Posts Tagged ‘Mary Shelley’

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

February 21, 2018

51GET68hBaL._AC_US218_41oH4CCckML._AC_US218_It’s 200 years this year since Mary Shelley‘s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein was first published. I have memories of teaching it at GCSE, in an interesting coursework task that involved students having to compare a pre and post-1914 text, so I paired Shelley’s novel up with Daniel KeyesFlowers for Algernon and had students explore the question of scientists’ responsibilities, as well as how the narratives were presented and developed.

I have always thought Frankenstein counted as science fiction: the writer explores an idea that does not exist in our world but that perhaps might one day; scientists were already experimenting then with the effects of electric currents on limbs and muscles. Shelley creates the scientist’s excitement at achieving something never done before – the creation of life in the laboratory. She was treading on sensitive and controversial ground, just as Darwin was to do a couple of generations later, meddling in God’s territory, as it was then thought to be. But the centre of her novel is not what the scientist does and achieves, but what he overlooks…

Victor Frankenstein forgets – or doesn’t even begin to think about – the fact that when he creates new life he creates a human being that will have wants and needs, hopes and desires just like any other, and when that creature is limited in what he can do and have by his physical repulsiveness to others, he resents this bitterly and reacts against it in unexpected ways…

Shelley realises, early on in the days of scientific progress, that a scientist does not work in a vacuum, that scientists change the potential of our world, and that responsibilities are attached to such changes. Scientists today are very much apt to be ignorant of just this; scientists prostitute themselves in the service of governments and multinational corporations without regard to the consequences of what they do. There is the excitement of pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, which I can understand and sympathise with, but knowledge is not value-neutral. And there is the rather pathetic response often proffered: well, if I didn’t do it, someone else would…

And so there are scientists who earn their daily bread by developing undetectable anti-personnel mines in bright colours that attract children to pick them up, scientists that work on ways of making highly profitable edible goods that bear no resemblance to food and we know it and are positively bad for people’s health… I could go on.

And yet, Shelley forces her hero to interact with his creation: the two cannot be separated, as the creature pursues its creator, demanding that he take responsibility for what he has made, who he has made, and Victor Frankenstein is brought to face the complexity of what his creature has asked him to do, its repercussions, his full responsibility. We know how it ends: I often wish some of today’s scientists and engineers might share the consequences of their work..

Frankenstein is a novel, and for me it has its flaws: the pace and the written style is hectic and exhausting to read, with the emotional pitch sustained at a very high level for too long. It is, however, very cleverly structured, with layers of narrative nested within each other like the layers of an onion, as the reader is distanced from characters and events. And it has that superb and haunting ending, so brilliantly filmed in the original screen version in the 1930s, of creator and creature inseparable in the Arctic wastes…

Mary Shelley’s foray into what we now call science fiction did not end with Frankenstein: for me, The Last Man is much better, a novel which looks two centuries into the future to late twenty-first century republican Britain, laid waste by a disease which wipes out all of the human race except one man.

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On buying experiences…

August 25, 2017

A few years ago I noticed that it was possible to buy a cardboard box in W H Smith, which ‘contained’ the gift of an experience that you could present someone with: a balloon flight, a day as an F1 driver, and suchlike. At the time I though this was a fairly barmy idea, but recently something linked the purchase of such a box with the purchase of a book – both of which can be done in the above-mentioned shop – in my mind, and set me thinking.

For, what am I doing when I buy a book, if not purchasing an experience? True, I don’t actually go up in a balloon (Gott sei dank!) or onto a racetrack, but I do experience, through the mind of a skilled writer and the characters s/he creates, or indeed through their own travels, something which I may not have been through myself, or indeed would not wish too. And it can be a one-off experience, too, if I only choose to read the book once, or it can be repeated over and over again at no extra cost if I wish to re-live it…

I’ve always been fascinated when following Robinson Crusoe‘s adventures on his island, often pictured myself in his place, as I suspect some of you may have: how would I arranged my island, its caves and fortifications if I were to be marooned on a desert island? what would I do with my time? Similarly, when I read Mary Shelley‘s The Last Man, I imagine myself as the sole survivor of the species on the planet… where would I travel? what would I do with the treasures of my species? where would I finally choose to spend my days? And there are lots of similar examples. On the other hand, I’ve only ever read once Knut Hamsun‘s novel Hunger, which describes in meticulous detail the feelings and experiences of a man as he starves to death, or Andre Schwarz-Bart‘s The Last of the Just where the last of a centuries-long line of Jews perishes in the gas chamber at Auschwitz: experiences I’ve no desire to revisit.

Yet I’ve read and re-read numerous novels involving characters involved in all sorts of warswars, imprisoned in Stalin’s gulag, concentration camps, enduring various apocalyptic scenarios… but I have always recoiled from watching horror films. I have asked myself what’s going on here, and can only think that I don’t mind horrific experiences at several removes; safely away from the visual, or actual involvement of course, I’m quite content to explore a whole range of experiences… so basically a coward, then.

The end of the world

August 12, 2016

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is, I suggested in my last piece, possibly the first disaster novel. I found myself wondering why it should appear at that particular moment, why she should come to consider the prospect of something more powerful than humankind bringing our species to its end.41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_

H G Wells did something similar when he faced the world with Martians in The War of the Worlds; humanity was saved not by our efforts or powers but by microbes. M P Shiel considered the destruction of the human race in The Purple Cloud near the beginning of the twentieth century. But it’s only really since the invention and first use of nuclear weapons that the apocalyptic novel has come into its own.51qfsKHY-yL._AC_US160_51gGBhD5N6L._AC_US160_

And Shelley’s novel is different in another way: she kills off all of humanity bar one: Verney is the last man and has the two final chapters of the book to try and begin to come to terms with this; even Shiel’s hero, if my memory serves me correctly, eventually finds a companion, of the opposite sex, too, so that all can begin again. But to be the last one? Of course, never to be certain, too, for in the vastness of the world how could a single man ever check the entire rest of the planet to be sure? Why would one waste time and sanity searching?

There is a power and an attractiveness in the concept, surely, as Shelley realises, for every reader can and surely will substitute her/himself for the hapless hero of her novel: what would we do in the circumstances? Where would we go? Would we travel or settle? How might we retain our sanity? At the end of the novel, Verney sets off in his little boat to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, clinging for safety to the coastline, hoping against hope that he might meet someone…

When I was teaching, there was a novel (written for teenage readers) by Robert O’Brien called Z for Zachariah, about a young girl who is perhaps the only survivor of a nuclear and biological war which destroys the USA, apart from her small valley with its own isolated microclimate which protects her from fallout and the rest: she must survive on her own, and the focus is on the practicalities of this, a factor which occurs not at all to Mary Shelley: everything in her novel is there for the taking… In class we would explore for a while the logistics of survival – water, food, clothing, shelter, health and sanity, and whether it would all be worthwhile; we had some very interesting discussions; no two classes ever reacted in the same way, and there were many interesting and creative responses to the end of O’Brien’s novel.51YZEEACBYL._AC_US160_

There is wonderful material for fantasy in the idea that one could have the whole world to oneself: choice of house or home, country; one could go anywhere and help oneself to anything one needed, indulging oneself materially, at least. One could go on an orgy of destruction as did Shiel’s hero… and one would have, in the end, to face the same question as did Defoe’s isolated hero with only a small island for his home: what is the point of it all? Defoe’s hero turns to his God for help and reads his Bible – which of course he rescued from the wreck – nowadays we, I think, are probably more likely to revel in playing God in such circumstances…

Mary Shelley: The Last Man

August 12, 2016

41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_I think this is the fourth time I’ve read or listened to this strangely compelling novel. It’s so much better than Frankenstein, more leisurely paced, with more ideas and more complex characters, though still painfully overblown in the romantic strain in places. But what fascinates me most is that, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first ‘end of the world as we know it’ novel in history. (Do correct me if you know different!)

The Last Man is set in the closing decades of our current century, and ranges widely through different and challenging ideas: the future of England and how it is to be ruled, and its eventually becoming a republic when the heir to the throne steps down (though Parliament eventually votes him Lord Protector), and then the gradual disappearance of humanity with the world ravaged by seven successive years of bubonic plague.

The central characters are a group of friends centred around the ex-royal family of England and their associates; there are also various intermarriages and children, and we follow their lives, happinesses and ultimate fates over quite a lengthy period of time, which allows Shelley to develop real characters, feelings and attitudes.

As with any attempt to see far into the future, she too has problems, particularly with technology. She was looking two hundred and fifty years into the future, and yet cannot conceive of the world itself as radically different politically from her own time, so Greece’s attempts to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire still figure prominently in the 2050s, while we hear very little of ‘the Americas’, and a love of Italy still looms large, as it did in the late eighteenth century. England is pictured as a relatively prosperous, if not semi-utopian land, and yet Shelley cannot conceive of any kind of industrial or technological progress, which surprises me, since she imagined Frankenstein’s experiments and achievements: travel is still largely by horse (when people actually need to travel), although apparently there are some Montgolfier balloon-type airships for use when speed is required, or in case of emergency. Otherwise we might well still be in 1800… England is not an industrial nation – nowhere is.

But, of course, it’s not hard science she’s interested in here, in contrast to Frankenstein; she is considering humanity under threat from an unseen enemy – plague. Medicine does not seem to have made any advances in the intervening centuries either, so the disease sweeps all before it, and all that it’s possible to do is manage the catastrophe and the depopulation. There are episodes of great heroism and also cowardice as the inevitable end approaches; the last band of 1500 English people set off for better climes in Europe, but give way to rivalries and are beset by religious mania; eventually we come to focus on the last four survivors, and then finally there is one, all alone.

I make it seem rather banal, describing it baldly thus, whereas Shelley does make us care about her characters and their fates, and does get us thinking about humanity’s reaction to total calamity; it is a compelling tale, and even the overwritten, hectically gushing and romantic sections where our emotions are wrung out in search of a response, do not diminish the overall effect of what is a rather neglected classic. Verney, the last man, writes his farewell to the world at the turn of the year 2100 at the top of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and then sets off into his unknown. Powerful stuff.

On maths and science

April 6, 2016

51F6wH7UHeL._AA160_ 51h6BFLBjiL._AA160_ 51PtUSpds0L._AA160_ 51r2u2D8-tL._AA160_I wouldn’t want any of my readers who is a mathematician or scientist (and I hope there are some of you!) to get the impression that these are subjects I am indifferent to, even though my knowledge is pretty scant: I do have O-Level Maths, and was one of the very first students to study what was called ‘modern maths’ in the sixties, and I also have what was quaintly known as ‘General Science’ O-Level (ie very basic).

Some of the most interesting conversations I used to have as a teacher were with science and maths-teaching colleagues; I am still proud of my abilities in mental arithmetic and calculation, and I’ve always found playing with numbers in my head fascinating, along with other connections I’ve been able to make between what I learned in school, and later life. As far as science goes, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy – my primary school best friend and I used to fantasise about whether we could get to be the first men to land on the moon! – and my enjoyment of detective fiction means I’ve always liked reading about forensic science. However, I do have to admit that an awful lot of mathematical and scientific knowledge does give me a serious headache after not very long: my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way… I did actually get to the end of Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time, but please don’t ask me what it’s about.

Maths and science feature noticeably in my reading. I loved Norman Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth, a book for children that introduces one to the joys of playing with words and numbers, as Milo visits the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. And, as I thought about this post, I realised that I’ve liked science fiction ever since I was a small boy, perhaps beginning with the Lost Planet series by Angus MacVicar, and never looking back since. But I must then confess that it’s never really been the ‘hard science’ variety that’s gripped me, much more the speculative kind.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein plays with what scientists were exploring in her day, and she couples it with a powerful story and incisive reflection on the morality of what scientists can get up to, reflections which perhaps we would do well to remember nowadays. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should…

I found the fictionalised travels of the eighteenth century polymath Alexander von Humboldt, in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World so interesting that I then went on to seek out and enjoy (an edited version of ) Humboldt’s travel journals. And Primo Levi, a chemist who survived Auschwitz, though not much of life after Auschwitz, wrote a fascinating fictionalised autobiography called The Periodic Table; each chapter is named after an element, the last is carbon, and the ending of the book is both witty (in the best sense of that word) and masterly.

I like reading popular science from time to time, because it’s accessible; I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones‘ takes on Darwin and evolution, The Descent of Men and Almost Like A Whale, and have also found what I’ve read about science and medicine in the Islamic world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’ very interesting. In the end, there’s plenty of approachable material out there for the non-scientists like me; if only there was the time…

Post-apocalyptic futures…

February 24, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the taxonomy, or classification, of various types of what might loosely be called science fiction, in the light of earlier posts on this blog. There are differences and overlaps to consider, before I come on to today’s topic.

For instance, some utopias and dystopias might also be classified as alternative futures: Ernest Callenbach’s visions of California turning itself into an independent state run along ecological lines (Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging) might have been considered alternative futures in the 1970s when they were written. Many dystopias are clearly also alternative futures, or were when they were first written. And I suppose the argument might be made that all utopian visions are alternative futures, although that doesn’t actually get us any further.

But then it seemed to me, as I thought first about Richard JefferiesAfter London (see the preceding post) that the classification also needs to take post-apocalyptic visions into account, as many of these may also be alternative future scenarios…

Enough theorising, time to consider some of my favourite examples. One of the best science fiction novels ever (see my listings pages) is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, also one of the most pessimistic visions of humanity I can call to mind. Hundreds of years after a nuclear war, monks – still the repositories of knowledge – preserve the relics of the ancients (us) as civilisation slowly and painfully rebuilds itself, over many centuries, until it reaches such an advanced state that it can once again build nuclear weapons. And yes, da capo. Double post apocalypse yes, dystopia? I’m not sure. in M P Sheil’s The Purple Cloud, poisonous gases wipe out humanity permanently; in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, it’s only temporary.

Apocalyptic scenarios were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s when consciousness of the fact that our species had reached such a high point in its development that it was now capable of not only destroying itself, but possibly most life on the planet, gradually dawned on writers. Not all visions used nuclear war as the trigger, in George Stewart’s Earth Abides it’s a disease, in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids it’s genetically-engineered plants plus laser weapons in space, though in The Chrysalids there has been nuclear war and attendant mutations.

Wyndham and JG Ballard are perhaps the obvious masters of the post-apocalyptic in different ways, although Christopher Priest, with The Death of Grass and The Empty World, rates a mention. All of these writers bring to science fiction, and to post-apocalyptic writing as a new genre, a consciousness of the ultimate fragility of our species, and indeed, of sentient life. Perhaps the first to consider this in a scientific fashion was HG Wells in The War of the Worlds, and interestingly Christopher Priest provides a marvellous twist on this story and on The Time Machine in his wonderful novel The Space Machine.

However, this is all to view everything from a twentieth century perspective, where science fiction itself is a recent notion, allowing us to ignore or forget writers from longer ago who also considered such notions, which brings us back to Jefferies, and of course, to Mary Shelley and The Last Man, which still gets my award for one of the best post-apocalyptic novels, for who can resist her fantasy of having the whole world to oneself to do with what one likes (with only oneself for company)?

Richard Jefferies: After London

February 22, 2015

Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways mentioned Richard Jefferies and prompted me to re-read this short novel from 1885; it’s one of those books where, when you reach the end, you think ‘no, you can’t possibly end it here!’ which of course he can, that being any author’s privilege.

Some natural and ecological disaster has devastated Britain at some point in the past; the details are never gone into, but London has vanished into a vast toxic swamp, large tracts of southern England are now a vast inland lake, civilisation has vanished and the population collapsed; small tribes and princelings carve out territories, warring occasionally and ekeing out a meagre existence.

The first section describes nature gradually taking over the land; no people, but wild animals. Then a slight shift in the narrative implies there are still small groups of humans, cemented by references to the ‘olden times’ and ‘the ancients’. Though there are historians, there are few records of the past and little accuracy about what is known; knowledge seems to have been lost very rapidly, though it is still known that the ancients had great knowledge and capabilities… The remaining English are oppressed by the remaining Welsh, Scots and Irish: tyranny and slavery abound in the petty principalities.

Then a story of sorts emerges, with a hero – Felix Aquila – a misfit, a thinker and an explorer, who has a woman to woo and win, too. He is interested in the knowledge of the past, its books and artefacts, in a world where people know little beyond their immediate surroundings, and because groups of people are cut off from each other, there is no global picture of what is known or how things work. This part of the novel has a very convincing mediaeval feel to its atmosphere, and to its pace, too. He travels the inland sea in his dugout canoe through various picaresque adventures, narrow escapes, and making some discoveries. We see various separate settlements and tribes, and their disparate languages which make communication difficult, their customs and different kinds of knowledge. The spookiness of the wastes above the ruins of London, with the toxic atmosphere and slime and total absence of life reveals some astonishing and lyrical description, and this is one of the strengths of this work, the writer’s mastery of language and his ability to create convincing atmosphere.

It’s a very slow-paced read, which matches the pace of the world in which it is set; it hasn’t a specific plot, but the picaresque nature of Felix’ travels enhances the overall feel of the book. It’s a really good example of early post-apocalyptic literature, worthy to stand alongside Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

November 6, 2014

9780099496953 I can’t off-hand remember how many times I’ve taught this text to sixth-formers. After a few years, I’ve come back to it, in order to write a study guide. As always, there is something new to notice, even when coming back to a text one is very familiar with.

For a novel that’s been around for thirty years or so, and can be described as ‘speculative fiction’, it’s dated remarkably little; many of the ideas that Atwood found already part of society when she was writing are still evident. Certainly it reads more convincingly that, for instance, Nineteen-Eightyfour thirty years after that novel was first published.

Offred’s story – that of a woman in the newly established Republic of Gilead, in the eastern part of the former USA, a fertile female assigned to a deserving male for breeding purposes – still has the power to shock, but, more importantly, to make the reader reflect on so many aspects of the power relationships between men and women in society. However, it was not this aspect of Atwood’s novel that spoke most strongly to me this time around.

The tone of the narrative is marvellously developed and sustained: Offred tells her story is the first person, experiencing, feeling and describing, with even her dialogue and that of others subsumed into the texture of her narrative, partly by the very simple device of not using inverted commas to demarcate any speech. This reinforces the timelessness of her story, in which most of her life is just waiting around, frittering time away, being bored, and being tormented by her memories of her past. She is intensely focused on words, language and meaning; she tunes into plays on words, definitions, shades and changes; even her illicit nighttime encounters with her Commander are filled with games of Scrabble… the time she has on her hands, this superfluity, adds an almost poetic quality to her narrative. It’s highly effective, helping draw the reader more deeply into Offred’s tortured being.

The second thing that struck me even more forcefully this time was the cleverness of Atwood’s narrative structure; the layering of the stories reminded me more than once of Shelley‘s Frankenstein. This deliberate – and oh so subtle – shifting of our perspectives and opinions nudges us in the direction of realising the complexities of the sexual-political issues Atwood is exploring via Offred’s experiences. And Atwood offers us no easy answers; it’s no strident feminist diatribe with all men as the enemy, and the deficiencies of our own society are as much under the microscope as the horrors of the Gileadean future.

In the end, for me the crux is the human desire for intimacy with another, and what becomes of that intimacy. Atwood has written a novel which will stand the test of time as well as or better than other dystopias of recent years, and which will not lose the power to make its readers think deeply about themselves as well as their world.

Mary Shelley: Mathilda

October 26, 2014

A little-known novella by the author of Frankenstein and The Last Man; it is apparently available in print, but my e-copy came by way of the excellent Project Gutenberg. Thanks to a former student of mine for the recommendation.

Shelley pushed the boundaries in her fiction – the creation of life and the extinction of it in the two novels mentioned above; in this novella she tackles the subject of incest. It’s almost pure narrative, with some, though not much dialogue, so I was conscious of the author directing and shaping my response to events as I was being told rather than discovering and developing my own opinions; like Frankenstein, it’s a nested or layered narrative: the tale is an explanation to be read by a friend/confidant after the narrator’s death, to explain the unexplained to him, and within this container the narrator sets several other stories…

We learn of the narrator’s father, his young love and her very untimely death shortly after the birth of the narrator; grief leads the father to disappear for many years (very Gothic!), and this did lead me to wonder how come she knew of hos childhood and past in so much detail. She is raised in isolation by a distant and unloving aunt – here is exceptional existence number two. Eventually the father returns and the two are joyfully reunited, but everything takes a turn for the worse when a suitor takes a romantic interest in her; the father’s love for his daughter is turned into incestuous sexual desire, which he combats as he should. She, however, as a loving daughter urges her father to tell what has changed him and his feelings to her. He does. There is no physical incest involves; he flees in horror at what has become of him and kills himself, amid plenty of characteristic Gothic description. She again isolates herself from the world to suffer, actively seeking death, which she eventually brings about in true Gothic fashion from catching a chill, thus being saved from the taint of suicide. This all after failing to confide in a new friend who has also lost his intended unexpectedly.

I’m aware the summary makes it sound rather dated, and sometimes laughably Gothic – and it is. It lacks the hectic pace and feel of Frankenstein (thank goodness) until the middle where she urges her father to reveal the causes of his sadness, and we contemplate the horrors of incestuous feelings which, though unrequited, are clear on his part and hinted at on hers, I think. The tale lacks the moral complexity of the issues raised in Frankenstein, or the thought-provoking nature of The Last Man.

Surely the novella would have been shocking to a nineteenth-century reader, and I was surprised initially that a writer could have put such a delicate and taboo subject before her readers, even though she has them both die – but then Shelley, like any good writer, challenges her readers.

MP Shiel: The Purple Cloud

August 16, 2014

51hdkCo4xVL._AA160_A very late Gothic tale (1901) over-written in the purple(!) and breathless prose of Frankenstein and other novels of that ilk, it’s another tale of apocalypse: disaster this time is linked to the first (sacrilegious) attempt to reach the North Pole: a purple cloud of cyanide gas swirls around the planet annihilating all living beings, save our narrator (and his later-to-be-discovered female counterpart…). It’s unclear how, exactly he survives, but he then proceeds to do what we would probably all do in similar circumstances: he searches and explores everywhere, randomly, looking for survivors, indulges all his whims, embarks on an orgy of destruction, drifts in and out of insanity…

Eventually he comes across a female survivor who has lived in an airtight underground vault all her life; he is drawn to her, as you would expect, but also repelled, as he cannot face the prospect of being party to starting the whole human calamity off all over again, and spend the latter stages of the novel wresting with his and her feelings until the inevitable resolution.

I’ve probably made it seem rather daft, and not worth the eyeball time; it is a historical curiosity in many ways, and the initial premise is far less credible that Ronald Wright‘s (see my last post); as a novel about an apocalypse it’s not as good as The Last Man or After London, but it’s still worth a read for any afficionados of the genre. Shiel does raise real questions: how would an individual cope with being the sole survivor of the species? What about the moral issues involved in being the last couple: is there a duty to continue the species, or would the planet be happier without homo sapiens? Is there any guarantee against the species making the same mistakes all over again?

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