Thursday, January 5, 2017

Feed My Frankenstein

I've been wanting to take a swing at the popular idea of Frankstein being the first science fiction book ever since I started digging into the French tradition of science fiction.  However, Kevyn Winkless over at the Castalia House blog beat me to it, and constructed a better argument against it than the one I was working on.
But so far we have really been talking about the roots of science fiction – the stories from our distant past that contain the key elements, but that in many cases don’t combine them in the way we would normally define as science fiction. So did it really take until Shelley’s masterpiece for the pieces to snap together to create modern science fiction?
As with everything, it depends on your definition.
Looking backwards on the literature of the past and measuring it against the Campbelline work of the 1940s and 1950s, it’s easy to see how Frankenstein gets placed as the cornerstone of modern SF. But that would be looking with very narrow eyes. In reality, the Renaissance and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution were hotbeds of exactly the kind of untrammeled enthusiasm for technology, the future, and exploration that fuelled the Penny Dreadfuls, the Pulps, and the Campbell Era, and it really shows in the literature.
It might well be a bit of a stretch to call The Tempest a mad scientist story as some do[15] and Bacon’s New Atlantis is similarly difficult to see as SF despite being set in the future, but there are definitely some excellent examples of stories that could be published today, with just a bit of polish to bring the writing up to modern tastes for style.
Although it was written in 1608, it isn’t until 1638 when we see Kepler’s “space travel” story Somnium[16] in which, while there are fantastic elements (the protagonist’s mother is apparently a witch, and the source of her power and the means by which they travel are demons) there is a great deal of scientific detail, and hints of technology – including hibernation to protect humans travelling through space, and an effort to imagine a way to carry atmosphere along with travellers in space.[17]
In 1666 Margaret Cavendish publishes her novel The Blazing World in which her heroine discovers a gateway in the arctic that leads to a world populated by strange animal-creatures, who promptly invade Earth complete with submarines and aerial bombardment.[18] This tale is particularly interesting since the structure and content is echoed by the “lost world discovered” fantastic stories of the late 19th Century and early 20thCentury, such as those popularized in Argosy and Weird Tales.
Not only has Kevyn traced the roots of hard science fiction into the 1600s (that's almost 200 years earlier than what my meager research attempts found), he attempts to explain why Frankenstein's supporters for the first SF novel might have leapt to their conclusions:
Finally though, I think Shelley’s greatest advantage is that she wrote right at the beginning of a revolution in printing technology. The lithograph had been invented only two decades earlier in 1796, and a continuous paper-making process had been invented and was being perfected in the decade before.  Books were getting cheaper, and print runs were getting bigger. Reach was increasing rapidly as more and more people had access to affordable books. Indeed, by the mid-1800s, paper had become cheap enough that the printing industry was starting to revolutionize society.
So maybe the idea of Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel is a little exaggerated, considering the deep history behind it. But the book sits at the cusp of the technological and literary explosion that led inexorably to the literary magazines of the 1890s onwards.
Sitting as it does at the very edge of the watershed, I suppose it makes sense for people to focus on Mary Shelley’s work as a landmark in the literary terrain – a kind of tower on the horizon that shows us the way back to where we came from.
I expect that there is a certain amount of Venus-worship in the choice as well, with the current campaigns to make SF more friendly to women (typically meant of the Leftist, feminist sort). However, some of the appeal must be because it's Frankenstein, one of the true myths of the modern age, who, 199 years after publication, is still haunting our dreams as one of the most beloved monsters of all time.  And if Shelley did not write the first science fiction novel, she wrote one of its most influential and claimed the bigger prize.

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