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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Rhys Vaughan

Mary Shelley - part Two


With Mary Shelley (1797-1851), we have finally arrived at the doorstep of modern SF. We have seen its early progenitor in the Romance Tales of medieval Europe with their fantastic settings and talking animals. Then we have seen the genesis of the Gothic Novel, with its unworldly settings and notions of forces beyond human comprehension. Many writers, Brian Aldiss and Isaac Asimov among them, recognise Shelley’s novel as the first truly modern science-fiction novel.

Why is this? Firstly, Shelley sent her tragic hero Victor Frankenstein to Ingolstadt University which in her day was renowned as a centre of scientific excellence. When he gets there he recounts to his professors his study of the ancient alchemists in his search for the secret of life and is amazed when they mock him for his ignorance. One says, ‘These fancies, which you have so greedily imbibed, are a thousand years old’. Another dismisses the ancients as charlatans who ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing.’ This is the turning point; for the first time, the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ is dismissed as at best outdated and, more probably, an illusion and waste of time. The future lies with science.

Secondly, Shelley was fully aware of the intellectual ferment sweeping Europe at the time; the feeling that a great age of discovery was about to begin. In this she was right and she was particularly interested in electrical phenomena. Indeed, Frankenstein’s interest in science is sparked when he witnesses a tree struck by lightning.

On the night before she began her great work, the group had been discussing recent developments, including Erasmus Darwin’s views that life had arisen by evolution rather than a single creation by God. The conversation turned to the supernatural and at Lord Byron’s suggestion, they decided on a competition to write the most blood-curdling story. In this Shelley was aided by a dream that she had had not long before in which her dead baby came back to life. She also saw the figure of a ‘hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.’

The scene was set.

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