Gothic Science Fiction – a beginning

Posted by Lobke Minter on September 02, 2013 in Guest Blog, Lobke Minter tagged with

The connection between Gothic and Science Fiction is far from being a new discovery. There is however something to be said about returning to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to fully appreciate the complexity of this genesis, this beginning of a genre loosely termed as Gothic Science Fiction. As an established Gothic text Frankenstein is also considered by many as the beginning Science Fiction.

Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein redefines and re-establishes, conflates and mutates aspects and expectations of Romanticism as well as the Gothic to create her “hideous progeny”, in much the same way as Victor does in the creation of his monster; through piecing together fragmented and often strangely opposing elements, from the enlightened knowledge of his science and pieces of dead flesh from the graveyard.

As DeLamotte points out in Perils of the Night: A study of nineteenth Century Gothic, Gothic texts draw a firm distinction between the “me and the not-me”, or in other words that Gothic texts are fundamentally concerned with the anxiety about boundaries, those that shut the protagonist off from the world, those that shut the protagonist in and those that separate the individual self from something that is other. This concern about what it means to be human, or what it means to be “me” in a modern world, is one that is constantly asked by Science Fiction.

Victor Frankenstein continually wants to transcend boundaries and limitation. This is a Romantic drive towards transcendence or “enlightenment” which due to the Gothic nature of Frankenstein is translated as being a transgression. In undermining Victor’s need for transcending human limitations, Mary Shelley continues to highlight the boundaries that Victor can in fact not break through. He is continually confined to his “solitary chamber” and is obsessed with overcoming the boundary between life and death. Victor becomes an archetypal transgressor by perceiving life and death “as ideal bounds, which I should first break” (p.36).

The “hideous progeny” that is both authored and created, becomes a representation of the forbidden knowledge inherent in unchecked scientific inquiry, specifically in the desire to overcome death. As Byron points out in Manfred: “And then I dived / In my lone wandering to the caves of death / Searching its cause in its effect; and drew / From wither’d bones, and skulls and heap’d up dust / Conclusions most forbidden” (II, 79 – 83). This extract highlights the contextual inquiry of the ultimate transgression, namely to acquire knowledge about death “its cause and its effect” emphasising that ultimately the conclusions are “most forbidden.” The celebration of the pursuit of knowledge, or more specifically of science, is seen as problematic by Shelley’s Gothic text. It highlights the danger of falling into a cyclical trap where the self or the “me” is unable to perceive anything but itself. Victor Frankenstein’s reaching for enlightenment is transformed into monstrous overreaching, which is deeply linked to the terror that his unfettered imagination and his lust for knowledge births into the world.

The scientific revolution of Mary Shelley’s time incorporates both evolutionary and industrial aspects of the sciences. The knowledge of science that she transfuses into her Gothic novel stems from her knowledge of Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy and most importantly Luigi Galvani. The text itself reveals some of Mary Shelley’s understanding of science, illustrating that she was aware of experiments like the animation of vermicelli, which she mentions directly in her 1831 preface, leading her to speculate that “perhaps a corpse would be re-animated” (p.22).

As strange as the science may seem retrospectively, it is important to realise that in fact Shelley incorporates “cutting edge” science into her narrative. Making scientific discovery the means by which she investigates transgression of knowledge. Most importantly however, Mary Shelley initiates an interrogation of scientific inquiry. The science of this era was indeed a Romantic enterprise, where scientific writers or lecturers wanted to evoke feelings of the sublime in their audiences, to inspire further efforts to conquer or transcend nature. This motivation is particularly important in relation to Victor Frankenstein, as arguably his entire drive towards creating a being from dead matter hinges on his efforts to transcend the natural order This is highlighted by his aim to “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places” (p.30). Mary Shelley consequently treats the scientific presumption of having the right to penetrate or subdue nature, in the same was as she treats Victor’s arrogant belief that he can become a deified creator, as the two aspects are yoked together into the same act, namely scientific transgression.

Throughout Frankenstein, there is a sense in which Mary Shelley portrays the attempt to control nature as dangerous. It is not merely for dramatic effect that Frankenstein creates his “hideous progeny” on “a dreary night in November” (p.38) or that large portions of the plot occur in conjunction with witnessing “violent and terrible thunderstorm(s)” (p.24). This raging of nature accompanies the creature, Victor’s creation. In other words the natural wrath or judgement is brought to bear on Victor by this unification of his creation with uncontrollable nature, because he dared to interfere in the natural order of life. This unification of nature and the creature is a reasonable assumption, as Mary Shelley consistently uses the creature to articulate the most severe judgement of Victor’s failure. As electricity is the tool by which Victor tries to gain his god-like status, it is in a sense poetic justice that nature seems to retaliate with thunderstorms and lightning. The incredible amount of natural electricity that is churned out by nature consistently within the plot also underlines that Victor has failed to subdue or conquer nature as he intended. Therefore, Victor fails not only in his Romantic ambitions, but also as a scientist. Nature retains a grasp on him as ultimately he dies of an illness, of natural causes, thereby realigning the natural order of life which is followed inevitably by death.

It is precisely this unease with “penetrative” science which places Frankenstein outside of a purely Gothic interrogation of boundaries, as it is concerned with the consequences of scientific overreaching. The fact that Mary Shelley did include scientific theories into her novel, for instance Humphry Davy’s fascination with electricity and Erasmus Darwin’s ideas on biological evolution, and passive inquiry, illustrates that she critiques the perversion of evolutionary progress. Victor Frankenstein can easily be read as a parody of orthodox creationist theory, while at the same time highlighting Shelley’s implicit warning against the possible dangers inherent in the technological developments of modern science.

The lasting impact of Frankenstein is largely due to the fact that Shelley combines the Gothic genre with an investigation into the transgressions of scientific inquiry. Mary Shelley’s tale of horror is not in the classical sense a story about ghosts or monsters, but rather an insight into the consequences of technological or scientific research. A morally irresponsible science with dire costs is the basis of a vast number of science fiction novels. The focus of Mary Shelley’s insight into scientific overreaching is that the yearning for knowledge, even when expressed through a scientist leads only to tragedy and breaches boundaries that are forbidden and better left untouched. Science, steeped in the Romantic need to transcend society, when seen in the harsh reality that Shelley invokes, fails to bring any good into the world, or to add enlightenment.

Nevertheless, Shelley does not condemn science altogether. It is the egotism of unchecked science that wants to conquer nature at any cost that is shown to be a threat to humanity. If dangerous science is using forbidden knowledge through manipulation and control of nature, then arguably, science that respects nature by observation only is considered the better option. Shelley seems to approve of scientific discovery; her inclusion of it does speak to an enthusiasm of scientific inquiry in general. However, it is the transgression against the natural order that threatens humanity. Ultimately, it is this anxiety about boundaries that forms the basis of Shelley’s critique of science. Overreaching, or transgressing against that boundary between life and death, is manifested in the reality that there has been no benefit to either Frankenstein or his society through his discovery. His penetrating research and scientific work has had tragic implications for himself and those he loves, and by implication for mankind. The only way in which Victor Frankenstein could achieve redemption, would be for him to have taken responsibility for his creation, his failure to connect with his creation is part of the tragedy, but also his unthinking, disastrous desire to transcend his human limitations.

Victor Frankenstein therefore represents the ultimate tragedy of presuming to transcend the human confines of society, to break the limits of death as well as his desire to become “god-like”. He creates for the sole purpose of unleashing his own creative power, and therefore he embodies the self which is unable to perceive anything but itself. His ideal of bringing light to the world through scientific inquiry, to create a new reality is doomed by the solipsistic trap of his ego. This highlights the necessity of a Gothic foundation for Frankenstein. The criticism of scientific transgression is based within this deep mistrust of anyone who transgresses against the social order, of a scientist who creates purely for selfish reasons. It is precisely the interplay between the Gothic and scientific elements within Frankenstein which grants the text what Botting calls in Gothic Romanced: Consumption, gender and technology in contemporary fiction its “gigantic shadow over science fiction”. The combination of ghost story elements along with contemporary scientific elements means that Frankenstein looks both into the past as well as gazing into the future.

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