I hate fiction.
I read Moby-Dick, finally, after several tries, and I didn’t hate it. Not completely. That, plus my daughter’s English assignment, plus hearing a speaker at a recent conference reference it, encouraged me to take another crack at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a Modern Prometheus.
Like Moby-Dick, Frankenstein was a book I’d started many times but never finished. I knew the basic plot, of course, and was attracted to the idea of the struggle of creation and creator that the book promised. Certainly many science fiction plots, such as Isaac Asimov’s robot stories and many of the Data story lines on Star Trek TNG explored these ideas. So I gave it another try, and this time I finished it.
This novel is so poorly written I’m surprised anyone bothered to keep a copy. While the premise (scientist plays God, his creation starts thinking for itself) is clearly a subject rich in possibility, the rest of the novel beyond that germ of an idea is an utter waste of time.
We are first subjected to the story of some arctic explorer, via a series of inane letters he sends to his sister. The details of their lives, spelled out in, well, detail, are dull as dishwater and have nothing to do with the plot. A few pages in, finally, this explorer picks up some lost wanderer who turns out to be, you guessed it, Victor Frankenstein himself. Most of the rest of the book is Frankenstein telling his story to the explorer, who is then writing it down to send to his sister. Got it?
Frankenstein goes into the details of all his friends and relations, again stultifyingly boring stuff, until finally we get to what we’ve been waiting for. Victor goes off to the university to become a scientist. He becomes interested in the chemistry of life. He studies for a while and then one day he creates an eight-foot-tall person (with pearly white teeth and yellow eyes).
You might think I’m simplifying a bit there, but no. That’s about as much description as we get. There’s no castle, no cool electrical devices, no lightning storm, no midnight grave robbing, no hunchback named Igor to fetch a brain from “A.B. Normal”. There’s just, suddenly, without any buildup or explanation, a living being that Victor somehow created (in his apartment, no less!)
That’s a little tongue-in-cheek. I don’t particularly need the Hollywood version of Frankenstein, although I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it, either. But if this book is really supposed to mark the birth of science fiction, can’t you give me even one sciencey idea? A single Jacob’s Ladder? How about a Leyden Jar, at least?
But no, the creature is just there. And (what’s much worse), just as quickly, the creature is gone. Frankenstein does all this work, and then when the creature is finished, he takes one look at the monster’s yellow eyes and decided he doesn’t really want to play anymore. Victor goes to take a nap or something, and the next time he checks, the creature is gone!
What the *#^&!?!! Seriously? You’re one of the world’s best scientists, you’ve created the first synthetic human being in history, and you just let him go? Aren’t you the least bit curious about your creation? At that point in the book, I lost all interest in Victor Frankenstein and was just counting the pages until he got his. It was a lot of pages.
From there the book devolves into a series of fortunate (or tragic, depending on your point of view) coincidences. The creature just happens to find Victor’s notes in his coat pocket. He learns to speak by peeking through a wall at some peasant family for over a year (remember, he’s over eight feet tall and knows essentially nothing, yet evades detection while spying through a chink in a wall).
He teaches himself to read after finding a copy of Paradise Lost somewhere or other. Then he remembers the papers in his pocket and learns about his creator, whom he now hates. He goes off to find Frankenstein, and just happens to run into Frankenstein’s younger brother (whom he kills) and a family friend (whom he deftly frames for the murder). And on and on.
Keep in mind that this is the explorer, writing what Frankenstein told him, who is in turn relating what the creature told him. And even the creature’s story involves sub-plots upon sup-plots that once again have precious little to do with the story. My high school creative writing teacher would have run out of red ink.
The worst part of the book, though, is what it isn’t. When Frankenstein and the creature finally meet face to face, instead of an existential exploration of the meaning of life, the rights of the created, or the responsibility of the creator, all we get is a half-baked idea for Frankenstein to build a bride for the creature. Eventually, after dithering around here and there, Victor changes his mind, and more carnage ensues. Blah blah.
The sub-title “a Modern Prometheus” is the part that really bugs me. Prometheus stole fire from the gods. He gave it to humans. He showed the power of learning, of science, to alter the world, to give us the ability to control our own destinies against the wishes of the powers that be. For this, Prometheus was punished with eternal torture. I’d hoped Frankenstein and/or the creature might have explored this idea of gaining knowledge despite the dangers inherent in it (after all, fire burns, but it also cooks delicious bratwurst!) Instead, Shelley seems to reinterpret the Prometheus story. “You know that whole fire thing? Maybe not such a good idea, after all.” Go soak your romantic head, Mary Shelley, and enjoy your raw bratwurst.
Finally we get to the end of the book and Victor dies peacefully aboard the explorer’s ship. A little later the creature comes in and we have a final disappointing scene where the creature laments how it all turned out. Have some cheese with your whine, crybaby.
I suppose you can see the whole thing as an allegory. Mary Shelley was clearly saying that there are things best left unknown, and that we humans shouldn’t play God. I, of course, disagree with both those sentiments. I think all evil results from a lack of knowledge, and I believe that “playing God” would involve pretending that you don’t exist. But just because I disagree with a writer’s point of view doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy her writing. Shelley could have told a tale I disagreed with, but she could have done it brilliantly. She didn’t.
Stick to the Mel Brooks’ version, with Jacob’s Ladders galore.
No more fiction for a while. I’m currently reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and so far it is excellent. Shelley would have hated it.