Monthly progress

SF Mistressworks has now been up and running for two months. It has published fifty-five reviews of forty-nine books by thirty-nine women sf writers. Reviews are now posted on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The most popular reviews so far have been:

  1. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (Adam Roberts)
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (Paul Charles Smith)
  3. China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (Cheryl Morgan)
  4. Grass, Sheri S Tepper (Cara Murphy)
  5. The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (Paul Graham Raven)

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the following for contributing reviews to the site:  Cheryl Morgan, Joachim Boaz, Martin Wisse, Kev Mcveigh, Richard Palmer, Shannon Turlington, Cara Murphy, Jenni Scott, Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, Aishwarya Subramanian, Ian J Simpson, Kathryn Allen, Larry Nolen, Michaela Staton, Paul Charles Smith, Paul Graham Raven, Sam Kelly and Sandy M. More reviews are always needed, of course, so feel free to volunteer.

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Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Niall Harrison

Part 1
It’s a truism that time is cruel to science fiction, that the relentless now eats into the future and leaves husks of stories in its wake and that, per William Gibson, the lag time is decreasing. When editing the 2002 Nebula Awards Showcase, Kim Stanley Robinson asked some writers to riff on the science-fictionalisation of the present, specifically on the role of science fiction in the twenty-first century. Gwyneth Jones was one of the contributors to the resulting symposium, and described “the problem of meaning”:

…which can best be understood by considering the ratio between the author’s intention and the rest of the content of a science fiction novel or story. The whole vast edifice of reality, the universe, and everything may have a single meaning that is known only to God. […] A science fiction novel or story, however, has a meaning known to the author. […] In the space of three hundred pages, where the author has elected to explain life, or consciousness, or theories of everything (typical projects among sf writers), meaning is so concentrated as to distort the most perceptive prediction to the point where it is almost unrecognisable. (p 241)

At first glance – which is particularly to say, when it was first published, back in 2001 – the predictive bedrock of Bold as Love may seem more unrecognisable than most. It chronicles the unlikely rise of a “Rock and Roll Reich”, an authoritarian Green state within which protagonists struggle for something better, and self-consciously constructs a future that only gets stranger the further into it we travel. It seems to fully earn its “near future fantasy” subtitle, and I speculate – this is the first time I’ve read it – that in 2001 Bold as Love seemed as much as anything to be about the possibility of an unknowable future; that its rockstar protagonists, improbably recruited into a Think Tank intended to define a new future for England, seemed written with a wind of millennial possibility in their sails.

Time may be cruel, but it’s the friend of the critic of sf who wants to strip away the layers of future, to get past the singularity of authorial intent. This, too, is a truism, encapsulated by the Clutean concept of the Real Year. Some of the things that stand out so starkly now must have been obvious at time, although the extrapolation of New Labour “Cool Britannia” co-option of pop seems to have been little commented-on in contemporary reviews. (Adam Roberts suggested it’s not even really about politics; Cheryl Morgan provided an exception; Roger Luckhurst, a couple of years later, digs into this aspect a little in an essay in Science Fiction Studies.) Some things might have been dimly discernable on the horizon, such as the extent to which the internet would gut the mega-label mega-bucks model of music distribution that dominates Bold as Love (no bittorrent, no YouTube). But what fixes this novel in time most profoundly seemed to come out of a clear blue sky: a door slammed shut, a month after the novel was published, on what in retrospect feels like a wasted moment of historical possibility. There are about a dozen mentions of terrorism in this novel. It’s there, but low down in the mix.

Bold as Love has already earned its place in sf’s modern canon. It’s probably the most sustained engagement with the nature of Englishness published within the genre in the last ten years, not to mention an early entry into the broken-Union trope that’s been so common in recent British sf, in novels by Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts. It’s a clear influence on Justina Robson’s even more dislocated near-future fantasy sequence Quantum Gravity (indeed, in one character’s crack about not wanting to “end up transformed into some crackpot post-human elf” [p 194] it could have offered direct inspiration). Yet it feels somehow irretrievable, locked away from me, innocent. I discovered Jones’ contribution to Robinson’s Nebula symposium because her novel had put me in mind of what one of the other participants said. Over to Ken MacLeod:

What sf enables us to do is not to forsee the future, but to entertain possibilities. The more possibilities science and technology –

[At this point, about 3.30 British Summer Time, 11 September 2001, the phone rang.]

I leave this piece as I wrote it, words from the old world.(p 248)

If I’m unbothered by Bold as Love‘s much-touted lack of plausibility (and I am, largely), this is most of the reason why. For once, being yesterday’s tomorrow is a kindness. It’s words from the old world; and by that token, it owns its world.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control.

A Matter of Oaths, Helen Wright

A Matter of Oaths, Helen Wright (1988)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Had Helen Wright’s only published novel A Matter Of Oaths appeared a couple of years after its 1988 publication it might have been seen as a significant contributor to the early 90s British SF and in particular Space Opera resurgence. Instead it seems to have disappeared almost unnoticed.

Twin, rival empires rule in opposition held barely in check by the Guild of Webbers who control all spaceflight, owning the ships and employing the webbers who control the ships through the web. Each emperor has sworn a solemn oath to the Guild, as each webber has sworn to Guild and Emperors. Breaking these oaths is the ultimate crime.

The patrolship Bhattya recruits the mysterious Rafe to her webroom and her command Three are thrust into danger, conspiracy and intrigue. For brilliant, attractive, mysterious webber Rafe is an Oath-breaker and has been mindwiped. All he remembers is his recent past as a webber on a ship badly damaged in an attack, but someone is out to get him.

Put so simply A Matter of Oaths seems to be standard fare, and indeed, as a debut novel of promise as much as fulfillment, much of it is familiar. Rafe is too good to be true, his skills far in excess of his apparent experience, though the ending suggests reasons or this; Bhattya commander Rallya equally seems to succeed at everything she tries, and her stubborn independence seem to make aspects of the novel unlikely, and she has no back story to base this on. That’s the weakest part of A Matter Of Oaths, for all its galaxy-spanning action, it feels too self-contained, there is no real sense of anything beyond its small cast of (well drawn) characters. As a result the supposedly dramatic impact of the ending is rather muted, and hard to care so much for.

The strengths of Wright’s novel paradoxically are partly in its very familiarity. The echoes of past (and it must be said, subsequent) SF are frequent, but often subtle, and diverse. The web experience of Rafe and others is described in terms that bring McCaffery to mind on one level and cyberpunk on another.

Hell’s irresistible bargain, rafe had heard a retired webber call his once-active web; a passport to soaring power which no sane person dared reach for. It was an apt analogy. In the web, your brain was linked to the body of the ship, your nerves carried sensations that non-webbers would never know. You only had to loosen the chains of discipline a little to tap the web’s full potential, to create new sensations, to explore new pathways through your extended body, a body that encompassed your companions in the web as their bodies now encompassed you.

And there was the danger: stray from your pre-defined pathways and you could not know what your web-mates would experience — pleasure, pain, or insanity because they could no longer interpret the behaviour of the body that they shared? Even if you were alone in the web, experiments jeopardised your own sanity, your own grip on mundane reality.

In the end it is in that sharing that Wright makes her world most interesting, A Matter Of Oaths is a novel of sensuality, of free sexuality, and of equality. It’s fun. It isn’t explicit, at one point Rafe says to Rallya ‘why embarrass people or confuse their prejudices?’ but otherwise Wright simply makes her point by the repeated showing of characters’ acceptance of each others race, gender, status and sexuality without judgement.

Unfortunately Helen Wright only published this one novel, an enjoyable, sometimes predictable romp with a charm and wit to raise it above the ordinary. I would certainly like to have seen what she could have produced had she developed on A Matter Of Oaths. But don’t take my word for it, you can download it at Helen Wright’s website www.arkessian.com

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Aishwarya Subramanian

“There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”

So God just leaves?”

No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”

But the sparrow still falls.”

In 2019 Earth begins to pick up radio signals from another planet – signals that are distinctly recognisable as music. The first exploratory mission to this planet is organised by the Society of Jesus, and among its members is father Emilio Sandoz, a linguist and a Jesuit priest. Sandoz is the only one of the crew who will return.

The framing narrative of The Sparrow deals with the return of Emilio Sandoz to earth some four decades later. The second mission to Rakhat (as the planet is known) had sent back some rather disturbing messages about the circumstances in which they had discovered him. Emilio, greatly damaged by his experiences on the planet, comes home to find himself already stigmatised as a prostitute and a child murderer. As he slowly recovers from his trauma and physical mutilation past events unfold. The book skips through time, describing events that led up to the voyage as well as the voyage and landing themselves. We see the humans’ first contact with the inhabitants of Rakhat, and we see the horrors that follow.

Language and religion are central to this book. This makes sense; encountering an alien species is necessarily going to involve communication with it – and it’s also going to involve a rethinking of the self; what we think of as a person, what our position in the universe as intelligent beings is. The ‘science’ in this science fiction novel all seems very dubious (even compared to the dubious science of a lot of SF), with its conveniently close planet with breathable air and easily-digested food.

But this doesn’t matter; the science-fictional apparatus serves mainly as a background to the central subjects of the book: Emilio, his suffering and the question of what God means in a world where such suffering exists.

There are things at which this novel succeeds very well. One of them is character – Russell spends a lot of time inside her characters’ heads and they are always complex, sympathetic, believable and even likeable people. Then there is the religion aspect which I (speaking as an atheist, at least) think is brilliantly done. Emilio’s struggles with his faith are never a crisis OF faith; and if the conversations between various characters on the question of faith feel a little too deliberately inserted, they’re never as obviously explanatory as they might have become.

Russell’s prose is often wonderful. The prologue in particular is perfectly pitched; the last line, “they meant no harm” manages to be ominous while also conveying a plea for understanding. Yet in the context of the book the reader is left wondering whether it matters that no harm was meant. Certainly harm was done.

Yet The Sparrow also suffers from laying its focus so disproportionately upon one character. Russell creates an interesting society, hints at such subjects as apartheid and colonialism, and never goes further, preferring instead to deal with Emilio’s suffering. This is all very well, but the reader is given enough of a look into this world and these characters to make them more than just background. As a result it’s hard to privilege Emilio’s pain and suffering as somehow so much worse than anything that happens to anyone else. Russell’s depiction of rape is probably the weakest angle here – at least one other character has dealt with sexual assault in the past. It’s hard to escape the implication that it is worse here not just because it is happening to Emilio, but because it is happening to a man.

Despite this Russell’s book is a thoughtful and lyrical exploration of faith. Whether or not the aliens and interplanetary travel are sufficient to make The Sparrow science fiction depend upon what you think science fiction is and what it ought to do. But it’s beautiful, and that is enough of a reason to read it.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Jay D Blakeney is a pseudonym of Deborah Chester, who has also written a YA series under the name Sean Dalton. The Goda War, a space opera, is Chester’s penultimate novel as Blakeney. According to The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Blakeney “seemed to be a writer to watch with some interest”, and while it’s certainly true that her Anthi novels – The Children of Anthi (1985) and Requiem for Anthi (1990) – are much under-appreciated sf novels, the same can’t be said of The Goda War.

Brock is a dire-lord of the Held. This means he is the personal bodyguard of the Held’s suprin. He is a Sedkethran, a humanoid with the ability to flick (teleport) and phase in and out of dimensions. Sedkethrans also possess telepathic powers, though they are strongest with members of their own race. Brock is something of a maverick Sedkethran – the rest of his race are pacifists and dedicated to healing. Brock is a warrior, and so an outcast.

The Held has been conquered by the Imish (known by the Held as the Colonids). The Held is an empire but it’s a liberal one, comprised of many races living in a tolerant society. The Imish are old-style humans, the descendants of a group who refused to accept equality with aliens and so were banished from the Held. For centuries they have been kept in place by the threat of the godas, a trio of planet-sized war machines hidden somewhere within the Held.

But no more. The Imish have defeated the Held. Brock flicks himself and the suprin from the Held flagship seconds before it is destroyed, but the suprin is wounded and dying. With his last breath, the suprin makes Brock his heir and gives him the key to the godas, which is in the form of a bracelet. Later, Brock is captured by the Imish, who, it transpires, were assisted by the suprin’s traitorous heir.

With the assistance of an alien, Rho, a Slathese, and another Sedkethran, Ellisne, a Healer, Brock escapes and sets off to activate one of the godas. He is chased by Colonel Kezi Falmah-Al of the Imish, the security chief of the Imish governor of the captured Held capital world. But nothing is quite as simple as it appears – Goda Primary proves to be the Sedkethrans’ home world, and activating it would strip the planet of its atmosphere and kill its entire population. Falmah-Al also hates her boss, and is determined to use the godas to further her own ends.

The Goda War is as close to heartland space opera as it is possible for a story to reside. It has all the signs: an interstellar empire, which is just enough off-kilter to be alien without drifting too far from the human model; neologisms where perfectly good English words exist (e.g., suprin = emperor); magical technology – not to mention Brock’s own magical powers; an abundance of huge spaceships; and a climax in which the entire galaxy is at stake.

Yet for all its adherence to the form, The Goda War manages to ring a few interesting changes. The Held is a surprisingly liberal society, and lauded as such. In fact, it is the threat of the Imish’s near-fascist society which Brock uses to compel his people to eventually overcome their pacifism. It’s not often that sf novels paint humans as the bad guys, or in such stark terms. Falmah-Al makes for a good villain, especially since she is initially sympathetic and only reveals her true colours in the last quarter of the novel.

Admittedly, Brock is a typical space opera hero, anguished and possessing great privilege. And the Sedkethrans read a little too much like some super-powerful race from Star Trek, one which has deliberately limited itself through some arbitrary and easily-broken set of rules. Certain parts of The Goda War also appear to have been inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune. At one point, Blakeney gives Brock a form of prescience, in which he sees a number of possible futures. The idea is a later dropped and mentioned only in passing near the end of the novel.

The Goda War is, quite frankly, space opera mind-candy. The prose is eminently readable without actually standing out. Brock and Ellisne are little too melodramatic to really appeal as characters, though other members of the cast are better-drawn. The background is mostly identikit space opera but is enlivened by one or two good ideas. And the story-arc is neither innovative nor experimental, but comfortingly predictable. The Goda War is a novel that would make a rainy afternoon pass entertainingly, but it’s never going to win any awards and it’s never going to be remembered as anything special. It’s a shame Blakeney did not continue her career. Perhaps she would have later produced something to rival, or even exceed, her Anthi novels.

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
Review by Ian Sales

Kairos has long been a favourite novel of mine, and so I did not expect it to disappoint on a reread. If anything, I imagined I would get more from the book – it’s been over a decade since I read it last and I hope I’m a more discerning reader now than I was then. Which also means, I suppose, that I had higher expectations of this favourite novel than I do of other books I might reread…

And right from the first page, Kairos‘ prose proved as good as I remembered it. By the end of the first chapter, something else about the novel had also occurred to me – what had been near-future science fiction was now alternate history. Kairos was first published in 1988, and it posits a future extrapolated from Thatcher’s Britain. The ever-widening equity gap, the increasingly ham-fisted attempts to enforce law and order, the slow realisation that the decisions made by government were not for the benefit of the people it represented… It wasn’t hard to imagine a dystopic future back then. If anything, it seemed almost inevitable.

Jane “Otto” Murray is a lesbian ex-political activist, and the owner of a small secondhand book shop. One of her closest friends, James, a gay soap opera actor of Nigerian extraction, asks her to look after a small film container given to him by his sister. Both James’ sister and brother are involved with BREAKTHRU, a pharmaceutical company turned cult religion – there is, incidentally, no commentary here on cults or religions. BREAKTHRU have managed to obtain a sample of a drug, which they call Kairos. This drug allows users to directly affect the real world. There is mention of quantum theory, used to “scientifically explain” how the drug operates, but it is its effects not its mechanism which is important.

After dabbling with BREAKTHRU, Otto’s lover, Sandy Brize, leaves her. Shortly afterwards, Otto’s son, Candide, runs away. Someone has kidnapped his dog and demanded the film canister as ransom. But Candide runs to Sandy, taking the film canister with him, and enlists her help in rescuing the dog. Together, they head north, meet up with a posse of animal liberationists, and raid the BREAKTHRU laboratory where Candide believes the dog is being experimented upon. Throughout this period, the drug in the film canister has been affecting Sandy, who has in turn been affecting the real world…

Kairos is split into eight sections, labelled First Angel through to Seventh Angel, and a final section, ∞. Each of the chapters is titled. I’ve never really understood chapter titles, perhaps because authors use them in so many different ways – from hints to a chapter’s contents to in-jokes to literary allusions. I suspect it’s the latter in Kairos, although many are beyond me: e.g., ‘Umbriel’ is a character from Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’; and ‘Abîmes des Oiseaux’, or ‘Abyss of Birds’, is a section from Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a piece of chamber music by Olivier Messiaen (I had to look both up, and I’m still none the wiser).

On rereading Kairos, I can understand why it became a favourite. I’ve admired Jones’ writing a great deal since first encountering it, and the prose in Kairos is as sharp and elegant and, on occasion as beautiful, as anything she has written:

The trees were larches. They had a manmade look, their slender girlish bodies laid out ready for processing while still upright. Their boughs swept down as smoothly as combed hair along the rows. Errant branches had been aborted when they collided with the pattern, the flowing locks concealed bruises. And yet the effect was extremely beautiful: red gold on red gold, falling in endless sheaves. (p 161)

But it’s not simply one word after another, put together in pleasing fashion. It has been said that Jones is a cold writer, though perhaps this sounds unfairly negative. To me, it’s more that her narratives give the impression of a vastly intelligent and dispassionate observer – as in this quintessentially Jonesian passage:

One cold spring day she was cooking skirlie pudding and cabbage while Candide and Vera played under the kitchen table. Sandy and Otto had hoped they would get used to having a dog around. They had not. There was something fundamentally repellent about the little terrier, with her slavish regard for beatings, her periods of abject sexuality; her constant amoral measuring of every comer – do I show my belly or do I bite? (p 41)

And yet her characters are alive, and not the affectless automatons you would expect of a dispassionate narrative voice. Indeed, it’s hard not to sympathise with her protagonists, despite the fact that, for me, there is little or no common ground. Further, Jones’ books have always given me the impression of continued existence, that on turning the last page, the world of the story carries on despite no longer being observed. The same is true of her characters.

Why Kairos a favourite more than any other Jones novel? It is very much a book of its time, fully grounded in the real world of its time of writing, as so many of my favourite novels are. It had relevance – and even now, reading it twenty-three years later, it recaptures that spirit, those feelings I experienced when reading it at its time of publication. Jones can be a prescient writer, but Kairos is no longer a book that looks forward – and that is part of its appeal. Its world has passed, its future exists only in some alternate timeline. But in 1988 it felt so very real, and reading Kairos in the twenty-first century only strengthens that sense.

A shorter version of this review originally appeared on It Doesn’t Have To Be Right…

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Review by Adam Roberts

1.
Is there anything new to say about this, one of the most discussed and reinterpreted SF novels ever published? Well, there are the standard points, of course, some of which have become platitudes: that it is the first SF novel; the first great fable of the scientific age, a penetrating story of man’s material-technical overreaching and the danger of unintended consequences; or more specifically that it is a myth about the way Western science’s masculinist bias circumvents the feminine principle with disastrous consequences. There are critics who approach the novel from a biographical point of view, and argue that it embodies Shelley’s ambivalence to the Romantic and radical circles in which she moved, or that it encodes her horror at her miscarried pregnancy. This speaks to the multivalent nature of Shelley’s success, here, although it also points up the dangers of reductionism when trying to get a handle on what makes the book (for all its clumsinesses and awkward moments) so dream-haunting.

It probably is fair to say that most people know this book through its myriad adaptations than its early nineteenth-century prose, at least in the first instance; such that actually reading it, particularly the rather prosy outer frame narrative (an Englishman called Walton is exploring the Arctic, eager to push-back the boundaries of geographical knowledge; and he writes home to his sister with accounts of his voyage), can be rather estranging. The novel starts slowly; and even when Watson encounters Frankenstein, at the point of exhaustive collapse, pursuing a strange figure across the ice, it takes a while for the novel to start generating its distinctive, eerie and suggestive tone and affect. Frankenstein’s own first-person narrative is folded into Walton’s account here; and after his detailed account of his upbringing, his desire to conquer death, his researches and the creation of his monster—not to mention his horror at his own actions, a period of hysterical amnesia—he himself relates the monster’s own life story. This first-person narration nestles, the third, as the smallest Russian-doll inside the nested structure of the novel, is the one most people think of as ‘the story’ of Frankenstein. Indeed, the celerity with which adaptors and filmmakers stripped away Walton’s frame narrative (Branagh’s 1994 movie is an exception, here) suggests that it’s the relationship between the creator and his creation that really ignites the imagination, not the third party explorer and observer, the figure akin to us as readers. The issue here isn’t really one of story-details so much as tone. Filmmakers aim for a heightened intensity, a (melo)dramatic pitch; but Shelley’s own approach reaches its peculiar dark sublimity by going, as it were, down rather than up. Bring to mind any cinematic version you may have seen of the moment where the monster is brought to life: crashing thunder and lightning, dramatic music, the hysterical scientist screaming ‘live, my creation, live!’. Now take a look at how far Shelley herself was prepared to dial-down this crucial moment:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Not quite anticlimactic, but more cannily downbeat, this. It speaks to something important about the way the novel has been creatively read, of course. Which is to say: Frankenstein the novel does deal with those intensities of the Romantic Sublime (‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’) that get the hairs stirring on the backs of our necks; but it does so by descent, rather than ascent, and via an apprehension of the guilt of creation rather than human technological hubris. If you bear with me, I’ll explain what I mean.

2.
Here’s something I wrote about Frankenstein in a book called 50 Key Figures in Science Fiction (Routledge 2009):

The novel’s core story is probably well-enough known not to need extensive summary. Scientist Victor Frankenstein constructs and animates an eight-foot-tall artificial man, but, obscurely horrified by what he has done, abandons his creation and temporarily loses his memory. The creature (it is never named) comes into the world a mental tabula rasa to be written upon my experience—as it transpires, mostly the experience of others’ hostility towards its hideous appearance. It learns not only to speak but, improbably enough, to read and write by eavesdropping unnoticed on a peasant family. Thereafter it becomes murderous, a consequence not only of others’ hostility but also its reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and identifying with the outcast Satan. Lonely, it seeks out its maker demanding that he create a monstrous bride. Frankenstein agrees and builds a second, female creature, but belatedly alarmed at the implication of his two creations breeding and populating the world with monsters, he tears it to pieces. In revenge the monster kills Frankenstein’s own wife. Frankenstein then pursues his creation to the arctic wastes, where he dies; the novel ends with the creature still alive, but promising to kill itself. Summarised so baldly, this perhaps seems a little clumsily plotted (Shelley was 19 when she wrote it) and the novel itself does sometimes lapse into a rather melodramatic crudeness. But it also possesses remarkable imaginative power, not least in the embodiment, in both heart-wracked scientist and sublime monster, of two enduringly iconic archetypes of the genre.

The opinion that science fiction starts with Mary Shelley’s novel has had several adherents (and several dissenters) but is most closely associated with British SF author and critic Brian Aldiss. For Aldiss, Frankenstein encapsulates ‘the modern theme, touching not only on science but man’s dual nature, whose inherited ape curiosity has brought him both success and misery’ [Aldiss, Billion Year Spree 26]. Aldiss wrote his own oblique fictional treatment of the same story, Frankenstein Unbound (1974), in which a modern man propelled by ‘timeslips’ back to the Romantic era meets not only Mary Shelley, but Frankenstein and his monster too—this latter proving an eloquent commentator upon man’s capacity for dialectically interconnected creation and destruction. As a description of the novel, and an implicit characterisation of sf as a whole, this has persuaded many.

Frankenstein, as every schoolchild knows, is the name of the scientist, not the name of the monster (although transferring the name from creator to creation is now so widely disseminated a solecism as hardly to merit rebuke). The monster has no name (its namelessness, indeed, strikes me as being a function of its motherlessness). What, then, is Frankenstein’s creature? It is a monster. Now, monster is an interesting word. It derives from the Latin, monstrum, which means (I pluck Lewis and Short from my shelf) ‘a divine omen, indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent’. This word is in turn from moneo: ‘to teach, instruct, tell, inform, point out; to announce, predict, foretell’ (from this we get the French ‘montre’, and the English ‘demonstrate’). Originally a calf (say) born with two heads would be a monster in the sense of being ominous: through it the gods would be trying to tell us something. Though the word now has the connotation of a large and terrifying fantastical beast, the earlier meaning still haunts it. Godzilla, say, is a monster in the contemporary vulgar sense, but also in the sense that he is trying to tell us something (in his case, something about the evils of nuclear testing). Frankenstein’s monster, of course, is often read as a book trying to tell us something about science, or man’s hubris, or about the nature of creation itself. Me, I wonder if the monster’s main function, and the ground of its prodigious success, is that it demonstrates something closer to home: you. Yes, I mean you madam; and you sir. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

What about the creator’s name, ‘Frankenstein’? It’s a common-enough Germanic moniker (the invaluable Wikipedia tells us: ‘Mary Shelley maintained that she derived the name “Frankenstein” from a dream-vision. Despite her public claims of originality, the significance of the name has been a source of speculation. … The name is associated with various places in Germany, such as Castle Frankenstein (Burg Frankenstein) in Hesse or Castle Frankenstein in Frankenstein, Palatinate.’) But I have a fanciful theory about the name; or half-fanciful, and I intend to air it here. The half that’s less fanciful is the first syllable, which seems to me very likely, in its reference to France, to encode a symbolic allusion to the French Revolution. The half that’s more fanciful would link the stone (‘-Stein’ in German) with the French for stone, –pierre, as a sort of sidestep towards Robespierre, architect of the French revolutionary Terror … like Frankenstein, a well-bred, well-educated man impatient with old forms, who wished to conquer the injustices of the world but who ended up creating only a monster of Terror. This may strike you are more tortuously implausible than it does me, not just because I tend to see in this rebus (Frankenstein = French ‘stone’ = French [robes]-pierre) an example of the way the creative subconscious works, but because there are a great many people who share my sense than the novel is in a symbolic sense ‘about’ the French revolution. Chris Baldick’s book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford 1987) traces the many appropriations of Shelley’s monster in the culture of the century noting how very often revolution, upheaval or popular dissent was troped precisely as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. Like the Revolution, the monster is a creature of power and uncanny novelty, brought into being with the best intentions, but abandoned by its architect and running into bloodsoaked courses of remorseless violence and terror. Which is to say: the monster emblematises Revolution because it focuses terror. Indeed, for an English liberal in the first decades of the 19th-century there were two key Revolutions in recent history: the French and the American. It may not be a coincidence that, after making his European monster, the French-Swiss Frankenstein is persuaded to make a second, on the understanding that the pair will emigrate to America. He changes his mind:

Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.

That last word—terror—is crucial for the novel. The word ‘terror’ chimes like a bell through the whole text. Terror, of course, was Robespierre’s touchstone: here, for example, he is in his Discours sur les principes de morale politique (February 1794):

Si le ressort du gouvernement populaire dans la paix est la vertu, le ressort du gouvernement populaire en révolution est à la fois la vertu et la terreur : la vertu, sans laquelle la terreur est funeste ; la terreur, sans laquelle la vertu est impuissante. La terreur n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible ; elle est donc une émanation de la vertu ; elle est moins un principe particulier, qu’une conséquence du principe général de la démocratie, appliqué aux plus pressants besoins de la patrie.
[If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.]

Terror is an emanation of virtue because it is the purest form of justice; and Frankenstein’s mythic heft and potency derives surely in large part from the sense that there is a cruel, implacable justice behind the monster’s violence. If people had treated him well, and seen past his hideous exterior, he would have repaid their trust. Because they treated him with violence and disgust, those are the human qualities he mirrors back. This comes close to the secret brilliance of the book: it is that our creations will punish us, they will pursue us (as we pursue them, seeking to punish them); and that this will happen because, in a crucial sense, they are us. It is that out of ourselves and against ourselves comes the fiercest and most unrelenting urge to punish, to bring to justice, the most acute terror. I’m reminded of something Hazlitt wrote (this is from his essay ‘On Will Making’ (1821):

It is the wound inflicted upon our self-love, not the stain upon the character of the thoughtless offender, that calls for condign punishment. Crimes, vices may go unchecked or unnoticed; but it is the laughing at our weaknesses, or thwarting our humours, that is never to be forgotten. It is not the errors of others, but our own miscalculations, on which we wreak our lasting vengeance. It is ourselves that we cannot forgive.

I can’t think of a book that is as eloquent in its apprehension of the dark truth embedded in that last sentence as Frankenstein.

What, then, is Frankenstein? It is Revolution (and its bloody aftermath) as myth; it is the excavation of the guilt of Enlightenment creation and action. It is, in short, a descent into Hell. Indeed, I would suggest, we can read the novel as a thoughtfully structured piece of mythic intertextuality about this great theme. I’m thinking of Western culture’s many narratives about infernal descent; in particular, think about Dante’s great divina commedia. Dante’s Hell is a funnel shaped cavern located inside the earth—something Shelley’s own ‘funnel-shaped’ narrative structure apes, with Walton’s frame narrative containing the smaller but deeper account of Frankenstein himself, and that circle of story containing again the smaller yet more profound narrative of the monster. Thinking in these terms perhaps explains some of the odder moments in Shelley’s text; or at least, I’m prepared to be persuaded so. For example: one stumbling block for many readers is Frankenstein’s weird hysterical amnesia—having spent months making his creation, he is so horrified by the result that he stumbles away and forgets all about it until four months later, when the monster’s murders bring it all back to him. A reader who judges by standards of psychological verisimilitude will find this hard to swallow; but if we read with a sense of the mythic provenance—for of course entry to the underworld happens only after the shades of the dead have drunk of the waters of Lethe, or forgetfulness. By the same token, the novel’s final scenes in the frozen polar wasteland (striking and memorable stuff, if something rather gnashingly written by Shelley) are modelled on Dante’s final encounter with Satan at the conclusion of the Inferno: trapped forever not in fire, but embedded in a vast field of ice. The monster’s self-identification with the devil (via Milton) only reinforces this hellish troping. The hell of Enlightenment liberalism is you, or your hideous, monstrous doppelganger, your creation, your child.

3.
Frankenstein is amongst other things a novel about being part of a family, about the generation of life and the toll taken by familial pressures. American critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read Shelley as ‘this orphaned literary heiress’ for whom ‘highly charged connections between femaleness and literariness must have been established early’ particularly ‘in relation to the controversial figure of her dead mother.’ [Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Yale University Press 1979), 222] That mother, Mary Wollstonecroft was—of course—the author of that foundational text in Western feminist thought, Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gilbert and Gubar’s big, inspiring, occasionally wayward study of female writers was foundational in a smaller way, of the second wave of postwar academic feminist enquiry. Certainly their feminist reading of the novel, as a female appropriation of previously masculine myths of authorship and creation—a Romantic proto-feminist act of bibliogenesis—proved influential in academe.

Since the 1970s Frankenstein has been the subject of many perceptive feminist readings. Indeed, according to Diane Long Hoeveler this novel ‘has figured more importantly in the development of feminist literary theory than perhaps any other novel, with the possible exception of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre’ [Hoeveler, ‘Frankenstein, feminism and literary theory’, in Esther H. Schor (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45]. The brilliantly imaginative ways in which the novel deconstructs traditional understandings of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ (not least in its new myth of the man who gives ‘birth’ to life thereby birthing death and terror too; which is to say, its effective critique of masculinist structures of society, science and literature) speaks both to the great change in conceptions of femaleness that was starting to gain momentum in Shelley’s day, and also to the potential of non-realist modes of art such as science fiction to represent, dramatise and disseminate precisely those changes. Not for nothing does Debra Benita Shaw’s 2000 feminist study describe SF as a whole as The Frankenstein Inheritance.

But having said that, I can’t help feeling that this success has its own limitations. Certainly Shelley’s own career has been overwritten by the impact of Frankenstein: she wrote many other things, but only specialists know anything about them. More to the point, it could be argued that the novel has been almost hijacked by its heritage. What I mean by this is: we tend to read it nowadays as a science fiction novel (which is to say, in ways conditioned by the habits of reading twentieth- and twenty-first-century SF) rather than reading it as it was originally read and reviewed, as a novel of philosophical speculation in the tradition of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), Mary Wollstonecroft’s Mary (1788) or Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). To read the book this way would be to concentrate more upon the first section as a meditation on the proper boundaries of human knowledge, and to read the Monster’s first-person narrative as a bold attempt to dramatise the theory-of-mind of John Locke, and to pay less attention to the pitiful/Satanic intensities of the monster’s violence and alienation. But violence and alienation speak more directly to us today, I suppose.