Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Five top science fiction classics

Adam Roberts received his MA (English and Classics Jt-Hons) from Aberdeen University and his PhD (Robert Browning and the Classics) from Cambridge University. He has worked in the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, since 1991, and he is currently Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature.

His books include The History of Science Fiction as well as numerous science fiction novels, eight parodies, two novellas, a collection of short stories and various other things.

One of five top science fiction classics he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
by Mary Shelley

Let’s begin with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818.

Frankenstein is called by some (but not by me) the first science fiction novel. In it, that futurity is materialised as Frankenstein’s monster, a weird symbolisation of “the child” filtered through the imaginarium of horror and terror. Shelley had miscarried her first pregnancy a year before writing the novel – the year after it was published, both her babies died of malaria – and her novel understands the relationship between creativity and morbidity, between birth and death.

I’m sure I don’t need to summarise the story for you [spoiler alert!]. A scientist called 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 – never named – comes into the world a mental tabula rasa to be written upon by 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 of 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 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 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.

Do we trace the beginnings of sci-fi back to Frankenstein, or earlier still?

Brian Aldiss has famously argued that science fiction starts with Mary Shelley’s novel, and many people have agreed with him. For Aldiss, writing in Billion Year Spree, 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”. Indeed, in 1974 Aldiss wrote his own oblique fictional treatment of the same story, Frankenstein Unbound, in which a modern man, propelled by “timeslips” back to the Romantic era, meets not only Mary Shelley but Frankenstein and his monster too – the latter proving an eloquent commentator on 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.

I once wrote a History of Science Fiction in which I argued that SF begins much earlier than Frankenstein. I’m not alone in thinking so. Some people suggest that it goes all the way back to Homer’s fantastical voyage or the Epic of Gilgamesh. Fantasy in the broadest sense is of great antiquity in human culture, I agree. But there seems some point to me in separating out science fiction from the broader category of fantasy, and I’d say we can’t really do that until we have “science” as a meaningful category. For me that means the Renaissance.

I argue that the first proper SF story is a book by Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer, called Somnium – written in 1600, though not published until the 1630s – in which he imagines what actual lunar life forms might look like. There are a great many voyages to planets in the 17th and 18th centuries. But that said, I’d agree that Frankenstein occupies a special place in the genre. Though a little clumsily put together, it is astonishingly powerful and dream-haunting. One reason for that is the way it realises, in dramatic form, the terror of generation – of what inherits us, what comes after.
Read about the other entries at The Browser.

Frankenstein is one of Andrew Crumey's top ten novels that predicted the future.

--Marshal Zeringue