Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was 18 when she wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The novel was published, anonymously, when she was 20. The story, for those who don't know it, follows one Victor Frankenstein from his childhood through university and his experiments with the theory of galvanism -- a science that purports to reanimate dead flesh. Galvanism was a theory first put forward by the 18th-century poet and physician Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), and he claimed to have actually put it into practice.

The story of Frankenstein, which many people mistakenly think is the name of the monster (the monster doesn't have a name) is the story of scientific ambition gone wrong. Victor Frankenstein, contrary to later interpretations, is a college dropout who secludes himself to work out his theories. There is no hunchbacked assistant named Igor, Frakenstein is not an insane baron, and he does not wish harm on others.

Instead, Victor Frankenstein fills the "mad scientist" role because of his unbridled ambition and confidence in his own scientific abilities. The most interesting thing about this story is that Frankenstein is a tragic hero in the old Greek sense -- rich, intelligent, handsome, loved by a beautiful woman, and yet possessed of one tragic flaw that spells his downfall. This is of course supreme arrogance in his own ability.

The themes of What Hath Science Wrought and how dangerous the pursuit of knowledge can be runs thick through this story, as it does through most cautionary tales about pushing the bounds of human knowledge too far. Most interesting about the set up of this story is the frame narrative of Robert Walton's trip to the North Pole. When Walton discovers Frankenstein pursuing his creation to destroy it, he is attempting to push the bounds of human knowledge in another way by exploring the North Pole.

Frankenstein gives to Steampunk its focus on dangerous science and pushing at what we already know. Novels like Boneshaker, where science gone wrong is one of the central facets of that world's history, owe a debt to tales like Frankenstein. Mary Shelley and other writers of Gothic literature that crafted terror over science in their readers were the progenitors of "mad science" in fiction.

I leave you with this quote of Robert Walton describing Victor Frankenstein: 
"What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin! He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall." (Chapter 24)
Tomorrow: Urban Gothic and Terror in the City


Rick Daley said...

I would actually consider this the roots of sci-fi. Looking back, it's retro, but at the time it was progressive when considered in the light of the knowledge of the day.

Matthew Delman said...

Rick --

The roots of steampunk and the roots of science fiction are one and the same for the most part. One of the main cruxes of steampunk is looking back at what was considered progressive sci-fi during the Regency and Victorian periods, and trying to replicate that aesthetic. That Victor Frankenstein is the archetype for the overly ambitious scientist is important, but it's the high-society language and attitudes that Steampunk draws from more than traditional Science Fiction does.

In other words, good point.

Elisabeth Black said...

Nice. That was such a rich time to be writing stuff like that. Sci-fi nowadays is pretty played out. Although sci-fi is almost like the new mythology, don't you think?

(Funny that I looked at that and saw sci-fi too.)

Elisabeth Black said...

By the way when I say sci-fi is played out, I only mean that it's harder now to come up with an original idea for sci-fi.

Matthew Delman said...

Beth --

I've found that original ideas in sci-fi come from either blending existing science together or staying abreast of new scientific theories. Of course, keeping up with new theories is a difficult game by itself. There are so many different journals out there that it's kind of hard to read all of them. No matter how fascinating.

So yes, for non-scientists it is hard to come up with original sci-fi. And sometimes even for scientists.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

*sigh* Oh, how I love that book! :-)

Great post, Matt.

L. T. Host said...

I'd forgotten about most of the story til this post just now. Thanks for reminding me :)

I actually like the story of Mary Shelley in some regards more than the story she wrote, but the story she wrote is pretty impressive for that day and age, too. A woman writing ground-breaking fiction but publishing anonymously... way cool.

L. T. Host said...

*not that she published anonymously, that she got published anyway.

Susan R. Mills said...

You'll be happy to know that my daughter is reading Frankenstein for Sophomore English. I'll have to email you if she has any questions.

Joshua McCune said...

Also probably one of the first dystopians -- personally didn't like it much, but that could have been because it was assigned reading.

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

It helps that she got hitched to Percy Shelley, who was prominent in his own right, and was friends with Lord Byron.

Susan --

Let me know!

Bane --

I'm not entirely sure I'd call it an example of dystopian fiction, but I can see where you're going. And yes, being forced to read a classic is a sure sign of hating it for most people.

Kelly Wittmann said...

Knowing Mary Shelley's story-- how she longed to have her dead child back in her arms-- makes "Frankenstein" all the more compelling.