Monday, January 1, 2018

200th Anniversary of the First Publication of Frankenstein

Today marks the 200th Anniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein (or, The Modern Prometheus).  It's a book many of us were assigned to read.  As with any book, your mileage will vary.  Absolutely, that seems to depend upon interpretations and baggage brought to the book.

It is true that I am a fan of the Frankenstein films from Universal that appeared in 1932 and onward, but I'd read Shelley's book twice before seeing the first movie circa 1997. My Freshman year of high school I *absolutely* grokked the "wretch's" perspective and Victor's craziness, and of course the romantic torment that befalls them all.

My sophomore year in college, I was as surprised as anyone else when I felt the desire to read the book again (and did so partially over Spring Break).  Unfortunately my schedule wouldn't match up with a "History of Sci-Fi" class which covered the book and the circumstances of its creation in depth.   Somewhere in between I read it again, and again in 2015 or 16 I listened to an audiobook of the novel for my Halloween read.

There's no small amount of mythologizing the writing of the book.  Lord Byron, terrible weather, castles, late-night parties and all that.  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were definitely some deeply interesting people - and I'm not sure we've seen anyone like them in this generation, but the rock'n'roll stories of the late 60's through the early 80's might provide some interesting points of comparison.  I won't rehash more here, but if you've seen the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein, it's as good a point as any to start from as Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley.

One of those things that seems like a factoid when you're younger and becomes an absolutely mind-boggling fact when you're older:  Mary Shelley was about 18 when she wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, changing literature and creating science-fiction.  When I was eighteen I was mostly failing Italian at UT and getting confused by vending machines.

Some have argued that Mary Shelley received assistance from her husband in compiling the book, and that may be true.  I'm not sure it matters.  She wasn't the first or last writer to receive help, and we all need an editor (except me, here, at this blog).

I do find Frankenstein a sort of personality test, maybe a Rorschach test, depending on how people feel about the characters and content.  Not that many years ago I had a long conversation, completely out of the blue, with a high school English teacher who was groaning that she was having to teach the book.  "It's all whining!" she said.  "No one is happy!"

"Yeah," I said.  "And that's why it's perfect for high school.  You didn't ask to be brought into this world, and it seems you're getting kicked around by everyone else's rules and whims, but all you did was show up.  And when you do get some power and start making demands, everyone freaks out.  What high schooler *shouldn't* get that?" 

If I swayed that random high school teacher, I'll never know.  But I've seen articles about how the book is a feminist screed about the fears of childbirth and rearing children (I'm not sure I buy that reading, but it's got its place).  And there are plenty of others out there.

What does matter is the deep impact Frankenstein has made on the world - bringing a kind of speculative, science-fiction to the world, extrapolating from theory and hypotheses of the day, just as science fiction has continued to adopt and adapt the frontiers of knowledge in every generation since.  And, of all the science fiction since, it's also the ideal for how we think of the relationship between fiction and progress: what are the longterm effects of this thing we believe we can do?  And are we ready for it?  Victor Frankenstein lived, horribly, to see what would happen in the aftermath of his experiments and advances.  What aren't we anticipating?  If only we thought about these things more in how we deploy technology every day.

a signed copy of Bernie Wrightson's illustrated  version of Frankenstein is a personal prized possession

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