Early Eras: Frankenstein


Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at nineteen. As of this moment the book has 800,000 ratings and over 17,000 reviews on Goodreads. I am super glad the novel I produced at nineteen does not have that kind of exposure. (I also did not invent science fiction, so, good thing Shelley’s got us covered.)

Initially upon reading Frankenstein I’m reminded of The Island of Doctor Moreau: The story begins, not with the guy it’s about, but another guy telling us about the guy it’s about. Frankenstein begins with a man’s letters to his sister about how he’s friendless and on a mission, and while working a ship he fishes up Victor. Then we roll into Chapter 1, now from Frankenstein’s POV, and the man also has a “soft,” compassionate sister and is on a mission. That mission is science, and the result is the monster. The curveball POV has my attention more than that.

Almost eighty years separate Frankenstein and Doctor Moreau, but to a modern reader they might feel contemporaries. With many big classics, I feel, they permeate our culture; we know what they’re about without having to read them. Thus, the reveal, the most interesting part of the story, is buried beneath chapters of exposition that modern sensibilities might find slow. The act of creating life are more or less glossed over, as sfnal elements, in both Moreau and Frankenstein; the fact that it happens has to be intuited in the latter, and it’s explained secondhand to our hapless protagonist in the former.

I use Frankentstein as a benchmark, since it’s good for any sci-fictionist to know their roots. The excellent compendium at HiLobrow has lists of various ages of sci-fi, putting The Last Man and “The Sandman” chronologically before Frankenstein (and, FWIW, both in the pre-Scientific Romance era, which predates the Radium age, which predates the Golden age.) I couldn’t find an easily accessible version of Le Dernier Homme, but quick Googling will find you a copy of ETA Hoffman’s “The Sandman.” If Frankenstein is the birth of sci-fi, this story is called the first detective story. It, too, leans heavily on the correspondence format, its information delivered at a remove, etc. While I haven’t had time to dig into Jane C. Loudon’s The Mummy, it is cool to see a twenty-something British woman taking Shelley’s lead and doing adventure sci-fi as a response, even if the book, by today’s standards, might seem ponderous.

(And now, of course, I need to go down HiLobrow’s list to study the growth of prose in sci-fi.)

As to the “indirectly delivered format,” modern readers want their stories told now, by or related to the people they’re about. Not some guy telling random other guys the story a la Heart of Darkness, or someone writing to a loved one as in Moreau. While reading Moreau and Frankenstein, I thought a little bit of the ultra-polished The Name of the Wind. POV and tense in the Kingkiller Chronicle are an interesting deal, because we have one dude telling another dude a life story, but it’s his own life–it’s just that he’s not exactly that person anymore. We don’t have that remove. I don’t think the modern reader would tolerate that. We do have, it in a sense: Our narrator is diminished enough, and the reader is intrigued as to what turned Kvothe into Kote. There’s an evolution there, of course; the idea of a frame story is used in countless stories across media.

But the novel reminds me of those guys on boats, relating a story that might be interesting, had you been there.