Like most people, I imagine, these days, my views of Frankenstein were shaped primarily by the 1931 movie. Reading the original novel—5 years ago, I believe—was a revelation. It deserves every bit of its reputation, and it doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by the (admittedly brilliant) 1931 film. Is it science fiction? Horror? One of the all-time great works of literature? Read and find out, as they say.
My earlier posts on the 1931 film version, Monster Squad, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) are here, here, and here, respectively. I will return to my more usual Throwback SF Thursday posts going forward, starting with a post on 1984, which I’m reading now for the first time. I set down Vance’s The Narrow Land, but I will pick it back up after I finish 1984. I still have Skelos No. 1 and Cirsova No. 3 to read, but I will be prioritizing Schuyler Hernstrom’s Thune’s Vision for the Puppy of the Month Club.
So is Frankenstein the first science fiction novel? I won’t comment on the timing. I imagine there is a good argument to be made for some earlier book. Is it a science fiction book? Sure, albeit soft science fiction. It uses the possibilities that technology may open to explore the deepest questions of the human condition. Of course the tech isn’t at all plausible, nor was it particularly plausible even at the time. But the questions raised remain with us today, and science fiction continues to explore with cyborgs and robots and AI and aliens.
Labeling Frankenstein as science fiction might seem odd, given it better fits in the popular imagination as horror. But the two are in no way mutually exclusive, and Frankenstein is emphatically horror as well. There are shades of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and Halloween’s Michael Myers in the creature’s implacable nature and near-supernatural ability to strike Frankenstein at will.
But back to the story. The difference from the 1931 movie is stark, not the least by opening with an Artic expedition with no apparent connection with Frankenstein and his monster. I would read a novel about that expedition. The connection soon becomes apparent, though, when the captain sees something more massive than a man moving across the ice with preternatural speed and later finds Victor Frankenstein near death.
The story then cuts back to Victor’s childhood, and Elizabeth is introduced. We spend quite a lot of time with him—as a child, as a young man, then at university—before he begins the work that will define the book. There is nothing at all strange about this. What the movies, even the ostensibly faithful Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, didn’t get is that Frankenstein is as much or more Victor’s story as the monster’s.
Not that the monster is not far different. He’s an articulate, vengeful monster, almost supernatural in his powers. While the movies have typically suggested his brain plays a role in his personality and his intelligence, even knowledge—whether it is a criminal’s brain or Waldman’s—the book does nothing of the sort. Instead it suggests his quick mastery of language is something much more terrible—that it is another manifestation of his superhuman abilities. By creating his Adam, Victor Frankenstein may have sealed not only his own doom but that of all humanity. I finally watched X-Men: Apocalypse and I’ve been working my way back through the previous movies. First science fiction novel? Heck, Frankenstein might be the first superhero novel, with Frankenstein’s monster the first supervillain.
Frankenstein himself is no hero, though. He immensely, monstrously self-absorbed. He gives little to no thought to the implications in creating the monster and immediately recoils, then forgets about it. When the monster later turns his furies on Victor, Victor goes out of his way to compare his condition unfavorably with that of his family and friends suffering for his sin. I will leave it to the reader to decide for herself whether he is innately malevolent or a blank slate shaped by his early experiences, but I depart from many in thinking the former. But if Victor created the monster figuratively as well as literally it’s impossible to view him as other than an abject villain.
Shelley’s prose is often very powerful. There are shades of Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Shelley makes extensive use of symbolism—breaking ice, the escape from science into nature, Frankenstein’s relation with his monster analogized to God’s relationship with man. It doesn’t have much of the suspense modern horror so heavily relies upon. It’s the kind of book that should make you think long and hard, and much of what you should think long and hard about is not entirely pleasant.
Shelley does sometimes writes in convoluted sentences: “She was tranquil, yet her tranquility was evidently constrained; and as her confusion had before been adduced as a proof of her guilt, she worked up her mind to an appearance of courage.” But that’s par for the course with Victorian and pre-Victorian writing.
5 of 5 Stars.
PC Bushi on Frankenstein at PCBushi.