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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Rhys Vaughan

Mary Shelley - Part Three


So what is it about Mary Shelley’s work that establishes it as the first modern SF story? The answer lies in Victor Frankenstein’s attitudes and methods. As he begins his work he states: ‘None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies, you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.’ Elsewhere he states: ‘I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit.’ If “Frankenstein” had been a Romance Tale, the creature would have been found in a magical valley, inhabited by mandrakes, hippogriffs, and anthropophagi. If it had been a Gothic Novel, Frankenstein would have obtained his creature by making a pact with the Devil, as Faust did. Shelley, and Frankenstein through her, will have none of this. The creature is created through the application of scientific principles applied during many long hours in the laboratory. Although Shelley, wisely, does make clear how Frankenstein manages to create life from lifeless or dead matter we can be sure that electricity is involved somewhere, even though there is no description of the cascades of electrical sparks beloved of the motion pictures. In order to make his project easier, Frankenstein uses matter which was once living and works on a large scale—his creature is eight feet tall, with much of the underlying anatomy visible through the yellow skin. And at one o’clock on a rainy night, his work is completed. ‘…by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.’ But then Frankenstein comes to his senses and rejects the creature, running out of the laboratory. The creature disappears. The rest of the book is concerned with the reaction of human society to the creature, who despite its appearance, is revealed to be both sensitive and intelligent. However, driven from society it turns to violence and Frankenstein confronts his creation in the Alps, to where he has tracked it. The creature blames Frankenstein for the violence: ‘I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.’ It makes a bargain with its creator: if he constructs a female creature they will leave civilisation and disappear in the South American jungles. Frankenstein agrees and is about to endow the female with life when he realises that he might be creating a race superior to ordinary humans and so destroys the thing; thus precipitating more vengeance from the original. The central message of the book is one now common in SF: science and technology are very powerful; so powerful that their misuse could bring about the end of the human race. This was something new in human thought.

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