THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE “CREATURE”
Frankenstein the novel is a significant enhancement on one of the most important mythic trends in western civilization. In Greek mythology, Prometheus, a god himself, steals heavenly fire for man. Having violated the heavenly order, he is punished (the subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus). In Medieval legend, Faust made an unholy—and supernatural—bargain for knowledge, and his eventual punishment was to be dragged off to Hell. Frankenstein the character has both Promethean and Faustian elements, but he’s also different in an important way. He carries the responsibility for his own creations, whether for good or ill. Nobody, not even god, can bale him out.
Frankenstein is about bearing the responsibility for having broken the natural order of things. And that is the source of the dark agony in this story—Victor Frankenstein breaks the natural order; he causes a rupture in the wholeness of things that no external agency could repair. But this is common in SF: characters who have broken the natural order of things. Or if not characters who have themselves broken the natural order, then characters who must nonetheless suffer the consequence—or the responsibility—of the broken order.
We assume that the factories of the Industrial Revolution had some influence on Mary Shelley’s fable. Couldn’t that be seen as a breaking of the natural order? and wasn’t there a responsibility there to be taken? Do we not continue to break the natural order?
But there are other features to consider. The vastness of external nature is here—Victor Frankenstein visits the Alps, even confronts the creature there. And in a sub-plot, we have a character trying to circumnavigate the globe, to explore the farthest reaches of vast nature. The universe will get bigger and bigger—and bigger. But never bigger than the capacity of SF to hold it. This capacity to hold external nature in a narrative is a trait that grew out of its Gothic origins.
The novel offers, too, an apocalyptic vision of the new age to come. Mary Shelley’s own impulse was somewhat conservative. Her tone is moral, as she seems to be pointing out the dangers of breaking the natural order, the unleashing of the forces that would sweep us into a new age. Yet one of the most the attractive features of the novel is the vision of that energy unleashed.
SF has never stopped flirting with the new age that is always on the horizon. But, then, neither have we.