Whether or not Frankenstein is truly the first science fiction tale (I went to a great exhibition at the British Library a few years ago that charted sci-fi’s history much further back than the 19th century), its giant footprints are stomped into so much that has come after. How surprising then to find that the original story lacks many of the popular culture touchstones associated with the myth.
There is not lightning scarred castle; no deformed assistant to aid the good doctor; the monster is not a stumbling, moaning zombie, but an articulate, thoughtful creature. There aren’t even any pitchfork carrying villagers trying to smoke the Doctor out of his hellish keep. And no-one ever shouts ‘It’s alive!’
Likewise, if it was meant as a cautionary tale I’m not sure what it is that Shelley wished us to be cautious of. Even after his life is brought to ruin Frankenstein implores the headstrong sea captain and scientist who rescued him to continue with an ill-advised voyage of exploration to the Arctic. This is despite Frankenstein recognising the captain shares the motivation – the unquenchable thirst for knowledge – which led him to misery and exile.
It may be a caution against the runaway parent, since it is Frankenstein’s rejection and abandonment of his creature that sows the seeds of woe. It could also (and this is my preferred reading) be a demand to greet those you do not know with kindness rather than fear. Ultimately, it is Frankenstein that creates the man, but fear that creates the monster. It is the repeated rejection and persecution visited on him by the humans that he meets that turns the monster to the dark side. Man creates his own enemy not through science but through intolerance and ignorance.
It is notable that the unsavoury attitudes expressed in Dracula, my last book, towards the lower classes are absent here. While the monster is turned away and harried by rural people he meets, they are not made into beasts themselves. The old blind man, the only person to show the monster kindness, is key to the story. If others saw the monster as he did (or did not) tragedy would not have followed. I wonder if Shelley ever wrote a counterpoint to the story picking up this possible thread and working it through to its end. That is a story I would like to read.
If the creature turned his will to good, what could it have achieved? Would it grow old, decay, fall apart? How long would it live? Could it rebuild itself? Would it ever find the companion it sought? Would it live cloaked and cowled and fight against evil like some 19th century superman? Hmm there could be a story in that . . .
Next up is Chris Beckett’s new sci-fi tale of an abandoned astronauts and incestuous civilisation, Dark Eden.