Friday, May 26, 2017

Tom's Two Cents : Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

It may come as a surprise to many of you that Boris Karloff didn't invent the monster Frankenstein.  That dubious honor goes to a nineteen year old British girl, whose name just happened to be Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, who in 1816, at a house party on Lake Geneva, created the character and the subsequent novel in a writing contest.  It seems it was raining, there was nothing to do (no TV at the Lakeside villa), a contest of sorts was proposed, and Frankenstein was born.  Others who just happened to be present included two of Britain's greatest Romantic poets, Percy Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Not the least of Mary Shelley's accomplishments in "Frankenstein" is the number of voices in which she tells her story.  Indeed the "creature" himself is not named "Frankenstein", or named at all.  His creator is Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a native of the Republic of Genoa, and in later versions of the tale, the Creature assumes the name of his creator.  It is, in fact, Dr. Frankenstein who tells most of the story to the ship captain Robert Walton, who, in turn, is relating it by letter to his sister, a lady named Mrs. Saville, who lives in England.  Captain Walton himself starts on a sea adventure from St. Petersburg to discover the North Pole, in the process rescuing Dr. Frankenstein from an icy death.  If all this sounds too convoluted, it is an acceptable way in the early part of the 19th century to tell a story that otherwise would have appeared totally unbelievable: summed up in a couple of words: "science fiction" was born.

By now science fiction as a genre has come so far through its exploration of outer space and alien worlds that Mary Shelley's little parlor tale may seem outmoded indeed.  But it was the first, and the most influential, and characters like R2D2 might never have been created without it.  Shelley is more interested, however, in the "whys" of scientific/technological achievement than the "how's"--her ultimate question remains unresolved:  is Man in his eternal quest for knowledge, in his aspiration for greatness and power, ultimately any better off?  Her story is her answer, and despite its antique language, one worth reading and pondering.

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