Sci-Fi Book Club 2 – Frankenstein Chapter Two

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This week we are continuing our read-through of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (originally 1818, 1831) as Written by Mary Shelley. I missed posting this last Saturday due to being tired after rocking Planet Comicon for three amazing days! If you want to follow along, I am using the 1831 edition of the text. The book is in the public domain as far as I know, so if you don’t have a tangible copy handy, there are many sites that host the work for free. Feel free to add to comments, ask questions, or suggest future books for this series!

During the last edition of “Sci-Fi Book Club” a great topic was brought up in the discussion section. A reader named benmc47 posted:

“One thing I am curious about – is lightning really involved in bringing the Creature to life? I thought I recalled that the novel didn’t give a description of the actual method that Frankenstein used, and that the lightning was a film invention. It’s been years though, so maybe I’m imagining that?”

 

I had hastily mentioned “lightning” being the catalyst for the monster’s creation at one point in my ramblings, and realized that my mind had definitely made a few leaps of logic that I didn’t explain. The truth is that within the book itself, we are left to use our imagination as to the actual method of the monster’s creation. There are no scenes of a frantic Victor Frankenstein hoisting his patchwork corpse onto the roof adorned with lightning rods – that is purely movie license. But lightning, more specifically – electricity, is not completely absent from the work. Today we will look at Victor’s scientific upbringing, and how that probably leads him down the path of creating the monster in a way that isn’t too far from the method depicted in the films. It could even be said that the film depiction was simply a “modernized” version of what was in the book.

Most of the somewhat brief chapter two concentrates on Victor’s young life and how two thunderstorms made him the very man that he would later become. At a very young age, Victor was not what most would call a “normal boy” rather than playing and doing other childish things, he became obsessed with metaphysics and obtuse ideas like the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. He looked on at what Elizabeth and Henry were up to and somehow saw himself as superior. He states that his family did not really echo his yearning to answer all of life’s questions, so he went on a quest for all of the knowledge that he could attain.

 

“My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.”

 

While forced to stay inside during a horrible storm at age 13, Victor began reading old science textbooks in his house, to pass the time. As a result Victor became obsessed with the works of three men: Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. Victor read these medieval scripts more-or-less secretly since he discovered that they were very much out-of-vogue in modern times (his father ridiculed his interest somewhat). All three authors were, in fact, noteworthy alchemists that were looking for a way to create eternal life. It was a wide held legend that Magnus was even able to create a fabled “philosopher’s stone” something supposedly able to transmute base metals into gold.

 

 

“When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself. I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy’s apprehensions as tyros engaged in the same pursuit.”

 

At age 15, Victor witnessed something that basically changed his life forever – the destructive nature of electricity in the form of a second lightning storm:

 

“As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.”

 

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During this thunderstorm, he learns of a new scientific theory, Galvanism. The book quickly glosses over this, assuming the reader knows every intricacy of this topic, but this inclusion is VERY important because this is most likely the sort of experiment performed later in the story. To summarize, Galvanism is named after the scientist Luigi Galvani, who investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780s and 1790s. His nephew Giovanni Aldini took this even further, believing that one could re-animate the dead using electricity made with chemical reactions – something called “electro-stimulation”. His most famous public demonstration of the electro-stimulation technique was when he made a recently hanged criminal twitch and writhe around, a feat so alarming that one man reportedly died of fright.

This is basically Frankenstein’s origin story – after an upbringing of reading alchemical texts and occultist medical books, Victor is obsessed with learning the meaning of life and how to go past the limits of what it means to be human and enter nature. The theme of “lightning” as the embodiment of nature comes up many times in this book. It can be said that controlling nature is a pursuit of science. How often do hear about scientist trying to create weather, or alter it, to benefit humanity? perhaps as a weapon? One could surmise that control over nature would lead to omnipotence, perhaps Godhood. This was even a hot topic at the time of Shelley, as we were ever so close to being able to harness electricity.

Frankenstein is forced to pursue what sees as more mundane pursuits such as mathematics and natural sciences, but he never gives up on what he learned the night nature utterly destroyed a tree right in front of him. Perhaps if nature can remove life, it can bring it back? So the question still stands – “Did Frankenstein use electricity in his experiment?” – I believe so. The book goes to such great lengths showing all of the lightning symbolism at every turn, I think it would be foolish to assume that he did anything other than a mixture of alchemy and galvanism. Perhaps we’ll revisit chapter two when we make it to the actual creation of the creature, just to see if my theory still holds up.

Join me again next week for the third Chapter Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

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Sci-Fi Book Club 1 – Frankenstein Chapter One

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Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (originally 1818, 1831)

Good news everyone! I got off my lazy butt and decided that I wanted to start a new feature on the site related to those papery things that are kind of like blogs, just with less electricity. That’s right, I’m introducing a feature where I plan to go through influential works of British science fiction literature, but do more than simply throw out a quick review here and there. I want to break down what makes these books an important part of British literature as a whole, and perhaps discuss why they are important, what is inspired by them, themes, social commentary etc. Due to this, I figured that I would break this down into segments – perhaps one chapter a week, maybe more. This way I can discuss things I want without worrying about writing a monstrous article nobody will read or glossing over everything that is important.

When I was in middle school, I recall having class that I believe had to be a reading class that involved us going over various novels throughout the year and doing assignments on them. Our teacher must have been pretty awesome because our curriculum that year involved almost entirely science fiction novels like Z for Zachariah, A Wrinkle in Time, War of the Worlds and finally Frankenstein. At the time, I was ignorant of basic plot of the original Mary Shelley novel and assumed I would not enjoy the book due to my ambivalence to the Universal Horror film of the same name. I know this is blasphemy to many a film buff or horror aficionado, but I didn’t really see why it was so popular. Sure, it was probably scary when it came out, the make-up techniques were amazing, and sets were great, but I found it ultimately boring. When I cracked open the book, I was amazed at the difference. No longer was Victor the hero of the story, no longer was The Monster seemingly incapable of complex thought, and most importantly – no longer was it merely a horror story, there was social commentary, politics, and actual science involved.

Needless to say, I loved reading Frankenstein at the time and have decided to go back after twenty years or so and read it again. I recently discovered a section of inexpensive hard-bound books at our local Barnes and Noble, and fell in love with them. They are all mostly things in the public domain, so costs aren’t too bad, and they have snazzy faux-leatherbound covers. I have some of these books as ratty paperbacks, and plan to collect more to eventually replace those. The version of Frankenstein that I ultimately picked up has a beautiful cover by Jessica Hische.

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I now know that the version that I read in school must have been some sort of abridged or “young readers” edition of the story, because I do not remember the beginning of the novel whatsoever. Granted, that was two decades ago, but I’m pretty sure it jumped right into the story without the fifteen or so pages of introductory letters. Perhaps the entire framing concept was removed? I’m not sure, but I’m enjoying a book that is both somewhat familiar and yet brand new in many ways!

My first choice for the “book club” is perhaps mildly controversial seeing that Frankenstein is usually a horror franchise in many minds. This is perhaps true for the films based on this book, but the book itself is very much a different beast. I’ve always seen Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus somewhere in between a gothic romance novel, a psychological horror novel, and perhaps an early science fiction novel. This is the case for much of this early “genre” fiction, in that genres were far more fluid and less pigeon-holed with the tired tropes we see today. Using another contemporary example, none could argue that H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a horror writer, I would make the case that he also discussed aliens and monsters from other dimensions blurring the horror and science fiction genres together. This is also the case for our very own Mary Shelly here, in that she wrote mostly about the dangers of science running amok.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published March 11, 1818. The book, by 21-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, is frequently called the first science fiction novel. In the story, the scientist Victor Frankenstein collects pieces of various corpses, and stitches them together into a grotesque patchwork monster. Using chemicals and the forces of nature, perhaps lightning, Frankenstein is able to animate his experiment, this much to his own horror. The gentle, intelligent creature is rejected by its creator, and wanders across the countryside, seeking companionship. It becomes increasingly brutal when it fails to find acceptance, and eventually succumbs to emotions of bitter angst towards his creator. We have all heard the tale of the origin of this book. Mary Shelley wrote a short version of what would become Frankenstein on a rainy afternoon in 1816 in Geneva, where she was staying with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron. Byron had challenged each of them to write a scary ghost story, but only Mary Shelley finished hers.

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At it’s very essence, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a cautionary tale of what happens when scientists do not realize the consequences of their actions on a social and ethical scale. This is the all too common “men playing God” idea that seems to always pop up when any bit of scientific research hits the public. London was full of stories of “body-snatchers” or men that would desecrate the graves of the recently departed for medical research or other nefarious ploys. Many people must have thought about why this was happening, and Mary Shelly definitely provided an answer here.

I believe that the edition that I currently have in my hands is the 1831 edition of the book, so for the purposes of this series I will be discussing only that version as I do not plan two attempt to read two books concurrently. I barely have the time to read ONE book! I will say that the original version is somewhat different to the common “popular edition” as Shelly and her husband edited the book a few times during her life. Doing a bit of research shows that as far as I can tell, the major differences between the two versions are could be seen as important or not depending on how you look at it. On one hand, Shelley removed some text about new scientific theories and experiments going on at the time, mainly because many were thoroughly disproven at the time of the later edition. This does succeed in somewhat removing the novel from its original intellectual context, and obscures the issues that were being debated both publicly and in the Byron-Shelley circle. On the other hand, I have looked at side-by-side comparisons and most of the text is almost exactly the same. Perhaps, later editions tie the characters into the concept of “fate” a bit more than the original, but it’s basically the same.

I mentioned earlier that the version I read in school was most likely some sort of abridged version of this book, and that is truly a shame. If one were to remove the framing around the main story, I feel we are left with something half-finished. Unlike the “whale information” segments in another often chopped up book, Moby Dick, the framing in Frankenstein is very interesting. Frankenstein actually has multiple framed narratives that surround the life story of the man Victor Frankenstein. The first layer is from the point of view of a sea captain named Robert Walton who writes letters to his sister relating the story told to him by Victor Frankenstein. Walton discovers Frankenstein on the verge of death in the arctic and nurses him back to health in exchange for his story. Victor’s layer is somewhat of an autobiographical tale told to Walton of everything he did leading up to the creation of his monster and how it made him feel. Finally, we actually get the creature’s point of view as he copes with his loneliness and rage against his “father”.

I personally adore this sort of narrative structure, and a modern equivalent that many have probably read was Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, as written by Seth Grahame-Smith. That book had a layer of a man writing a book and how he came across secret dairies of Abraham Lincoln, and the content of these diaries themselves.

This week, there wasn’t much story as of yet, but we do get to learn a bit about the aforementioned seafarer Robert Walton. It seems that Walton has sailed to the Arctic as an adventurer, this was the time of the adventurers after all! Walton seems like a kind man, but also seems somewhat arrogant, as we get a sense that he feels himself to be somewhat “above” the rest of the crew of his ship. Because of this, he has fallen into a “funk” and feels that he has no companionship other than his far-away sister that we never hear a reply from.

“I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! I am too ardent in execution, and too impatient of difficulties.”

He is excited to finally meet Victor Frankenstein, a man that he sees as his intellectual equal, and seemingly gets some sort of a crush on him. Not romantically, but it definitely seems as if he is infatuated by the man. This creates somewhat of an instance of the “unreliable narrator” in which Victor is shown to be the hero of this tale, a fact that gets flipped on it’s head later on!

Chapter one (of Victor’s tale) mostly explores Victor’s relationship to Elizabeth, the woman that was his best friend growing up, his adopted sister, and love interest. She is an orphan child taken in by the Frankenstein family, who was lovingly raised with Victor after her nobleman father died. Elizabeth is completely idealized by Victor, in part because she is clever but more importantly because she is pretty. He says at the beginning of Chapter 1, “Her person was the image of her mind; her hazel eyes, although as lively as a bird’s, possessed an attractive softness.” It seems to be a theme throughout Victor’s narrative that he likes beauty above all else, perhaps foreshadowing to his reaction to his “son”? Elizabeth seems to also be Victor’s anchor to reality, and once she is out of the picture Victor completely loses himself.

That’s it for chapter one, and all my introductions! Check back next week where I’ll attempt to discuss relevant themes from chapter two.