"What is your favorite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?"
"It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." (Frankenstein, chapter 5)
Thus does Victor Frankenstein bring his Creature to life....and is immediately horrified by his creation.
Mary Shelley was just nineteen when she wrote one of the most inventive and culturally significant novels of all time. She was in Lake Como, Italy, with her husband Percy Shelley and their friends, including Lord Byron. Mary Shelley was well-acquainted with death: her mother, feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, had perished shortly after giving birth to Mary; Mary herself had suffered miscarriages and lost two children. Born out of a dream (following a story-telling competition on a dark and stormy night) the novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, came to life out of a complex history and set of circumstances. There is no doubt the novel is a work of genius.
Frankenstein is a novel that seizes the imagination and repays endless reading and study. The complex narrative structure, the dramatic and universal themes, the surprising relevance to contemporary life, all make Frankenstein as readable (and relatable) today as in 1818 when the novel was first published.
Classic books are works that have stood the test of time, are rewarding to contemporary readers, have many levels of meaning and design, and cause the reader to think, question, and even grow. Frankenstein certainly fulfills all of the "requirements" of a classic--and the author seems to have been positively prescient when it comes to the science of her novel. Just the other day I read an article in the New York Times about Chinese doctors contemplating total body transplants (attaching the head of one human to the body of another).
Frankenstein touches on themes of creation, family, education, alienation, knowledge--and does so in arresting and sometimes shocking ways.
For someone obsessed by this novel and its author, there are a few books you will want to possess (or be possessed by). Definitely get the new edition just released by Restless Books. It is gorgeously illustrated by the artist Eko, and includes an introduction by Francine Prose.
Also worth owning: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism Mary Shelley Frankenstein, edited by Johanna M. Smith (Bedford St. Martins).
And the Norton Critical Edition has excellent footnotes, essays, background information, etc: Frankenstein, edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd Norton Critical Edition.
And I keep the Signet Classics paperback on hand so that I can annotate, mark, and highlight to my heart's delight.
Among other things, Mary Shelley quite possibly invented science fiction as a genre when she sat down to write Frankenstein. But she also gave us a book that is a cultural touchstone, and continues to cause readers to be riveted to the page.
What science fiction classic is your favorite?
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