Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Frankenstein: A Monster of Gothicism and Science

I have been thinking about the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). It has been called the first science fiction novel, but Frankenstein is also, obviously, a Gothic romance that originated in a contest to write a ghost story. Like the monster itself, Frankenstein is an assembly, part one thing and part another. I haven't been able to reconcile those two parts, but I think I have figured out another problem to do with the origins of science fiction.

In reading about the development of the Gothic romance, I was surprised to learn that it has been interpreted as a reaction to the rationalism of the eighteenth century. That confused me, as I have associated Romanticism--of which Gothicism must be a part--with the liberalism and chaos of the French Revolution. I guess that's where I made my mistake. Likewise, I have associated Neoclassicism with the conservative, rational, and orderly periods of pre-revolutionary Europe, the American Revolution, and the post-revolutionary periods in Europe and America. There are some associations there, but Neoclassicism isn't so easily opposed to Romanticism, while conservatism may not even belong on that list. If you consider the dichotomy of the Dionysian vs. the Apollonian, it gets even more complicated, and maybe the theorizing starts to fall apart.

Anyway, in regards to Frankenstein, I thought: How can a Gothic romance be the first work of science fiction? I may be getting closer to an answer to that question, but it makes sense to me now that the roots of science fiction--and progressivism--are in reason and rationalism. (Maybe also in Neoclassicism or the Apollonian.) If we're working with opposites, then fantasy, weird fiction, and supernatural horror--together the genres of Gothicism, or, alternatively, the genres that look to the past--must be rooted, like conservatism, in the non-rational or anti-rational, the Romantic, the Medieval, and maybe even the Dionysian. (That list doesn't hold together very well, either, but then it's harder to theorize about conservatism, which is by nature anti-theoretical.) The natural form, then, for science fiction would be the novel, whereas the natural form for the Gothic story is the romance.

So Frankenstein seems to me a Romantic work, an inspiration for other Romantic works, and--together with other Gothic romances--a lead-in to the Gothic genres of fantasy, weird fiction, and supernatural horror. As I have said all along, those genres look to the past and by temperament are conservative. Science fiction, on the other hand, being about the future, tends to be progressive in its view and in its aims. By this analysis it is descended from the rationalism of the eighteenth century and--whether we like it or not--from the forces that brought about the French Revolution and eventually the Russian Revolution.

But what if science fiction has a Gothic strain as well? Edgar Allan Poe is supposed to have been the originator of science fiction in America. Peter Viereck considered him conservative in some ways. He was without doubt a Romantic. His stories--full of black cats; old, dark houses; living corpses; and other such trappings--is also without a doubt Gothic. So if the first science fiction novel was actually a Gothic romance, and the originator of science fiction in America was a conservative Romantic, my question remains: How can these things be reconciled? And is there really the divide that we imagine separating the scientific from the Gothic?

Science fiction in its first century and more (1818-1920s) was, like Frankenstein's monster, an assembly, part science and part romance. The nascent genre was even called scientific romance in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then came the scientific fiction, Scientifiction (1915, 1926), and finally science fiction (1929) of Hugo Gernsback, followed by the hard science fiction of the Golden Age under John W. Campbell, Jr. As it evolved, science fiction developed higher aspirations, to be taken seriously as literature, to be novelistic rather than romantic. That may have been true at no time more than in the 1960s or '70s. Then, in the early '80s, Romanticism I think seems to have revived--like Frankenstein's monster--with the arrival of a new kind of romance, written by a new romancer.

Now, on to William Gibson.

Frankenstein (Halcyon House, 1932) with illustrations by Nino Carbe (1909-1993), later an animator with Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, and DePatie-Freleng.

Frankenstein in a paperback edition from 1953. Evidently there wasn't any novel that could not receive the redhead-with-cleavage treatment from paperback and pulp publishers. 

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. There's a lot to mull over here, and I haven't composed all my thoughts or double-checked my sources, so this is off the cuff.

    Brian Aldiss, in his Billion Year Spree, did argue that sf was an offshoot of the gothic and named Frankenstein as the first sf novel.

    James Gunn, in Alternate Worlds, thought that novel still more part of the gothic tradition than sf.

    I think Shelley's forword, talking about the artistic advantages of distorting reality to highlight one aspect of the world, makes it arguably sf since I think she hit on one of the advantages of writing sf. Especially when it was linked to the rationalizing mechanism of the science of the period.

    I think Poe is a strong contender as one of the founders of sf. He influenced Jules Verne immensely. Yes, his famous stories are gothic, but there is a strong element of rationalized wonder and investigation in "Descent into the Maelstrom", "Five Weeks in a Balloon", "The Case of M. Valdemar". The strong element of "rationcination" in his work led to the detective story and sf.

    Back to Aldiss, he divided sf into two poles. One of them was the "dreaming" pole represented by Lovecraft who Aldiss didn't think wrote real sf.

    I would disagree. Lovecraft married the affect of the Gothic to modern science and materialism to produce a new strain of sf. (Or, arguably, shape that strain more than anyone else if he didn't invent it.)

    As to "conservatism" -- that's a surprisingly hard concept to nail down. There are a lot of people who call themselves conservative, but it's hard to nail down any philosophy towards government or society they share. The only thing I've come up with as a "litmus test" is a devotion to localized power and government as much as possible -- and that's even arguable (think "big government conservatives").

    I'll bring up Jerry Pournelle again. He argued, in his doctoral dissertation in political science, that "conservative" and "liberal" were not very useful relics left over from the French Revolution. Instead, he proposed two axes of:anarchy-totalitarianism and anti-rational-rational. (There's more info on the wiki for "Pournelle Chart".)

    1. Dear Marzaat,

      I'm with you--there's a lot to mull over. It's hard to figure it all out.

      If Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe wrote science fiction, it would have been during the early stages of science. People were beginning to think in more scientific ways, but it didn't come easily to them the way it does to us, who are immersed in science and a scientific worldview. Galvanism (Frankenstein) and mesmerism ("The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar") were two ideas reaching towards science, but they weren't there just yet, just as the natural philosophy of the early 1800s wasn't quite science yet. So maybe Shelley and Poe wrote proto-science fiction, approaching the rational and scientific, but still heavily influenced by Gothicism and Romanticism (and almost certainly not materialist in orientation). I think of Frankenstein as more Gothic than rational.

      In this series, I'm moving towards the idea that science fiction (except for maybe Cambellian or hard science fiction) and Gothicism or Romanticism are not easily separable from each other. Maybe they're on the same continuum and one just blends into the other. I'll write more on that later.

      I think conservatism is hard to nail down because it's not theoretical. You might not even call it a philosophy. In my view, conservatism is just the way people live when they are free: speaking freely, associating freely, engaging in economic activity freely, and perhaps most importantly living in families with strong connections to the past and to what has been tried and found to be true.

      Definitions tend to get in the way, though. In Europe, the words "liberal" and "conservative" mean different things than what they do here. Europeans (the British excluded) don't have any experience with constitutional conservatism. To them, conservatism is the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church. Likewise, we don't have any experience with their brand of reactionary conservatism: no monarchy, no aristocracy, no state or official Church. In Europe, "liberal" I think means liberal in the classical sense: liberal arts, liberal values, liberal democracy, etc. Here "liberal" means something else.

      I don't see anarchy and totalitarianism as being on opposite ends of a spectrum, for both are based on theories or systems. The rational-anti-rational spectrum sounds more plausible, but even anti-rationalism sounds like a theoretical, hence rational, idea. "Non-rational" or "irrational" might be better, but even then, putting ideas on a spectrum or continuum is an exercise in rationalism.

      Yeah, it's hard to figure it all out.

      Thanks for writing.


    2. It occurs to me that there is one more thing Poe brought to the genre's development that Shelley didn't: a refusal to write moral tales.

      Poe famously eschewed didactic fiction (though he wrote satire but it seems more on the foibles of fashion than politically motivated). Frankenstein had a moral point. I'm not sure about Shelley's The Last Man.

      Poe famously was all about the unity of effect, the wonder, which obviously made possible all those non-political, non-moral stories that just delight in the "what if" of aliens, alien worlds, science, and gadgets.