The Science Fiction Chroniclers is a journey through time, an introduction not only to the science fiction stories of the past but to the lives of the people who created them.
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We begin with the 1800s, and while it will be over a hundred years before the term "science fiction" is coined, there is much rich science fiction to be found in this century.
It all began, of course, with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
When the general public today thinks about the term "Frankenstein's 'monster', they think of 'Man dabbling in things he was not meant to know', and of a creation that 'turns against' its creator, as if it were the creation that was evil from the onset and the creator who was good and a put-upon victim. But in reading the novel, one finds quite an opposite tale. Victor Frankenstein creates his creature and then, within seconds of it being 'born,' abandons it..not once but twice.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) is generally credited as the author of the first true science fiction story, with the publication of her first and most popular novel Frankenstein: Or A Modern Prometheus in 1818.
Prior to this time, inanimate objects, such as the Golem, had been brought to life in fantasy tales by magical means. In Frankenstein, Shelley's protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, gives life to his creature through the use of that newly discovered force, electricity.
Without guidance from its creator, without human contact, without love...the creature does turn to violence, but it is more sinned against than sinning. Frankenstein never 'loses control' over his creature...because he never exerted control - or guidance over the creature to begin with.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's mother, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died at her birth. Her father was British philosopher William Godwin, and Mary was brought up in a literary atmosphere, and well educated. She was 17 when she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley (she would marry him two years later on the death of his first wife), 18 when she began writing Frankenstein, 21 when it was published, and at age 25 was left a widow when her husband died in a boating accident.
Shelley continued to write to support herself and her family - her son Percy and her father, William Godwin, although nothing she wrote ever exceeded the fame of Frankenstein. Her only other novel that can be classicied as science fiction is The Last Man, published anonymously in 1826.
Mary Shelley suffered with ill health for the last ten years of her life and died of a brain tumor at the age of 53.
There are two versions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the original that appeared in 3 volumes in 1818, and the "heavily revised" version which appeared in 1831, which is the version widely disseminated today. Victor's description of his creation of the creature - and subsequent abandonment of it - remains the same in both versions:
'It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
'How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!-- Great G--! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.
'The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.
Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created,
I rushed out of the room
At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.
I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the court-yard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.' -- vol.i.pp.97-101.
As 'the mother of science fiction' Mary Shelley deserves pride of place in the pages of The Thunder Child.
Frankenstein is one of the most famous books of all time, and much criticism has already been written about Mary Shelley's life (one must really know of her family situation and of her marriage to Percy Shelley to really appreciate the genesis of Frankenstein, the book, and the adaptations in film and on-stage.)
Nevertheless, The Thunder Child shall provide its own detailed examination of Mary Shelley's life and times, and of her books Frankenstein and The Last Man.
Two websites of interest to Shelley/Frankenstein scholars: