Science Fiction Studies

#135 = Volume 45, Part 2 = July 2018

Michael Griffin and Nicole Lobdell

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void, but out of chaos.—Mary Shelley

What does one say to introduce the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein (1818)? How does one quantify the past influence or anticipate the future adaptations of Frankenstein when new artists, authors, and creators continually surprise us with new interpretations that challenge and disrupt our preconceived understandings of its legacy? In short, one cannot. Frankenstein is a living myth, a corpus of adaptations and responses that continues to grow.

It is a work so pervasive that it permeates every genre and every medium, with each generation of readers bringing it to life in more modern forms, giving it new, reflective cultural and social relevance. To consider 200 years of Frankenstein is an encyclopedic feat. Its legacy is both material and metaphorical, giving rise to the invocation of “Franken-” as a figurative emblem for any and all concepts hybrid, composed of multiple sources. The prefix, subsequently, identifies acts of artistic and scientific creation that push boundaries beyond recognizable limits.

By now, the history of its conception over several days of dark and stormy weather in June 1816 has passed from fact to myth. In her 1831 introduction to the third edition of the novel, Shelley reflected on the challenge of inventing a ghost story, one which could compete with those being written by Percy Bysshe, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori: “I busied myself to think of a story.... One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart” (349; emphasis in original). Shelley records the waking nightmare that occurred on 16 June 1816 wherein she conceived of her story:

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind.... I saw the pale student of hallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.... His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork [sic], horror-stricken.... He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes. I opened mine in terror.... On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. (350-51; emphasis in original)

For Shelley, the “pale student” is haunted by what he sees. Visually assaulted by the image of a “horrid thing,” Shelley’s retelling emphasizes the moment of recognition—that of an artist beholding his creation. She continues her recollection, noting “a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters.... I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me” (351; emphasis added). Like a retinal afterimage, the creature persists.

So, it is with the image of the creature, forever burned into our collective cultural consciousness, that we envisioned the shape of this special issue as reflective of the creature’s body, the sight upon which so many of our interpretations and adaptations of Frankenstein are inscribed. As a multivocal, hybrid corpus, this special issue maps out that body. The head—the source of character and identity (Kakoudaki, Murphy, Panka). The torso—the symbol of embodiment and reproduction (Conley, Kakoudaki, Mayer, Zigarovich). The legs—the agents of migration and power (Mayer, Murphy). The hands—the emblems of creation and destruction (Conley, Mayer, Murphy, Zigarovich).

The conceit of the human body here is not to suggest that it is the only lens through which to read the essays in this special issue. Indeed, Frankenstein is not at all myopic in its content or focus, and neither are the essays reproduced here. Nevertheless, in selecting the voices to represent the critical response to Shelley’s novel and its legacy, we considered an extensive breadth of topics both relevant and pressing to today’s sf scholars. Frankenstein is truly ubiquitous, no longer just a ghost story; the story has transcended its European origins and has today become a global narrative.

We begin our issue with an examination of ecologies, not just the extreme weather patterns that influenced Shelley on her trip to Switzerland, but also the literary ecologies that inspired her and persist in Frankenstein. Jed Mayer’s “The Weird Ecologies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” argues that Shelley’s novel is the first fictional response to climate change. Inspired by the weird weather of 1816, a “year without summer,” it is an early work of “weird fiction,” a subgenre that borrows from the Gothic and science fiction. Mayer traces a history of the “weird,” specifically in relation to concepts external to the self, such as the environment and ecosystems, and its impact on science fiction by subsequent writers such as Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jeff VanderMeer. His focus on the anthropocene—that is, the human impact on the natural environmentpositions Frankenstein as the foundational site of the fear that preoccupies climate change fiction today. Mayer interrogates how our ability to care responsibly, either for our offspring or for the world they inhabit, has changed since the publication of Frankenstein.

Scholars have long pointed to Shelley’s parentage and the circumstances of her birth as ways of understanding Frankenstein, thereby reading the novel as a metaphor for procreation. In “An Age of Frankenstein: Monstrous Motifs, Imaginative Capacities, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies,” Shannon N. Conley examines Frankenstein’s relationship to ethical reproductive science and creates a framework for understanding how literature and governments can both anticipate and influence the possibilities of science. Her three case studiesGiovanni Aldini’s 1803 experiments with galvanism, Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World (1932),and the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, born in 1978 through experimental in vitro fertilization (IVF)suggest that although society’s cultural and legal institutions may not be capable of keeping pace with scientific advancements, the literary imagination is “anticipatory.” Shelley’s and Huxley’s novels, along with similar sf works, can accurately and productively visualize and caution societal reactions to future scientific innovations.

Frankenstein’s implications for medical science move beyond just issues of innovative reproductive technologiesfrom issues such as IVF to cloningto those regarding gender assignment and sex. In a symphonic arrangement of call and response, Jolene Zigarovich’s “The Trans Legacy of Frankenstein” opens wider the discussion of Shelley’s impact on the non-literary. Poised at the intersection of gender and Gothic studies, Zigarovich’s article is as much about the inheritance of Shelley’s novel and its role in generating and deconstructing concepts in language and identity as it is about Susan Stryker’s landmark essay, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” (1994), which will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary next year. Zigarovich argues that Victor’s stitching of the creature’s body parts foreshadows the various appropriations of both Shelley’s and Stryker’s texts as palimpsests to be cut-up, erased, and modified. By noting the “critical difficulty in describing not only Frankenstein’s creature, but his ‘monstrous’ gender,” Zigarovich highlights the ways in which Shelley’s and Stryker’s texts weave the foundations of Gothic, sf, and trans studies.

Sinéad Murphy’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad: Human Conditions, or Conditions of Being Human” delves into the allegory of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013, trans. 2018), a dystopian novel of war’s trauma that follows Hadi, a junk collector, who (re)assembles a human body from the fragments of Iraqi bomb victims whose remains litter the Baghdad streets at the novel’s opening. Animated by the soul of a young Iraqi guard, the Whatsitsname comes to life intent on exacting revenge for the Iraqi victims who comprise its corporeal form. The Whatsitsname discovers that to replace its decaying parts, which drop off as it takes its revenge, it must continue killing, enacting an unending cycle of violence, trauma, and death. While Shelley shows no concern for the body parts that Victor scavenges to create the creature, the importance of the Whatitsname’s body parts occupies a central space in Saadawi’s novel. In her assessment of the novel, Murphy reveals that in an era of globalization, the biopolitical impact of Frankenstein set against violent conflict is not one of revolution (as Shelley’s original is set against the French Revolution) but one of terrorism. Global adaptations of Frankenstein abound, and the recent English translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad reminds us of the creature’s universality.

While big screen adaptations of Frankenstein run the gamut of genre from James Whale’s monster classic Frankenstein (1931) to Mel Brooks’s parody Young Frankenstein )1974(, contemporary screen adaptations in the age of personal computing and the Internet focus more squarely on questions of morality, ethics, and human rights—offering yet another environment in which Frankenstein’s legacy continues to mutate and replicate. Despina Kakoudaki’s “Unmaking People: The Politics of Negation from Frankenstein to Ex Machina” shows how Shelley’s focus on “making” fails in an age where life can be created with the flip of switch. The life of robots, androids, and cyborgs, which some argue find their roots in Shelley’s creature, can easily be activated or deactivated—the central terms of Kakoudaki’s argument. Subsequently, the discussion of whether these artificial life forms have human rights becomes a central focus for adaptations such as Ex Machina (2014). In an age in which artificial beings can pick and choose their parts, the power of choice allows for the artificial to enact the biological.

In the concluding essay, we move beyond the artificial body to the artificial mind. Daniel Panka’s “Transparent Subjects: Digital Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlie Booker’s ‘Be Right Back’” discusses individuality, subjectivity, and personhood in the context of artificial intelligence and social media. “Be Right Back,” an episode of the critically acclaimed television series Black Mirror (2011-), follows Martha’s efforts to resurrect her deceased husband, Ash, through a futuristic technology, wherein Ash’s character and personality are captured through his activity on digital and social media and his body recreated through android technology. Martha discovers that Android-Ash, or A-Ash, is an incomplete, artificial portrait of the original. Ash’s activity on social media is filtered, never complete or genuine. Panka’s focus on “technosubjectivity” in Black Mirror foreshadows a world imminently upon us in which our “data doubles” both reflect and refract our identities.

No longer is the creature formed in the laboratory. Rather, contemporary science and technology allow us to curate our own bodies and identities. We make and un-make ourselves. We are the creator and creature. But we are not alone, nor are we exhausted by the act of adapting Frankenstein. The Creature continues “pulling back the curtain” of our innermost sanctuaries and watching us with his “speculative eyes” (Shelley 351).

We would like to thank the editors at SFS for giving us the opportunity to assemble this special issue commemorating the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are in debt to the generous authors, reviewers, and external readers whose ideas and energy have electrified and brought this special issue to life. It’s alive!

Shelley, Mary. “Introduction to Shelley’s 1831 Edition.” Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1994. 347-52.


Jed Mayer

The Weird Ecologies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Abstract. As many critics have observed, Frankenstein was composed during a dramatic and calamitous, and for many years unexplained, climatic shift in 1816, the so-called “year without a summer.” This essay argues that Shelley’s imaginative response to that “wet, ungenial summer” produced a novel that may be read as the first imaginative response to climate change, its concern with disturbing developments in science and technology strangely tied to its preoccupation with weird weather. H.P. Lovecraft has famously described the weird as “a malign and particular suspension or defeat of [the] fixed laws of Nature,” and I argue that this quality makes weird fiction the most appropriate imaginative literature for our current predicament. Calling Frankenstein the first work of weird fiction offers us a longer and more substantial history for this seemingly marginal subgenre and further emphasizes the genre’s ongoing relationship with the emerging ecologies of the Anthropocene. It also enables us better to theorize the role of fear and loathing in confronting the effects of climate change and to recognize these responses with an ethic of care for the more-than-human world.

Shannon N. Conley

An Age of Frankenstein: Monstrous Motifs, Imaginative Capacities, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies

Abstract. Using approaches from Science and Technology Studies (STS), political theory, and literary criticism, this paper investigates the use of monstrous motifs in British approaches to the governance of reproductive technologies and the role of the literary imagination as an “anticipatory” governance capacity in thinking through new and emerging technologies. The analysis is divided into three cases. The first case discusses the social and scientific context from which Frankenstein (1818) emerged. It draws from insights in literary criticism to explore motifs related to reproduction, birth, and monstrosity within the text and Mary Shelley’s own life. The second case discusses the context surrounding the publication of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). It serves as a transition, linking Shelley and Frankenstein to modern considerations of reproduction and technology. The third case examines the context leading up to the birth of “test-tube baby” Louise Brown in 1978 and the how the stories, metaphors, and themes generated by Frankenstein and Brave New World permeated the debates around the innovation of reproductive technologies in Britain.

Jolene Zigarovich

The Trans Legacy of Frankenstein

Abstract. With the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein in 2018 and the upcoming 25th anniversary of Susan Stryker’s influential essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” in 2019, the intersection of Gothic literature with gender studies has had a lengthy history. Stryker’s essay profoundly shifted interpretations of Frankenstein and altered the view of the Creature’s gender malleability in literary criticism. This essay examines the influence of Stryker’s essay on studies of gender and Shelley’s novel. Written in the early 1990s, Styker’s essay powerfully expressed her transsexuality, her physical transition, and her alignment with the Creature. This personal, bold exposure of transgender experience paved the way for various memoirs and narratives about trans identification and the journey to embodiment. Like Frankenstein and its creature, her essay has been morphed, resurrected, disseminated, cut, dissected, sutured, and (re) birthed. I argue that suturing science, medicine, reproduction, and science fiction with trans embodiment stimulated a positive monstrosity, exposed the unlimited body, and created a space of radical possibility.

Sinéad Murphy

Frankenstein in Baghdad: Human Conditions, or Conditions of Being Human

Abstract. This article is an intervention into studies of the legacy and longevity of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein through an analysis of one of its most recent reinterpretations, Ahmad Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018). In this article, I examine Frankenstein in Baghdad through the lens of biopolitical theorization by Judith Butler and Isabell Lorey, focusing on the novel’s depiction of forms of unliveable life and living death engendered by large-scale violent conflict in twenty-first century Iraq. I argue that by using Shelley's original creature and its various iterations as intertexts, Saadawi’s Whatsitsname allegorizes a collective feeling that “every day we’re dying from the same fear of dying” in Iraq under conditions of governance through precarization, offering a dystopian pronouncement on the unequal distribution of vulnerability within a post-war environment of sociopolitical instability.

Despina Kakoudaki

Unmaking People: The Politics of Negation in Frankenstein and Ex Machina

Abstract. This paper traces the circularity of animation and de-animation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in order to investigate the novel’s contrast between political and ontological definitions of being. Although its main storyline revolves around the artificial construction of a new man, Shelley’s Frankenstein contains a number of animating and de-animating scenes. In what quickly becomes an obsessive return to making and unmaking people, the novel traffics in premodern epistemologies, in which life and death may present a form of continuity or be generative for each other, and also modern ones, which insist on binary oppositions and distinct states of being. Because of this ambivalent merger of old and new, the novel’s focus on animation offers important insights for the way political categories of being are codified in the modern era, when scenes of animation and de-animation become allegorical conduits for depicting the conferral and withholding of human rights. As the monster in Frankenstein was first made through science and then unmade through social and political rejection, so do legal and social processes, colonial projects, racial epistemologies, and other forms of oppression constantly make and unmake people. In the novel’s multiple scenes of negation we thus find an emotional and epistemological context for understanding modernity’s political technologies of distinction. Through close analysis of Frankenstein, and drawing from contemporary sf texts such as the film Ex Machina (2014), this paper explores how the discourse of the artificial person specializes in defining and often policing the limits of the human.

Daniel Panka

Transparent Subjects: Digital Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlie Brooker’s “Be Right Back”

Abstract. In the twenty-first century, when we interact with corporeal and digital identities alternately, we need to examine whether the distinction between them makes sense anymore. This paper argues that re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein alongside a contemporary reinterpretation, the episode “Be Right Back” from the television series Black Mirror (2012-), provides a new perspective on Shelley’s prescient vision. Both texts expose the inherent problems of the concept of identity, shaped by the Enlighten-ment, that emerged during Shelley’s time. The contemporary text, as well as testifying to the endurance of the novel’s ideas, updates the narrative by offering a possible future acceptance of techno-subjectivity.

Back to Home