Remember, this isn’t required reading, but review the notes in order to have some context for this extremely important science fiction text.
- Automation at Work from Charlotte Talks
- Mary Shelley’s Inspiration
- Frankenstein and Science
- Shelley’s Warning
Birth of Science Fiction
There are hundreds of ways to approach Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If this were strictly a literature class, we’d probably focus on the theme of humanness, love, hubris, and romanticism. If this were a Religious Studies class, we’d probably focus on the obvious warnings about playing god and the religious allusions throughout the novel. If this were a History class, we’d probably focus on the conditions under which Shelley wrote her novel.
Well, we’ll start with the historical approach, so you can learn a little about the events of 1815-1817 and what might have inspired such a story. Frankenstein is often credited as being the first science fiction novel, and, being a science fiction narrative, the novel has science and/or technology as a major component shaping its plot. Obviously, to a 21st Century audience, much of this seems magical and fantastic and not science-based. Because this course is trying to provide a humanistic perspective on science and technology, you’ll need to re-instrumentalize (that is a reference form the original Evangelion TV series) yourselves to read the novel as an artist’s interpretation of life in the nascent Industrial Revolution, a time of much technological change.
They might be Giants
I saw a movie during a Sherlock Holmes film series (conducted by the great film professor, Sam Shapiro) that had an interesting reference to science. The quote from the movie made me think about how discoveries are often pursued along unlikely paths. Maybe Victor Frankenstein is ahead of his time because the other scientists aren’t thinking radically enough. Let’s read the quote from the film They Might be Giants. In the novel Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes, the eponymous character would attack windmills and get tossed on his back. This isn’t directly relevant to the scientific method, but it does suggest that occasionally one has to radically rethink convention to advance.
1816, The Year without a Summer
Summer, turned upside down
Summer, summer, summer
With a Frankenstein around
I saw him out at midnight
All nasty and gross
High altitude lightning flashin’
A murderous green glow
–The Cars [alternative lyrics to “Magic”]
Is it possible to have a year without a summer? Sure. And climatologists warn of years with only summers if we don’t curb fossil fuel use, but we’re too self-centered and short-sighted to do anything to change that, so I’ll focus our attention on the warning we’ll most likely ignore.
Mary Shelley started writing her novel while on vacation to Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816, which has been dubbed “The Year without a Summer.” Let’s consider events prior to this non-summer.
- 1783: American Revolutionary War, which the French monarchy supported, ends with the Treaty of Paris
- 1789: Parisians storm the Bastille prison on July 14th, a beginning of the French Revolution
- 1792: Revolutionaries say no to monarchy on August 10th (not a good for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette)
- 1792: Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley’s mother) publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
- 1793: Louis XVI loses his head over the French Revolution on January 21…Marie loses her October 16th
- 1797: Mary Wollstonecraft dies shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Mary Godwin
- 1809: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin born on February 12
- 1814: Mary Godwin marries Percy Shelley, a famous English poet and political follower of Mary’s father
- 1815: Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender (in June, ending the Napoleonic Wars)
- 1816: Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron “vacationed” in Lake Geneva
- 1818: Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein
- 1822: Percy Shelley drowns
- 1831: Mary Shelley publishes a revised version of Frankenstein
- 1851: Mary Shelley dies of a suspected brain tumor
- 2017: Dr. Toscano assigns A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to his ENGL 6166 class
- 2018: Dr. Toscano recommends (but doesn’t assign) Frankenstein to his AMST/ENGL “Science Fiction in American Culture” class
And the Volcano… (I don’t know where I’m gonna go / When the volcano blow)
1815: Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupts on April 10th, killing 90,000 people in the region
- The eruption sends gas and ash into the Stratosphere, where winds take the matter around the globe
- The particulate matter contributes to a 3-6 degree drop in temperature
- The temperature drop causes tremendous amounts of crop failure
- The food shortage leads to famine and civil unrest
- Oak trees in the Northeastern US have a missing ring, signaling zero tree growth
- The US Midwest isn’t as affected and farmers move there for better agriculture
Here are some other discussions of this:
- “The Volcano That Shrouded the Earth and Gave Birth to a Monster”
- “The Epic Volcano Eruption that Led to the ‘Year Without a Summer’”
Anxieties Europeans Felt
Although the volcano affected much of the world, it hit Europe at a time of tremendous political, social, scientific, and technological change. It wasn’t just nature revolting. Citizens felt a dis-ease with the rate of change and worried that their pursuits might be getting out of hand. For instance, the French Revolution started as a small uprising that led to major changes. Once the revolutionary forces were unleashed, they were difficult to contain…many heads rolled.
One could say the Revolution was a golem.
By the way, the Dr. Darwin Shelley mentions in her Letter at the beginning of her book refers to Erasmus Darwin (who died in 1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin.