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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Out of the Unknown (1965) No Place like Earth

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Anthology TV shows used to be fairly common, my personal favorite being a show called Tales from the Darkside (mostly due to its amazing theme song). While there aren’t many today, one can definitely see that the 1960’s were the golden age for these sorts of programs. In America, there were shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and in the UK shows like Journey to The Unknown and the lesser known Out of the Unknown were big business during the UK science fiction golden age. Out of the Unknown is relatively unheard of outside of hardcore science fiction fandom due to the poor archival status of the show. It’s one of those shows that fell victim to the BBC’s “junking” policy for old footage. Of the original four seasons and nearly fifty episodes of the show produced, only around twenty exist today. What remains is pretty solid TV and consists of short stories adapted from existing work with a few exceptions made for the show. I actually heard about this show doing a Wikipedia search for John Wyndham (of Day of the Triffids fame) and found out that he had a story made into an episode. Which story? Well this one right here!

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No Place like Earth is a new take on the old Thomas Wolfe coined phrase “you can’t go home again”. Set fifteen years in an indeterminate future, a man named Bert Foster (Terence Morgan) wanders the canals of Mars thinking of simpler times he had on Earth. It seems Earth collapsed in a nuclear holocaust leaving all the survivors to find refuge on nearby planets. Bert is essentially homeless and travels around doing the work of a handyman to make ends meet. While trying to be the best hermit he can be, Bert draws attention from a Martian woman named Annike that is eyeing him for her daughter Zeyla. Before the story veers into sappy love story territory, a rocket from Venus shows up. The crew tells of a “New Earth” on Venus, and Bert jumps at the chance to regain his former glory. Bert’s heart breaks when he realizes Venus is nothing more than a slave colony with wealthy overlords preying on gullible fools like him. Looks like Mars wasn’t so bad was it Bert?

Some might look at No Place like Earth and think how silly the setting is. Wyndham painted a picture of a Mars that exists in pure fantasy; a planet full of crazy mountains and canals full of fresh water. I had to watch this on a popular video sharing website (since the episodes are nearly impossible to find otherwise) and noticed a bunch of unimaginative people mocking the “old notions of what Mars was like”. Those folks are missing the point, and are most likely the same people that crapped on John Carter, despite it being a really good summer movie. The original story for No Place like Earth was written in the spring of 1951, and by that time we definitely knew that there were no canals of rushing water on Mars. We knew there were not livable cities all over the place. Outside of the occasional ancient alien theorist espousing new theories on how Mars has a face on it, we had about the same level of Martian knowledge then that had when we started sending robots up there. To really enjoy this episode one has suspend disbelief just enough to see what story is trying to be conveyed rather than harping on how unscientific the whole thing is. And that’s the end of my rant for the day.

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No Place like Earth is definitely a low budget affair, and is only really saved on an artistic standpoint by being filmed in black and white. The costuming looks decent, if not a bit on the camp side; although I can imagine that everything was painted in garish colors. In this way, I feel a lack of said color is a blessing in disguise. Effect shots are very few and far between, and aside from a slew of decent matte paintings and other background special effects, the whole affair is essentially done as a stage play rather than something filmed especially for Television. One thing that could have been done a bit better was the acting in certain places. Since I can assume that most of the actors involved were stage actors, they seem to be massively overacting when in front of the camera. The way they wistfully look around, their body posture and the way they move all scream THEATRE! I can let this pass in older TV shows and films, because the medium was in its infancy, but I’ve seen much older shows with way more subdued acting.

Aside from those few quibbles, I enjoyed No Place like Earth quite a bit. I think it’s my love for older science fiction short stories from the era, but stories like this have a weird sense of wonder and adventure that is mostly absent from a lot of modern science fiction. If you like these sorts of shows and want to see stories from some fairly prominent science fiction writers of the time, I’d say check this show out.