I could not have picked a more appropriate year to publish my new book FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, as it is the 200th anniversary of the conception of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel. On a fittingly dark and stormy night in June of 1816, Mary, then only 18 years old, had a nightmare that would not only inspire one the most iconic characters of all time–it would serve as the progenitor of an entirely new branch of literature, a genre that would not even have a name until the 1920’s, when Amazing Stories founder Hugo Gernsback dubbed it “scientifiction” or science fiction.
In researching the original novel while writing FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN, I was struck even more forcefully by the visionary aspect of Shelley’s work. Nowadays, many critics will credit Shelley with giving Victor Frankenstein a scientific rather than a supernatural origin for his creation, but will dismiss the science she describes as little more than hand-waving necromancy. While the notion of fashioning a being from parts of dead bodies and then bringing it to life with lightning may still seem far-fetched and fanciful, it actually synthesizes several prescient speculative concepts that have since become scientific realities.
To recognize how perceptive Frankenstein really was in its scientific speculation, one must keep in mind the historical context. When Mary Shelley sat down to pen the story in 1816, electricity was still a little-understood force of Nature. Its effects had been observed in magnets, in electric eels, and in static electricity generated by the rubbing of wool or amber, but the underlying mechanism behind these varied manifestations had not been explained. It had only been 64 years since Benjamin Franklin had demonstrated that lightning was another form of electricity, and a mere 17 years since Alessandro Volta invented the voltaic pile, a battery capable of chemically creating a weak electric current. The idea that electricity could serve any useful purpose–to say nothing of raising the dead–was a novel one.
Mary Shelley’s ingenious extrapolation that electric current might be able to somehow reawaken dead flesh derived from another revolutionary–and relatively recent–discovery. In 1780, Italian physician and biologist Luigi Galvani found that he could cause a severed frog’s leg to twitch as if alive by passing a small electric current through it. The phenomenon, which we now call bioelectricity, was dubbed galvanism in his honor.
The scientist’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, went on to do a spectacular demonstration of the principle at Newgate Prison in London in 1803. He ran an electric current through the corpse of George Forster, a convict hanged for the murders of his wife and child, and the results of the experiment were, quite literally, shocking. “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver,” according to an account published in the notorious prison bulletin The Newgate Calendar, “and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”
Although it is unlikely that Mary Shelley witnessed this spectacle herself, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and his physician friend Dr. John Polidori would probably have mentioned it during their enthusiastic discussions of galvanism, which provided a key inspiration for Mary’s vision of Victor Frankenstein’s medical research. The idea that the same mysterious power inherent in a thunderbolt also energized the nervous system of human beings and all living things must have seemed a revelation to Mary, proof of a unifying force that bound together all animate and inanimate things in the universe…which it was.
One must also remember that the science of modern medicine was still in its infancy, its progress held back by society’s ongoing taboo against using cadavers for anatomical dissection. In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein himself had to plunder churchyards to obtain the raw materials for his creation. “Resurrectionists,” or grave-robbers, did a thriving business supplying medical students with fresh corpses; ten years after the publication of Frankenstein, William Burke and William Hare would be tried for murder when they decided to skip digging in the graveyard and go for fresh, living meat when procuring bodies for sale.
But the idea of taking pieces of dead bodies and attaching them to a living being went far beyond the taboo of dismembering corpses. To readers of the early nineteenth century, it would have seemed like black magic. From our perspective, however, we can see that Shelley clearly prefigured the organ transplantation and limb grafting that have become an essential part of modern surgery. It is coincidental but significant that 1818, the year the original version of Frankenstein was published, was also the year in which British obstetrician James Blundell performed the first successful human-to-human blood transfusion, a necessary precursor to all the subsequent transplantation procedures that have evolved in the succeeding two centuries.
Yet Mary Shelley goes beyond even the prospect of simply grafting human flesh. In her novel, Victor Frankenstein actually fabricates some of his monster’s gargantuan limbs rather than using existing pieces of corpses, for the practical reason that bigger parts are easier to work on. (Any mechanical engineer would understand and empathize.) “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed,” he says, “I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large.” His plan, of course, backfires badly, for he ends up creating a murderous behemoth with the strength of a dozen men. But, although Shelley never really describes how Frankenstein manufactures his monster’s enormous frame, the simple fact that he makes a human figure from scratch, as ’twere, presages the prosthetic limbs, artificial hearts, and cloned organs of contemporary medicine.
And that is precisely why Frankenstein is still a cutting-edge science fiction novel today, a topic I shall address in Part II. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you have not already done so, I hope you’ll check out FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN here on its Amazon order page:
If you enjoy the novel as much as I believe you will, please post a review on Amazon and recommend the book to your friends.
Thanks for reading!