ignorance and vile intolerance, and that the produce of scientific creativity ought not to be feared by religious men, nor by feminists, nor by political conservatives, and that such fear is merely the unreasoning electrical reflex of blinkered fools?

What if Mary had attached to her vivid romance the moral which Percy's preface would surely have delighted in celebrating: the moral that the only hope men have for any kind of salvation is that they might find the techonological means to redeem themselves from every kind of earthly damnation?

What then?

The overwhelming probability, sad to say, is that such a book could never have been published in 1818. It would have been considered so horribly indecent and blasphemous that anyone who so much as read the manuscript would have screamed in horror. We may be reasonably confident of this conclusion because, sad to say, it is far, far easier even today to publish and find an appreciative audience for the ten thousandth rip-off of Frankenstein (Jurassic Park, to name but one example) than it is to publish and find an appreciative audience for the kind of novel which Frankenstein might have been. The modern Prometheus remains a prophet without honour in his own country.

This is, in its way, a tragedy: a tragedy which has caught up in its toil the entire genre of science fiction which descends from Frankenstein. The great bulk of modern science fiction still grows, by means of dubious patchworks of apologetic 'logic', from moments of nightmarish vision born of fear and dyspepsia; it fails to work the {57} kind of imaginative alchemy that would be necessary to transform those moments of nightmare into something saner.

Let us be clear, though, about one thing: it was not our mad technological monsters that made the world the way it is and murdered so many of the things which we ought to hold dear; it was us. To think otherwise is a delusion which might easily possess us until we are irredeemably lost in the icy wilderness of our own moral cowardice.

Mary Shelley knew that. It is a pity that those who are not heir to the perverse produce of her imagination mostly do not.