Mary Shelley: Mother of Science Fiction
Mary Shelley is often known through her relations. Her mother was the renown feminist and social reformer Mary Wollstonecraft, her father was William Godwin the philosopher and novelist, and her husband was Percy Shelley one of the major romantic poets. Her life was spent in shadow: separated from her mother at birth, abandoned by her father, ignored by her husband. Many know her only as the author of Frankenstein. To others, she is a pioneer of women’s prose in English, or a master of the Gothic tradition. I, and many scholars, hold Mary on a higher pedestal: The creator of the genre of science fiction.
Many scholars and critics in the Science Fiction community place the beginnings of science fiction later in history, pointing to Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and even to Hugo Gernsback and his coining of the term “science fiction” in the 1920s. Others claim that science fiction has existed for much longer, citing Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Milton, Dante, Homer and the Epic of Gilgamesh as the progenitors of the genre. While I can see their argument, there are some big holes in it. (Freedman, 253)
European literature is filled with examples of implausible and exploratory tales, however, it is my belief that science fiction as a genre could not have started until the 19th century because, to this day, the major overarching theme of science fiction is the impact of scientific advancement and new technologies on life. Both secularization and rapid technological changes are necessary to create this form of literature. The major tool of science fiction is cognitive estrangement, which is to make the familiar seem strange by distancing the reader from their own reality. This literary device is as old as literature, but it is not the only distinguishing mark of a science fiction story; to suggest so means that every narrative that uses cognitive estrangement is science fiction.
Others raise up Gulliver’s Travels as the first science fiction novel. While imaginative and groundbreaking in many aspects, especially when concerning Gulliver’s trip to the flying island of Laputa and the country of the Houyhnhnms, these tales are nothing more than satire. In science fiction, change is thematic and the opportunity for change is ever present. In satire, nothing changes. Satire is hyperbolic in nature, inflating the negative or humorous attributes of an individual, a government or an idea and giving these extreme examples a chance for open ridicule. Science fiction exists in a secular universe. The science in Gulliver’s Travels is mocking failed science and ends with a crisis of faith in the main character who attempts to live as the Houyhnhnms, seeing them as more idyllic creatures. While sf uses similar techniques to critique society, it does not resort to heavy-handed mockery to do so. People are still people and the universe is still the universe. Gulliver’s Travels is simply a sarcastic flight of fancy.
What makes Mary Shelley so special is her “Stunning originality and, in particular, to the way she decisively broke with the Gothic and other supernatural literary traditions by which she was so heavily influenced in order to invent science fiction.” (Freedman, 255) That is to say Shelley moves away from more established myths and religious tropes and creates a sort of scientific myth based upon recent scientific discovery. She then expands upon this idea, Doctor Victor Frankenstein building a creature out of discarded bodies and slaughterhouse refuse then bringing it to life with electrical impulses much like the experiments of Luigi Galvani who discovered bioelectricity by electrifying the legs of a dead frog, creating a scientific myth that is well within “the possibilities of cognitively based speculation as established by the most advanced science of the day.” (Freedman, 255)
Frankenstein is constructed much like Isaac Asimov’s famous collection I, Robot in that Frankenstein takes place along the cutting edge of (contemporary) modern science. In I, Robot, Asimov discusses the impact of intelligent robots upon humanity (as well as humanity’s impact upon the robots) both from a scientific and social perspective. Asimov “provokes us to wonder wheter something like his visions will in fact come to pass,” and is “grounded… both [in the] mundane factuality of realism and the admitted impossibility of fantasy.” (Freedman, 256) Mary Shelley combines two major scientific themes in Frankenstein, Grave robbing and electricity. Victor collects the pieces of his monster from the dissection table, charnel houses and graveyards much as the preeminent British biologists of the day were doing until the passing of the passage of the Anatomy Act in 1832. (Ketterer, 120) She uses electricity both as a means of reanimating the creature and to separate Victor from the non-science of alchemy, humorism and the like. Victor is moved to reject the ideas of Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus when he is moved by the sheer power of a lightning storm. From that point, Frankenstein operates just as every other sf piece that followed. Asimov even gives credit to Shelley’s work, calling it a “precursor text of his own robot stories.” (Freedman, 254) Frankenstein’s monster is even much like Asimov’s robots in that their creator’s doubt their humanity and abandon them to a life of misery and servitude.
I think it fitting to conclude with a paraphrasing of Sir Walter Scott’s response to Shelley’s novel. He described Frankenstein as “More philosophical and refined than ordinary marvelous or supernatural fiction,” and praises Shelley’s work “in which the laws of nature are represented as altered, not for the purpose of pampering the imagination with wonders, but in order to shew the probable effect which the supposed miracles would produce on those who witnessed them.” (Freedman, 257) It sounds to me like without ever understanding the term science fiction, Sir Walter Scott was the first to make an argument for Shelley’s induction into the upper echelons of science fiction writers.
Esten, Jack. The Creature’s Face. N.d. Esten, Jack. http://static.ddmcdn.com/gif/frankenstein-1.jpg
Forrest, Jennifer. “Review: Science Fiction before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology by Paul K. ALkon.” South Central Modern Language Association. 13.1 (1996): 58-60. Web. 2 May. 2014. <Jstor>.
Freedman, Carl. “Review: Hail Mary: On the Author of “Frankenstein” and the origins of Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies. 29.2 (2002): 253-264. Web. 2 May. 2014. <Jstor>.
Ketterer, David. “Review: “Furnished Materials”: The Surgical Anatomy Context of “Frankenstein”.” Science Fiction Studies. 24.1 (1997): 119-123. Web. 2 May. 2014. <Jstor>.