Fear and Loathing in Geneva

How drugs and poetry sparked science fiction to life

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Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein

The summer of 1816 saw the 28-year old reprobate of London, “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Lord Byron, sweep into Geneva in a replica of Napoleon’s coach, not quite escaping the trailing whirlwinds of scandal and gossip that followed everywhere in his wake; accompanied by a peacock, a monkey, a dog, several footmen, and his doctor, John Polidori. The plan: sex, drugs (especially, laudanum), and poetry.

An entourage of fellow child-prodigy literati genius caught up with the party: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her boyfriend, the 23 year old poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, her step-sister, the ravishing beauty, Claire Claremont. The half-sisters were eighteen. Mary, did the honourable thing, and made an honest man of Percy Shelley later that year and took his surname. Claremont and Byron were an on-off couple, figuring shit out but Byron was not really looking for commitment at the moment. Sorry, babes.

The two male poets decided to take cottages next to each other. Byron moved into the suitably magnificent Villa Diodati while the other three took a more humble cottage. While this shit was going on, a volcano had erupted in Indonesia the previous year, bringing freakish weather to Europe. Summer was nearly cancelled out, and it rained torrentially, “an almost perpetual rain” with terrific thunderstorms rippling back and forth across the lake.

One dark, stormy evening, in the shadows filled Swiss manor off of a spectacular lake roiling with rain and thunder. Byron was reading from a book of German gothic poems. Shelley, probably baked on opium tincture, hallucinated a bare-breasted vision of Mary with eyes where the nipples should have been and ran screaming from the room. This gave the mean-humoured Byron the idea to hold a horror story contest in order to freak Shelley out even more. These macabre games in dark, candlelit parlours, windows shaking, the sky outside crackling with electricity in the skies over Geneva, led to pieces of writing that would bring a revolution to English literature, birthing the modern genre of SFF.

Polidiori would write a poem, The Vampyre, that would, in turn inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mary Shelley would write Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, the first science fiction English novel.

The science in the natural philosophy fiction

Frankenstein has enough real natural philosophy theory in it to give Liu Cixin a fight for his money. The novel opens by subtly alluding to the importance of the North Pole as an important frontier for scientific exploration and experimentation. However, one of the most striking summaries about the state-of-the-art of science at that time is the method Mary Shelley invents to describe how Frankenstein brings his terrible monster to life.

Mary Shelley had grown up in a challenging home environment. She was not formally educated but was the daughter of two extremely well-read radical philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (often described as a founder of the political movement of feminism). Their household was unconventional and ‘intellectually electric’. Wollstonecraft attempt at suicide, by jumping from Putney Bridge, failed after being resuscitated. Growing up in this somewhat turbulent but intellectual atmosphere, meant Mary Shelly was phenomenally well-read for an eighteen year old, and the books references in Frankenstein are proof of this.

To begin with, she describes how Frankenstein’s dark predicament leads to an obsession with Cornelius Agrippa. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535) was an occult writer and academic. One of the more odd things about his legend is the story that his dog jumped in with him when was drowning*, causing people believe it was a demon. Reading Agrippa, leads Frankenstein to Paracelsus, considered by the Rosicrucians to be a prophet and diviner, and Albertus Magnus, one of the 36 doctors of the Catholic church. Frankenstein finds himself obsessed with classic alchemist problems, such as the Philosopher’s Stone and elixir of life.

It is the second problem that attracts him more. This strange reading, and the interest in the occult, draws derision from Frankenstein’s father. Later, the first professor Frankenstein encounters at university, M. Kreme shares his father’s contempt. Both men tell Frankenstein that contemporary natural philosophy far exceeded the obscure work of these alchemists. This annoys the obstinate Frankenstein, but on Krempe’s recommendation visits the kindly chemist, M. Waldman.

Waldman is not that rude and says about the occultists, “the labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely even fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.” Already interested in some branches of natural science, especially galvanism and electricity (after watching a thunderstorm strip a tree to shreds of bark) Frankenstein takes to heart Waldman’s advice: “if your wish is to become really a man of science and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics.”

Frankenstein starts to wonder about the principle of life and where it proceeds from, and becomes obsessed, like Da Vinci, with anatomy. Spending time with observing the putrefaction of human bodies in vaults and charnel houses, he discovers the secret. He decides to keep this secret to himself because, as Frankenstein’s own cautionary tale shows, the origin of life is knowledge too dangerous for any man to know.

The story of Safie

Shelly’s erudition and breadth of knowledge, even at that young age, is evident in the middle parts of the novel, especially in the tale of the evil Turk’s good daughter (who, nobody panic, is a secret Christian), Safie.

When Frankenstein’s monster is initially making his way in the world, he finds a place to hide and observe the home of a nice and noble French family that had fallen on hard times. The family had decided to help a Turkish political emigre in Paris escape from execution and had been ruined. The Turkish man had reneged on his promise to reward them for saving his life and give his daughter Safie’s hand in marriage to the young man of the family. However, Safie got the opportunity to escape to her lover, and took it since she prefers the freedoms women have in Europe to a harem in Turkey. Thus, they were living nobly in the countryside, collecting wood for fire, and playing the mandolin or some such instrument, for each other’s edification and enjoyment.

The monster, not content with creepily observing them through a slot, decides to read their books. These include: Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives and Sorrows of Werter. Like those from Eton and Oxford, this classical education blows the empathy gaskets of the monster, and he comes a psycho killer. Fortunately, the monster didn’t become a Tory Chancellor of England.

Frankenstein’s elaborate structure, the telescoping nature of the stories within stories, reveals inspiration from the Arabian Nights, introduced to France by Antoine Galland. In fact, in her introduction to a 1831 edition, Shelley compares her predicament, in taking up Byron’s challenge to invent a tale, to Scheherazade’s.

Concluding note

Some people think Frankenstein is the large green guy with scars and two bolts embedded in the sides of his forehead. This is inaccurate. This monster is more accurately described as Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein is the Italian guy who studied too much natural philosophy and made the monster.

*Drowning is a weird leitmotif in this tale: Apart from Agrippa’s and his demonic dog’s drowning, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s failed suicide, even Byron and Percy Shelley nearly drowned during a boating trip in Lake Geneva. Shelley survived, only to actually die by drowning, a few years later. Mary Shelley returned to London after his death, and lived a fabulous life as a respected author.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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