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  • Science fiction begins with Frankenstein.

  • So many of the ideas, and the tropes,

  • even the philosophy behind science fiction come

  • from this one great work.

  • So let us start where we must, and talk Frankenstein.

  • The very first sentence of the preface

  • to Frankenstein reads thus,

  • "The event on which this fiction is founded,

  • "has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of

  • "the physiological writers of Germany,

  • "as not of impossible occurrence.

  • "I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree

  • "of serious faith to such an imagination,

  • "yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy,

  • "I have not considered myself as merely weaving

  • "a series of supernatural terrors."

  • And it is on that statement that all

  • of science fiction is founded.

  • Shelley is saying that the events in this book

  • could be real, not that they are real

  • or even that they are remotely likely,

  • but they could exist in the universe we know.

  • Eventually, we will escape the bounds of

  • this statement with science fiction,

  • but it's this idea, the idea that our sci-fi

  • tales exist within our rational world,

  • within the bounds of what science tells us is possible,

  • that makes science fiction different fundamentally different

  • from fantasy or myth.

  • And that thought is incredibly important

  • at the birth of the genre.

  • This is what separates it out as its own distinct

  • literary branch and allows it to have rules

  • and conventions unlike those already existing genres

  • of the fantastic, of horror or folklore or myth.

  • It's also initially part of what gets us to buy in.

  • Science fiction uses the possible as a lens for our world.

  • It may be the remote and the unlikely,

  • but what better way to look at human nature than

  • to set it against the extreme cases of what

  • it might someday encounter and see what rolls out.

  • This is so important to Shelley that it's

  • the very first thing that's presented to the reader.

  • Without this idea of the fantastic possible,

  • I don't think we have science fiction.

  • But that is far from the only standard Frankenstein

  • created for sci-fi.

  • Today, we are going to explore all

  • the other ways that Frankenstein established tropes,

  • styles, and techniques that we almost take

  • for granted in sci-fi today.

  • Now, before I tread any further, I should say one thing,

  • if you only know this story from the movies,

  • you don't actually know this story at all.

  • The films have little to do with the book,

  • and while it is actually a really worthwhile exercise

  • to think about why this story has been interpreted

  • and reimagined the way it has throughout the 20th century.

  • everything I talk about today will be

  • regarding the original work.

  • So let's start at the beginning, with a young man,

  • obsessed by alchemy and yet fascinated by

  • the power of science.

  • A young man determined to overcome death for

  • the fame it might bring him.

  • A young man blind to the consequences of

  • what he is trying to do.

  • Let's talk about Victor Frankenstein.

  • Victor is the blueprint for the frustrated scientist trope.

  • All of those other scientists you read about in comics,

  • see in movies, or find in the pages of later

  • science fiction, those who would have been so great

  • for the world if the world had only acknowledged

  • their genius, they are all basically

  • riffs on Victor Frankenstein.

  • In fact, this has become so common

  • and so ingrained into pop culture that a lot

  • of these characters pop up without their authors

  • even really thinking about the legacy

  • of Victor Frankenstein that they come from.

  • Victor is also our model of scientific hubris.

  • He believes that he can best death itself by creating

  • life out of the parts of the dead,

  • and thinking his own intellect to be so superior,

  • he doesn't even once consider the ramifications

  • of what he's doing until it's too late.

  • He is the model for all of those characters punished

  • for defying the laws of nature,

  • for the scientist so obsessed with pursuing their ideas

  • that they don't even consider what those ideas

  • might ultimately mean for humanity.

  • But he's also a coward.

  • At the first sight of his own creation,

  • he flees because it's physically deformed,

  • because it's too ugly to look at

  • just the way he made it.

  • Which brings us to the monster itself.

  • An innocent, filled with gentle kindness and

  • a love for the world, who is rejected at every turn

  • for his physical appearance,

  • eventually growing callus and cold.

  • How many times in science fiction have we seen

  • this monster with the heart of gold?

  • I present to you that trope's origins,

  • and like many things in Frankenstein Shelley explores

  • this trope far more thoroughly than

  • many who would eventually borrow it.

  • The monster, outwardly ugly, finds itself continuously

  • rejected by an inwardly ugly humanity,

  • rejected at birth by Victor,

  • attacked in the first village he visited,

  • turned away by the cottagers he cared for

  • and thus, at last the monster turns on humanity itself.

  • This theme of rejection despite offering

  • the best intentions and offering something truly of worth,

  • has become not only a theme of science fiction

  • literature but of the geek culture that

  • has grown up around it.

  • But part of the reason that we see nobility in

  • the monster is that we see it self educate,

  • reading the greatest books of the past.

  • Mary Shelley saw her work as part of

  • an ongoing tradition of Western literature.

  • Paradise Lost, Dante, The Sorrows of Young Werther,

  • these are all directly referenced in the work.

  • They serve as a foundation, as key insights into

  • the character of the Monster,

  • and they are things that the writer expects

  • the reader to at least have a passing familiarity with.

  • That's something that would became part of the genre, too.

  • Works like Hyperion are firmly grounded in that tradition,

  • borrowing structure from Canterbury Tales and The Decameron,

  • even taking it's name from a Keats poem.

  • Even pieces as odd as Dhalgren rely on the mythological

  • and literary tradition of the west.

  • There is an expectation in science fiction that

  • the reader is well read.

  • But there's an on-going debate as to whether sci-fi

  • itself is part of the classic tradition or something new,

  • and as great works of science fiction pour in

  • from all over the globe, bringing in new traditions,

  • that question becomes even more complex.

  • But I should also mention how this tale is told,

  • through letters, relating a story told

  • to a young man named Robert by the strange

  • and wild scientist he finds out upon the ice.

  • Frankenstein is actually a story within

  • a story within a book.

  • The whole work is actually an epistolary novel,

  • although that's easy to forget.

  • And this allows us a juxtaposition.

  • Simply by having the young Robert's story set side

  • by side with Victor's, as a reader,

  • we are forced to consider the eager young explorer's ideals

  • and, far more importantly, his motivations.

  • We are forced to contrast them with Victor's

  • just by using this framing device,

  • Mary Shelley forces us as readers to think about some

  • of the ideas she wants us to consider.

  • And, while we rarely see this particular framing device

  • again, it's important because it kicks off

  • a long tradition of science fiction using framing devices,

  • especially for the purpose of making us question

  • just how reliable the central narrator really is.

  • And finally we have the title,

  • or rather the alternate title, The Modern Prometheus.

  • On the surface level, the allusion here seems clear,

  • Victor breathes life into inanimate flesh

  • and he brings knowledge at great cost,

  • which would certainly qualify him as The Modern Prometheus

  • but the novel makes a point of the fact that he never

  • actually shares that knowledge, no one ever finds out

  • how he made his reanimated man.