Behold the birth of science fiction
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-