Oct 302014

The very first illustration of Frankenstein and his creature, by Theodor von Holst, published in 183Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Synopsis: The original 1818 Frankenstein.

Book Review: Ugh. Frankenstein has been called the first work of science fiction. But the person who called it that defines science fiction as “hubris clobbered by nemesis,” (at least if I’m to believe Neil Gaiman) which really should have been my first clue. But I was really excited to get to my roots, so I wasn’t paying much attention. And it started out great. All gothic and dramatic and Lovecrafty (yes, I know it predates Lovecraft by a century). The language is extremely pretty, as is the case for most things written around this time.

Unfortunately it seems that writing technique hadn’t yet been well developed. I’ve said before that this isn’t really the author’s fault. We can’t fault pre-Renaissance painters for not knowing of perspective and proportion, those techniques just hadn’t been invented yet. But it’s still painful to read. Do we need to have the same piece of “The maid is guilty!” “No, actually she’s innocent!” dialog repeated THREE TIMES IN A ROW by six different characters? The second and third repetition added nothing. Furthermore, the past seemed to not know that Showing is preferable to Telling. I can’t count how many times Shelley basically wrote “I was really really really upset” rather than showing us the emotion in some way we could feel it ourselves. And speaking of superlatives – good god, she went through the entire list and started again from the top, twice. Frankenstein’s monster was never really described – I still don’t have a very good idea of what it was supposed to look like, aside from being eight feet tall. What we got instead was line after line after line of “Very, extremely terribly, indescribably, superbly, ultra-extra-mega-UBER UGLY!!” Which helps me not at all.

Getting away from technique though, Miss Shelley also fails to deliver a believable world. It seems the universal human reaction to seeing a really ugly super-tall guy is to IMMEDIATELY ATTACK HIM MERCILESSLY AND BEAT HIM WITH STICKS UNTIL HE RUNS AWAY. Without any good reason, and without exception, regardless of how gently the monster tries to approach them. I may not know a lot about 19th century Europe, but I’m pretty sure there were at least a few ugly motherfuckers walking around, and I believe most of them managed to exist in society somehow. As far as I can tell, “evilness” and “goodness” in Shelley’s world are native characteristics you get at birth that are unalterable, and are immediately obvious to others at a glance. It’s very much a Disney-esque “pretty is good, ugly is bad” philosophy. It’s reinforced multiple times across multiple characters, and is most striking when our lame-ass and objectively vile protagonist is repeated described as one of the “greatest examples of humanity, that all strive to emulate” by everyone in the novel, including the monster he treated like shit.

But let’s set aside nit-picks and get to what really sucks about this book.

I’ve mentioned on a few occasions that I can’t stand plots that only exist because the protagonist is completely idiotic or pathetic. If your story is about someone lamenting how awful it is to be starving to death who is inside a room full of food but is too lame and pathetic to reach out and put some in his mouth, I have nothing but disdain for your inability to write an interesting story. There are amazing stories about people doing their best to get calories by any means necessary and STILL nearly starving to death! Write something like that! Don’t waste my time because you’re too lazy to figure out how to put non-idiotic/pathetic people in tough circumstances.

Victor Frankenstein is the worst kind of pathetic. His every action is whining and shirking responsibility. I would not trust him with a pet rock. Seriously, every pregnant teenager you’ve ever seen on Jerry Springer has orders of magnitude more responsibility and self-control than this wanker. He goes about bringing a new sapient life into this world, and upon awakening it he realizes that it’s really very-super-ultra-ugly. So he abandons it. That’s right – a few minutes after it wakes up in a confusing and hostile world, without any experience or knowledge or ability to talk – he walks out on it and leaves it to die, because it was ugly. This would’ve been a simple story of infanticide if Victor hadn’t been unlucky enough to create an 8-foot tall infant that managed to feed itself on nuts and berries. And he doesn’t even think twice about it. A few hours later Victor runs into a friend and they return to his apartment. The monster has left by then and Victor says “Whew! He’s gone. Guess I dodged that bullet!” and never once feels any sense of remorse or worry, either for his monster or for his neighbors who now have an 8-foot-tall unsocialized infant unleashed upon them! Good thing that’s not Victor’s problem anymore!

This continues throughout the book. Later, when Victor finds out his monster is killing people, he resolves not to tell anyone about it, because… reasons. And when an innocent girl is accused and convicted of the murder, instead of standing up and saying “Look, she didn’t do it. I know exactly who did it, why he did it, and what he looks like. Release this poor innocent girl!” he decides to just shut up and let her go to her death because, look, being a decent human being with a smidgen of responsibility just isn’t the sort of thing Victor does! He’d much rather let various other family members and friends of his be killed instead, including his new bride.

Also, here’s Victor Frankenstein’s reaction to first re-encountering his monster after it had killed his brother:

“Devil! do you dare approach me? and do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust!”

That’s the extent of his action. Bluster, and contradictory bluster at that. W.T.F??

Seriously, the monster should be the protagonist of this piece. It survives without any guidance, teaches itself language, and pursues its goals successfully across multiple countries and several years.

One good thing did come from reading this. If anyone ever again says that Frankenstein is about the dangers of scientists “playing God” I will immediately know that they’ve never read the book and have no idea what they’re talking about. Victor’s scientific achievement is creating a new human life. The same “playing god” that nearly every post-pubescent woman since the dawn of history has been able to do, and which most of them do actually do. This isn’t a story about playing god; this is a simple story about a negligent parent abandoning his child, with an SF twist, and the wrong protagonist.

Needless to say, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Everyone else seemed to enjoy it a fair bit, and there was a decent amount of discussion. Plus it’s historic, and you’ll get to say you read it. And it’s short and very skimmable. If you can stomach child-abandonment stories that try to make the abandoner the hero, you may want to check it out. Very Mildly And With Great Hesitation Recommended.

  6 Responses to “SF/F Review – Frankenstein”

  1. I agree that agree that Victor is a horrible person, and that Shelley is basically an amateur author. But I’ll take up one point: I challenge the idea that the monster is any better a protagonist than Victor. I present two arguments to support this claim.

    Argument the First: The monster is really boring.

    By which I mean: it’s not that his dialog lacks spark, or that he doesn’t get enough action sequences, or lacks a name, or anything meta. It’s that in-universe, he has the primary characteristic of being boring. He rambles on and on with using flowery turns of phrase to describe the misery of his life. If you met him at a party, you’d make excuses and slip away. The monster would think it’s because he’s ugly, and add this to his list of grievances which he’d recite to the next one who crosses his path. But nope, he’s just tedious. Get a hobby, dude. Better yet, show an interest in other people.

    Interestingly, this sticks with him across tellings. It’s baked deep into the archetype. The author needs to show that the monster is only a monster on the outside, and to show it they have him speak like a Romantic hero. But they also have life kick him in the teeth, because he needs to be miserable. And then it all needs to be recounted to Victor, so a proper guilt trip can be laid. So you end up with this self-absorbed droning using horribly overblown language to relate how unfairly he’s been dealt with.

    A recent story (which I’ll not name for spoilers) had the monster appear in an excellently shocking reveal, and then had him ramble on to the point that I wanted to skip ahead till the story picked up on something else.

    Argument the Second: The monster is a horrible person, ripe for worst parts of the MRA crowd.

    (Disclaimer: Pretty much my knowledge of MRA comes from State Star Codex.)

    The monster’s guiding motivation is to get himself a bride. His logic is: a) I’m alone because I’m ugly, b) if I had another partner then we could be alone and ugly together, c) that’s happiness, therefore d) I should kill people to force Victor into doing this. It doesn’t enter his mind that maybe he shouldn’t inflict his horrible, horrible life upon someone else. Neither does it enter his mind that this second monster might have agency of her own, and not want to be with him. (Speculate a little on what his response might be if his specially built bride ever tried to leave him.)

    Again, this is baked into the archetype. The bride is a trophy to be won that will grant happiness. Typically, this aspect of the monster is only implied, because the bride is never created. Now, it could be that this is a feature which is ripe for deconstruction. Say, it could become the basis for a redemption story line. But… eww. Under ‘show don’t tell’, you need to have the monster rage at the bride exercising choice in partners. Let’s just say that’s not my cup of tea.

    • Ya know, neither point occurred to me in the reading, but they’re both extremely good points. I give the monster some slack on the being boring… he’s only 2 years old and he doesn’t know how to life yet, at least not well. But yeah, he’s not someone I’d invite back to a second party.

      I suspect the second part is a relic of 19th century thinking. I do find it interesting that Mary Shelley, as a woman, didn’t see past this in her writing. The “women don’t have agency” idea was so deeply ingrained that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her to question it (at least not at the time of writing).

      I often wonder what we’re doing today that will seem as mind-boggling to people 200 years on.

  2. There’s a reason why most adaptations don’t even bother with Dr. Frankenstein. He’s… pretty awful. Meanwhile the monster is basically Beast from X-men.

  3. One of my favorite short commentary, in gamer speak:
    Intelligence is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster.
    Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein IS the monster.

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