We began class by discussing some of the psychological explanations for Mary Shelley's story. As Lorne Macdonald writes in our edition's introduction, "Frankenstein is a book whose roots go deep into the psyche" (11). We discussed a number of psychological issues, particularly those revolving around the act of female reproduction, since a number of elements tie in to this issue, both in the story and in Mary Shelley's life: the dream Mary Shelley has of her dead baby (see p. 11); the death of Mary's mother soon after her own birth; the dream about the creation of the monster that Elizabeth describes in her 1831 Introduction (364); Victor's dream of his fiancée, Elizabeth, turning into the rotting corpse of his mother (86), immediately following his "birthing" of the monster; the fact that, in creating the monster, Victor is seeking to usurp the female power of reproduction (see, for example, the bottom of p. 82); the fact that Victor rips up the monster's companion with his bare hands because of the fear of her ability to reproduce; even Mary Shelley's description of her own work in her Introduction: "I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days" (365). Could we also say that the monster acts out some of Victor's most repressed unconscious desires, thus functioning as a doppelgänger for Victor. Due to Victor's rather incredible misreading of the monster's warning (I will be with you on your wedding-night!) Victor could be said to make his dream come true. That is, in the end, through the monster's murder of Elizabeth, Victor does "embrace" the dead corpse of Elizabeth on p. 220. Could it be that Victor is not far off when he cries out on p. 122, "I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer."
I followed this discussion with an introduction to the important historical changes that were occurring in Shelley's day, with a mind to the following question: "why does the first ever science-fiction story appear in this particular time period?" I described the eighteenth century and the major elements of that period: emphasis placed on the status quo; the power of the aristocracy after the Reformation; the valuation of order, decorum, etiquette; the importance of self-presentation; desire to control nature, emotion, the body; neo-classical architecture, with an emphasis on order, balance, symmetry; the heroic couplet, with similar values; Newton; the Great Chain of Being; the clockmaker God.
I then suggested some of the major changes occurring around the Romantic period that threatened the values of the previous period (click here for a time-line of the period), including:
- The American Revolution begins in 1775; the Declaration of Indepedence is drafted in 1776.
- The French Revolution (1789), which led (in France) to the execution of the king and also aided the subsequent rise of the middle classes. The fact of the revolution in France led many in England to fear a similar revolution in Britain, either by the middle classes or, worse, the lower classes. The developing madness of King George in England throughout this period did not help in bolstering the image of the aristocracy in the minds of the English.
- The rise of the middle classes in England as the nation became increasingly reliant for its wealth on industry and business. This fact also led, of course, to the rise of capitalism as the predominant way to conceive of business relations.
- The Industrial Revolution and the related changes occurring in the exploration of the physical world, which increasingly ushered in our modern forms of medicine and science.
- Urbanization: as industry became the major money-maker in the nineteenth century and as new machines made farm labour less necessary, people entered the cities in droves to begin working in factories and sweat shops. The resulting pollution led to the "London fog," which was really the result of coal pollution mixing with the humidity in the air.
- Increasing literacy rates: more and more middle-class men, middle-class women and even lower-class people were learning how to read. This expansion of the reading audience made it possible for our modern mass market to become possible. That is, the book industry could now make a profit by selling inexpensive books to an extremely large number of consumers. This change is made possible by both the increase in literacy rates and the new technologies (Stanhope iron press, Fourdrinier continuous paper-making machine, pulp paper, Plaster-of-Paris method of stereotyping) that made possible the production of cheap books in mass quantities.
The final question that we explored was: "what does all this have to do with science fiction?" We thus began to discuss why this generic form first comes to the fore in this period. Here are some of the reasons that were suggested, plus a couple that I offer up myself:
1) It was suggested by Craig Stalbaum and Rocky Moore that the rise of science made science fiction possible for the first time, since science offered possible explanations for events that seem beyond the parameters of our quotidian lives (to recall our definition of science fiction from the very first class). Since the nineteenth century saw the rise of modern science, it would make sense that a genre would appear to represent its possibilities and limitations. Science fiction thus amounts to a novelization of scientific hypotheses. Levi Haynes added that so many changes were occurring so quickly in this time period that science fiction was a way to deal with them by anticipating new possibilities.
2) Annora Gammans brilliantly suggested that we might, in fact, see science fiction as a combination of realism and Romanticism, since, although the events that occur in science fiction's diegesis must be believable, the genre of science fiction seeks to go beyond the parameters of our known, quotidian lives, much in the same way that the Romantic poets sought to escape the quotidian (through extreme emotions, extreme natural landscapes [the sublime], drug-induced fantasies, the search for the transcendent, etc.). Mary Shelley underlines this alignment by casting her Romantic hero, Victor Frankenstein, as a scientist. By the same token, science fiction more closely resembles realist fiction than fantasy; indeed, both genres come into being at the same time around the turn of the nineteenth century. What Percy Shelley, for example, is trying to do in the Preface to Frankenstein is to conceive of a realistic version of the fantastical elements one normally finds in mythology, fantasy, or religious literature.
3) Urbanization and its critique led to a genre that continued this critique in an alternate form, particularly through the sub-genre of dystopic fiction. This reason also ties in to Annora's thesis since the Romantic critique of science, of the industrial revolution, of urbanization, of the loss of emotion among city-dwellers would all be picked up, in fact, by future science-fiction works, particularly by the genre of dystopic fiction.
Other possibilities that you might consider:
4) As Northrop Frye suggests in his definition of allegory, the rise of science and the concomitant crisis in religious faith ended up spelling the end of allegorical fiction. However, could we not argue that science fiction nonetheless came to exist as a last place where one could critique, in an allegorical way, the limitations and dangers of science?
5) My Maymester class offered up another intriguing possibility. As Phillip Wang brilliantly suggested in that class, perhaps one reason that science fiction appeared at this time is precisely because of the nineteenth-century crisis of faith. Science, that is, could be said to replace religion by this point in history; one even begins to ask science those questions formerly addressed to God. Rob Kopenec in that class concurred, saying that science has become a substitute for faith; it is now science that one takes "on faith" as the solution to all our problems. Phillip suggested that the vaccination itself, one of the major scientific discoveries that preceded the writing of Frankenstein, could be seen as a direct challenge to God, who in the Old Testament often brought down plague and disease as a sign of His divine wrath. Brian Remich in that class suggested that a manifestation of this trend is the very term "God complex," which is applied to doctors. Science fiction abounds with examples of this alignment of religion and science: the X-Files has Fox Mulder hold on to a faith in extraterrestrials as a response, perhaps, to his profound atheism ("I want to believe") whereas the supra-rational Scully feels the need to support herself in time of need with a profound religious faith. The film and book, Contact, makes a similar alignment between extra-terrestrial contact and religious transcendence while the Heaven's Gate mass suicide near Los Angeles presents us with an all-too-real additional example. We could say that perhaps the major difference between science fiction and fantasy is that in fantasy gods still exist.
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