Frankenstein!. Some people, like Brian Aldiss, think it’s the first science fiction novel. Old fashioned scholars of the Gothic hate that SF nerds read it. I remember reading one scholar complain about how she got roped into talking about SF even though she wasn’t interested in it. She made her name as a Frankenstein scholar. So there’s plenty to talk about, at least.
Do you know the story about the story? Frankenstein’s inception is a good story on its own. Mary Shelley and her husband, Percy, hung out with Lord Byron and his doctor, a guy named Polidori. They were hanging out in a cabin in the woods, hiking through the Alps, and started reading German ghost stories to one another. They all decided to write a story like those. Shelley is the only one who pulled it off, and it was Frankenstein she wrote. She said in one of the introductions to the book that she had a dream of the monster, and when she wrote it down it was nearly word-for-word the description of the creature peeping in on Victor in his bed. Polidori actually did get a short story out of the trip, called “The Vampyre.” It’s decent.
That classic story, man. So good. The lightning strike, the abnormal brain, the monster shambling around, failing to form words. It’s powerful.
It’s also not the novel Frankenstein. Oops. None of that’s in the novel. In fact, most people think “Frankenstein” is the creature’s name. That’s the scientist’s name: Victor Frankenstein. The creature never actually gets a name at all, though some people call him “Adam,” since the story of Adam’s creation by God is referenced several times, especially in allusions to Paradise Lost.
I’ve run into some people saying the book’s important but not that good. Aldiss, the guy I mentioned earlier, has even said, “Oh, how magnificent it would have been if she had had such an amazing idea and the talent to see it through.” Yeah, they’re full of crap. The book’s great.
First reason it’s great is the frame structure. There’s a story in a story in a story in a story up in here. The book’s narrated by a guy named Walton, who wants to explore the North Pole. He meets Victor Frankenstein, who’s hunting the creature up there. Victor tells Walton his story, which contains the creature’s story. The creature overheard conversations between the members of the De Lacy family, who listen to the son’s bride, Safie, tell them what happened to her and her fiancé. I think that’s all the stories. It’s like the layers of an onion, you know? Or any layered thing, with layers.
So what happened is that Victor got obsessed with overcoming death because his mom died. And she died because she was stupid. Her adopted daughter, Elizabeth, got scarlet fever, and pulled through. The doctor said, basically, “she will get better, but don’t go in there right now, she’s still contagious. Wait a few more days.” Frankenstein’s mom rushed in immediately, got sick, and then died. Awesome. Victor goes off to school, gets laughed at, shuts himself up and figures out the secret to life. The only details we get are that it has something to do with chemistry. No lightning, alas.
The creature is apparently beautiful, or Victor thinks so – until it comes to life. Then there’s something “wrong” that no one can describe that freaks Victor out. He runs off, abandoning the creature, who proceeds to be woefully misunderstood even as he teaches himself to read and reads some of the greatest classics of European literature (like Paradise Lost, mentioned earlier). The creature even ends up killing Victor’s younger brother. And then his wife – who was his adopted sister. There’s a lot of creepy stuff going on in this book other than stitching bodies together, trust me on this.
Why you should read it
It’s awesome. But more than that, it’s important. If you’re into the history of SF, it’s the first one – or a lot of people say so. Everyone knows about it but few have read it, so you’ll get to be that classy douche who can tell everyone they’re wrong. You know you wanna be that guy. I don’t want you to be that guy, but I can’t help what you want out of life.
It’s also just plain good. Victor is obviously messed and usually doesn’t know it. Authors rarely pull off that mix of someone being stupid and genuinely not getting what’s wrong in their lives. Usually they don’t get it because, if they did, the book would be really short.
It’s a science fiction novel, definitely, but not in the same way as an Asimov or Lem novel. It’s about the difference between life and death, and moreso about where our identities come from. Are they hardwired in us? Can we be inherently good or evil? Or do we learn more from how we’re brought up?
It’s pretty short, too. A final piece of advice: read the first edition, the 1818 version. The other common one is the 1831 version, which Shelley messed with after losing most of her children and her husband. It’s a lot firmer, more direct, and thus less entertaining. Where the first book asks the questions, the second version says, “we’re all fucked. Fate hates us and directs our every move.” The first version isn’t cheerful, but it’s nothing like the 1831. Jeez. You’d think a string of bad, poor-selling novels after her first would cheer her up.