The Modern Prometheus in the Modern Age (Frankenstein)

At a time when the romantic ideals of nature seemed to be giving way to the early industrialization and expansion of urban centers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley created a masterpiece of horror and gothic romance that has spanned the ages. Frankenstein, since its publication in 1818, has managed to remain fresh even to the 21st Century, due, in part, to the elements that mark it as the “grandmother” of all subsequent stories that fall into the genre “science fiction”. Though Frankenstein embraces the elements of the gothic romance – a main character at odds with Nature, old castles, a declining family, ambiguous morality (among other elements) – and those of horror, it steps beyond these and creates new elements, new particles to explore and write about. From Frankenstein, we can see the genesis of the modern science fiction story. In the nearly 200 years that have intervened then to now, it takes only a bit of effort and attention to see how modern writers have deeply explored and expanded the same basic elements Mary Shelley used in writing her masterpiece. Despite its age, all the modern Elements of Science Fiction are present in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

If one tells a class of high school seniors that they will be reading Frankenstein during the term, the most likely response would be, “I already know that story!” Most people are indeed familiar with this archetypal story of a mad scientist and his deformed assistant who bring to life an atavistic patchwork of human flesh on a lightning-bedecked night to show mans dominion of nature and his ability to dole out life and death on a whim. The problem is that almost none of these elements exist in the book. In his 1986 book, Trillion Year Spree, Aldiss suggests that

[f]or every thousand people familiar with the tale of Frankenstein creating his monster from various cadaver spares and electrifying them into new life, only one will have read the novel. The cinema has helped enormously to disseminate the myth while destroying its significance (p. 45).

“Knowing” the story as a creation of Hollywood – as an early monster movie, forerunner to the modern horror movie – is not the same as knowing the soul-wrenching conflict inside Victor Frankenstein, knowing his mistakes and knowing their cost. More than that, it means not knowing how the impact of a two hundred year-old book resonates in the modern science fiction genre.

What science fiction is has been debated and discussed since Hugo Gernsback coined the term “scientifiction” in 1925. Like any literary genre, however, science fiction can be defined by the unique elements – tiny building blocks that make larger structures – that build it up. Damon Knight has suggested there are six elements to consider: “[s]cience, [t]echnology and invention; [t]he future and the remote past, including all time travel stories; [e]xtrapolation, [s]cientific method, [o]ther places–planets, dimensions, etc., including visitors from the above; [and] [c]atastrophes, natural or manmade” (Taormina, para. 2).

In some ways it begs the question to discuss the science of science fiction. It is also hard to separate the element of time from that of science. Every story must take place somewhere and somewhen. The level of available technology and science is determined by the time in which the stores are set. Yet in Frankenstein there are several sciences present in the story that we ourselves do not possess though the story takes place in the past. As of this writing no one has patched a human being together from disparate body part and instilled life therein. Still, Mary Shelley present the science in such a way that is does not seem anachronistic. Victor Frankenstein’s science is firmly rooted in both the modern discovery of galvanism (Shelley, p. 34) and the ancient arts of alchemy (p. 33-35). Within this framework it becomes possible to reanimate the dead. Philip K. Dick, best known his short stories such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, however, defined science fiction

by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as ‘a story set in the future,’ [nor does it require] ultra-advanced technology. It must have a fictitious world, a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society… This world must be different from the given one in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society. (1999, p. xviii-xiv).

In such a case, it is not necessary to look forward to a changed world, but to see today or even the past as having the possibility to diverge away from the time and technology we know to something else – different but recognizable. Technology in the past, as long as it passes the readers willing suspension of disbelief, Frankenstein itself does not take place in the future, but in the 16th century; a 16th century that has birth a person capable of bestowing reanimation upon a lifeless corpse. Even in the 21st century, in these years that have seen the cloning of a sheep and rumors of the cloning of a human, has no one who has been able to break the barrier between life and death. Mary Shelley set her story at least 20 years before she wrote it. She retrofitted time to include the history of Victor Frankenstein when no such person existed, yet his life, his family, his home, his education all seem plausible. Harry Turtledove rewrites history in much the same manner when he takes on The Civil War in How Few Remain (1998). Without the use of time machines and alien intervention, Turtledove changes history and asks the question which forms the basis for all science fiction, “What if.…?”, much in the same way that Shelley did. From one man’s decisions a whole different world is born. It is a world we recognize and can feel a connection to, but it is not ours. As Dick indicated, this “dysrecognition” (ibid.) of the world is in fact an element of modern science fiction, though we see it clearly in Frankenstein. Clearly while most think of science fiction in terms of “future perfect” – utopias such as Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek legacy – or “future imperfect” – dystopias such as Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or even Dick’s recently adapted-for-the-screen Minority Report– it is not all relegated to only “what could be.” Science fiction is also strongly rooted in “what could have been.” This deriving of new histories from logical “jumping off” times is called “extrapolation” which according to Jack Williamson

… probes alternative possible futures by means of reasoned extrapolations in much the same way that good historical fiction reconstructs the probable past. Even far-out fantasy can present a significant test of human values exposed to a new environment. Deriving its most cogent ideas from the tension between permanence and change, science fiction combines the diversions of novelty with its pertinent kind of realism (Gökçe, sec. 45).

In other words, history must flow with what is known about history. Perhaps the most expansive of these histories is Frank Herbet’s Dune chronicles. Twenty thousand years of human history punctuated by snippets of books that never were give veracity to his writings. Though arguably dense, Herbert nevertheless makes sure that not a moment of those 20,000 years is unaccounted for, even moments that are not covered by the main plot of the book. In this way, readers can feel a connection to the characters and situations even though they are many millennia removed from each other.

Related to the idea of science is the scientific method. The scientific method is used to keep veracity within the reporting and reproduction of experiments. It has four parts – observation, hypothesis, prediction, and performance. In all science, it is necessary to be able to reproduce results. If results cannot be duplicated by others, then the method was faulty of not reported correctly, therefore there was no true result, therefore no experiment. In writing science fiction it is also necessary to follow not only methodology, but also what is known about the Universe at large. A story about bird people from the center of Mercury who come to Earth to mate with our women may have passed at the turn of the 20th century, but no longer. It has become science fantasy, as it does not scientifically follow what we know about the planet Mercury. On this, Robert A. Heinlein says science fiction is

realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of “almost all”) it is necessary only to strike out the word “future” (Gökçe, sec. 31).

Shelley did not branch out into fantasy, but based her story on the science of the time, both natural philosophy and the disciplines of biology and chemistry.

There is, of course, Victor’s methodology in making his creature (though concealed so others will not attempt to repeat his mistake) and though he tries to destroy the memory of this work, avoiding his former occupation and even becoming physically ill at the sight of scientific apparatus (Shelley, p. 52-53), Frankenstein nevertheless is drawn into repeating his experiment when his creature, his Adam, demands “a creature of another sex, but as hideous as [him]self… “ then he promises to live far away from the habitations of man (p. 104-105). To a void further violence, Victor relents and spends time in England constructing an Eve for his Adam. On the verge of his second “success”, however, Victor has a change of heart and destroys the female before he can bring her to life. Throughout the text, Victor indicates that he is confident in being able to create this second creature; his procedure is sound and his results reproducible (no pun intended) (p. 116 – 118). This is good scientific methodology, though the ethics of the decision are shaky at best.

In modern science fiction, reproducible science is the basis for many future societies. Without these technologies and people’s faith in them, society would collapse. Whereas in Frankenstein the science can be duplicated (though ultimately it is not), the movie Gattaca (1997), much like Huxley’s Brave New World, uses genetic engineering to determine the personal destinies of society’s members, casting people in either an upper or a lower echelon of opportunities and choices. The proliferation of these technologies, again, while following appropriate scientific methods, leave much to be discussed in lines of their ethical application. The next element, Other Places, was expanded by Damon Knight to include “visitors from the above” (Taormina, para. 2). And while most of the places described within the covers of Frankenstein are indeed foreign to most American readers, it is the foreign being, the alien, which should be considered above all. Frankenstein’s Adam is an alien in even the “little green men from mars” sense. He is not of this Earth – yes, he was born here, but not as he is seen throughout the book; rather he was assembled from disparate corpses and forced into life. He is outside the realms of most characters’ experiences, and inspires fear in them though he is indeed and intelligent and somewhat sympathetic creature. All this adds up to an “otherness” that casts the creature in the role of the alien.

Modern science fiction is stuffed full of advanced cultures, extraterrestrial technology, planets that lie thousands of light years away and, yes, aliens. From Star Wars to the Fifth Element to Dune, and even the American Icon Superman, science fiction bombards readers with enough otherness to make it almost (ironically) commonplace.

The final element of science fiction is catastrophe. In terms of Frankenstein, there is no need to belabor the point of how Victor destroyed his life and family in order to make himself a god. Movie or book, there has yet to be a “happy ending” to this story, and rightfully so. Victor dared to take from God what is His domain – to grant and take life. As the subtitle of the book says, he was as Prometheus giving fire to humans who had no idea how to receive or understand the gift. This hubris, as required by the tragic structure laid out by Aristotle, is followed by nemesis, divine retribution – the end of everything. The idea of catastrophe is that of caution – in essence: push the boundaries, but know your place.

Just as common in science fiction literature, catastrophe is a chance to start again. After everything falls apart, there is the chance to build again, to show courage, determination and strength. Sometimes the catastrophe is the central conflict of the story, for example, Armageddon or the other Hale-Bopp inspired movie, Sudden Impact. In these cases, though catastrophe was not total, it was sufficient to alter life on Earth. Even the Star Trek saga hints at the horrors of pre-warp civilization, but the saga itself records the growth of a “better” world.

In conclusion, it has been shown that no matter how “old” the ideas of Mary Shelley may be, they are neither “dated” nor “obsolete”. Many conventions of science fiction, whether in literature or through more visual mediums, still hold to ideas whose genesis was almost 200 years ago. Lester del Rey, also a forerunner in the worlds of science fiction, said that “Science fiction is an attempt to deal rationally with alternate possibilities in a manner which will be entertaining” (1980, p. 5). A possible lesson here is that as long as talented and creative people exercise their craft, even “classic” ideas can, like Frankenstein’s creation, have new, fresh life. Unlike his creation, one hopes these ideas can be enjoyed by all.


Albrecht, T. (February 1, 2003) “What is science fiction?” [WWW document].

Aldiss, B. (1986). Trillion year spree. Athenium: New York.

del Rey, L. (1980). The world of science fiction, 1926-1976: the history of a subculture. Garland: New York.

Dick, P. K. (1999). The collected stories of Philip K. Dick. Carol Publishing: Cleveland, OH.

Gökçe, N. C. (May 8, 1996). “Definitions of science fiction.” [WWW document].

Shelley, M. W. (1987). Frankenstein. Running Press: Philadelphia, PA.

Taormina, A. (July 1, 2002) “SciFi Guide”. [WWW document].

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