Be­hold the birth of sci­ence fic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

his year is the 200th an­niver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein. The an­niver­sary has been some­thing of a mov­able feast since June 16, 2016, the bi­cen­te­nary of the novel’s in­cep­tion. There were cel­e­bra­tions then of the teenage au­thor’s ‘‘wak­ing dream”, one that took place in ‘‘the year with­out a summer’’, in a villa lit by elec­tri­cal storms on the shores of Lake Geneva in the com­pany of ro­man­tic po­ets Lord By­ron and (Mary’s fu­ture hus­band) Percy Bysshe Shel­ley. Out of this dream Mary Shel­ley pro­duced the first work of sci­ence fic­tion.

Oc­cu­py­ing dif­fer­ent build­ings on many cam­puses, it’s been said that the hu­man­i­ties and the sci­ences are two cul­tures re­alised in dif­fer­ent worlds. Their di­vorce is pin­pointed to an 1817 din­ner party when literati dined with nat­u­ral philoso­phers and the con­sump­tive 20-year-old ro­man­tic poet John Keats as­serted that Isaac New­ton had plucked the rain­bow’s ro­man­tic sub­lim­ity and re­duced it to sci­ence’s mere or­der of pris­matic colours.

How­ever, in the past 20 years a thaw­ing in the two-cul­tures cold war be­gan with John Brock­man’s call for sci­en­tists to cre­ate a third cul­ture, one that en­gages pop­u­lar au­di­ences in sci­en­tific re­search using the elan as­so­ci­ated with lit­er­ary writ­ers. Then Richard Dawkins ven­tured that a de­ity-less sci­ence has its own ro­man­tic sub­lim­ity, and the ro­man­tic bi­og­ra­pher Richard Holmes des­ig­nated a pe­riod (be­tween the voy­ages of Cap­tain Cook’s En­deav­our and Charles Dar­win’s Bea­gle) as that of ‘‘ro­man­tic sci­ence’’.

Kathryn Harkup’s Mak­ing the Mon­ster joins this dis­course with a lively and en­gag­ing study of Franken­stein, ex­plor­ing its ro­man­tic ori­gins and propos­ing that this lit­er­ary fic­tion owes a great deal to Shel­ley’s su­pe­rior com­pre­hen­sion of her era’s sci­ence-fact.

Eigh­teenth-cen­tury En­light­en­ment sci­ence made many of the break­throughs that un­der­pin our mod­ern era, one be­ing the gen­er­a­tion and stor­age of ‘‘elec­tric fluid’’, ini­tially in Ley­den jars and then, with the in­ven­tion of the first bat­tery, the voltaic pile.

In the name of sci­ence, elec­tric­ity was ex­ploited for grue­some en­ter­tain­ments where, be­fore be­ing anatomised by stu­dents and their reartic­u­la­tion as med­i­cal skele­tons, re­cently de­ceased bod­ies were made, through gal­vanism, to scowl, shud­der or raise an arm.

Nat­u­ral phi­los­o­phy, the sci­ence of its time (the term ‘‘sci­en­tist’’, a com­pos­ite of ‘‘sci­ence’’ and ‘‘artist’’, would be coined only in 1834), was not yet re­spectable and largely the prov­ince of ded­i­cated ama­teurs. Although sci­ence was ad­vanc­ing through em­piri­cism, the likes of chem­istry had murky me­dieval ori­gins as alchemy. Al­chemists, when they weren’t spawn­ing ho­mun­culi in a flask from 40-day old se­men, were seek­ing to en­no­ble base met­als with the dis­cov­ery of the philoso­pher’s stone and brew the elixir of eter­nal life.

Al is the Ara­bic def­i­nite ar­ti­cle and ‘‘chemy’’ may be drawn ei­ther from the Cop­tic word kheme mean­ing ‘‘black’’ (in ref­er­ence to the rich, Egyp­tian land of the Nile silt), or to the Greek cheo, mean­ing ‘‘to melt or fuse’’.

Both the word and the prac­tice of alchemy gives us chem­istry but there is also a link be­tween alchemy and medicine: Greek xe­rion, for pow­ders that trans­mute met­als, has medic­i­nal ori­gins as a ‘‘sub­stance that heals wounds’’. Xe­rion is trans­lated into Ara­bic as al-ik­sir, which be­comes ‘‘elixir’’.

For Mary’s part­ner Percy, just one of the models for Vic­tor Franken­stein, alchemy was a Fron­tispiece to an 1831 edi­tion of Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein; in­set, por­trait of Shel­ley by Richard Roth­well, circa 1840 vi­able method for in­ves­ti­gat­ing the un­seen and un­usual, some­thing the Age of Rea­son did not of­fer him.

As a child, Percy spent his pocket money on oc­cult, alchemy and magic books and when he wasn’t sum­mon­ing the devil, he was elec­troshock­ing his lit­tle sis­ters and iso­lat­ing hy­dro­gen in or­der to set it alight. Such an anti-es­tab­lish­ment re­ac­tion against a me­chan­i­cal, all power-

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