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It’s alive! – ‘Making the Monster’

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Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” was published in 1818. In the two centuries since, it has taken its place as one of the most iconic works of science fiction and gothic horror in the history of Western literature. It has become a cultural touchstone, a familiar landmark for anyone navigating the realm of popular culture. When you say “Frankenstein,” everyone knows to what you’re referring.

But while the novel is a work of pure invention, it came about in a world where many of the ideas it put forth were viewed as plausible. The environment in which Shelley lived at that time was an ideal breeding ground to give birth to such a tale.

“Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (Bloomsbury Sigma, $27) is author and scientist Kathryn Harkup’s effort to give a sense of perspective on the world into which Shelley’s iconic tale was brought, to shine a light on the scientific conventions and societal mores that served as the foundation upon which the classic story was built.

Those with more than a passing familiarity with Shelley and her tale might know about the circumstances behind its origins, the challenge issued by the poet Lord Byron to himself, Mary and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley while all were at Villa Diodati in Switzerland – that all three should create a “ghost story.” That challenge served as the impetus for what would become “Frankenstein.”

Harkup takes great pains to illustrate the kind of world in which Shelley lived at the time. This was a period of great discovery and scientific experimentation, a time when the idea of science was beginning to transcend the dabblers and dilettantes of the idle rich. While natural philosophy was still entwined with notions of alchemy and the like, there were still people making great scientific strides.

A fascination with the power and potential of electricity permeated society at the beginning of the 19th century. Galvanism was all the rage and voltaic piles – batteries – were being invented and improved. And of course, the notion that electricity could be used to induce activity and motion in the muscles of the dead had proven a popular topic of exploration and experimentation.

Alongside that look at the scientific climate, we get a breakdown of Shelley’s personal history. Her unconventional upbringing and education, her odd relationship with her (eventual) husband and the artistic eccentricity of their social circle – all of it laid before us in biographical notes that, while never breaking new ground, provide an engaging context.

“Making the Monster” isn’t looking to do any kind of deep dive into either the science or the society of the time. What Harkup has done instead is create a broad and engaging work that will be accessible to the layman with little or no prior knowledge of the subject matter while also proving a worthwhile read to those with a preexisting understanding.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book is the way in which it illustrates how the passage of time can impact the underlying fundamentals of a literary work. Looking back with the benefit of 200 years of experimental endeavor, we can say that much of Shelley’s science was wrong. But at the time, it fit neatly with the consensus view.

Obviously, “Frankenstein” was science fiction (even if there wasn’t anything called “science fiction” at that time) when it was written and remains so today. But it just goes to show that the very best sci-fi has always been a fiction of ideas, built upon the knowledge of today in an effort to extrapolate the discoveries of tomorrow. Shelley’s novel is one of the progenitors of that kind of story; insight into how it came about will always be welcome.

“Making the Monster” is an entertaining book, one that brings together elements of history and literary criticism and science writing and biography without really being any of those things. It’s a breezy read, intended to inform and incite. Don’t be surprised if you’re left wanting to learn more – more about Shelley, more about “Frankenstein” … and more about the world that formed them both.

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