Review: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Since I am a science fiction author now and I’ve started doing reviews, I figured, why not read and talk about some of the classics?  And where better to start than with what is widely considered the first true science fiction novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

‘Well JC,’ I can hear you all wag, ‘I hope you’re not going
to make the mistake of referring to Frankenstein’s monster as ‘Frankenstein’.  Frankenstein is the name of the inventor, not
the invention.’  Yeah, okay, but isn’t
quite common to refer to an invention by the name of the person who created
it?  Like Hoover or Sandwich?  ‘No JC… you are referring to the electric
vacuum cleaner and the stuff between two slices of bread snack.  That is what everyone else in the world calls
them’.

Um… okay, well, as it happens the monster is never given a
name by its creator in the story, although Shelley herself referred to it as
Adam when she gave readings.  There are a
couple of times when it’s speaking to Victor that it refers to itself as ‘your
Adam’, but yes, it’s never given an official name and is mostly just referred
to as ‘wretch’.  That aside, let’s get
stuck into it.

While Jules Verne and H.G Wells can be said to have really
established science fiction as a genre, it’s generally thought nowadays that
the first true science fiction novel was Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein – The Modern
Prometheus’, first published in 1818.

The story goes that she and Percy Bysshe Shelley were
visited Lord Byron at a villa in Switzerland, with some other prominent writers
of the time, when Lord Byron suggested each of them should write a ghost
story.  One of the resulting novels to
come out of this was John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, which would start the trend
of romantic vampire novels that would eventually result in Twilight.  So, on the one hand, f**k you Byron and your
ideas.  On the other, that night in the
villa did also give us one of the most memorable monsters of the modern age.

Mary Shelley said the idea came to her in a dream, almost
certainly inspired by the groups discussion of galvanism which was popular at
the time.  People were learning to
harness the power of electricity, and there were public demonstrations across Europe
of muscles on corpses being stimulated by electric shocks.  There were many who believed that it was a
type of electricity that was the force that gave life to things.  And into this world, Victor Frankenstein was
born.

The book itself is told as a series of letters by Captain
Robert Walton to his sister Margaret.  Walton
hopes to achieve fame and success by travelling to the North Pole, when the
crew spot a gigantic creature driving through the snow.  Shortly after, they come across a man near to
death – none other than Victor Frankenstein, who begins to recount his life
story.

Most of the story we all surely know by now.  Born in Naples with two brothers, and later
an adopted sister, Elizabeth, who Victor eventually falls in love with.  His fascination with theories to do with ‘simulating
natural wonders’ begins at an early, but it’s after his mother’s death that he
starts studying them in earnest.  This is
what leads to his creating the creature from mismatched body parts and giving
life to it.  But he’s then repulsed by
the creature’s ugliness and flees… big mistake, as the monster would go on to
haunt him and his family and loved for the remainder of Victor’s life,
eventually resulting in the death of all of them.

The main difference between the monster in the book and most
popular film adaptations, is that the creature is actually very intelligent.  He learnt to speak very articulately and well
simply by listening to a family.  He
found a satchel of books and taught himself to read.  At first, he lives in the wilderness by
himself, learning early on that his appearance frightens people.  But it seems that without anyone to guide
him, the creature never learns to properly control his emotions, as when he
does attempt to befriend a family, and they reject him, he gets mad and burns
their home down.  He still longs for a companion
however, which is why he seeks out Victor, who agrees to help at first, out of
fear.  But then a greater fear grips him…
if he creates a mate for this monster it could lead to creation of a race that
would threaten the whole of mankind.  So
he destroys his work, and consequently the creature continues to stalk him and
murder everyone he loves.

This all of course leads to Victor chasing the creature to
the North Pole, where he was found at the beginning of the story.  Victor dies, and later Robert discovers the
creature mourning over his body.  Revenge
hadn’t bought him any peace, only alienated him more, and so the creature sets
off on an ice raft vowing to burn himself on his own funeral pyre.

Frankenstein was not a critical success when it was first published.  Most people didn’t know who the author was,
as it was published anonymously.  One
reviewer when he did find out that it was written by the daughter of William
Godwin, wrote this scathing article about it:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is
an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our
authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should;
and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment”

But despite a woman daring to have an interest and write
about things other than just finding the perfect man to marry and stay at home
for, Frankenstein was popular enough to be adapted into a play which also proved
very popular.  Then there were later
releases and revisions of the novel itself, which goes on heavily influencing
both the horror and science fiction genres to this day (not to mention being
the inspiration behind one of the most iconic Hollywood monsters).

Science and technology have, on the whole, had a positive
effect on the lives of most people, allowing greater communication, better
health care, and if theories like evolution and the knowledge that species can
go extinct there probably wouldn’t be the movement for us to take greater
responsibility for our world.  Negative
consequences of expanding our knowledge, like atom bombs and other weapons of
mass destruction, are thankfully few.
But they do have the potential to wreak so much havoc if placed in the
wrong hands.  So perhaps that’s why the
story of the ‘mad’ scientist and creation that turns on him and ultimately
destroys his entire life continues to resonate to this day.

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