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Happy 200th Birthday to Science Fiction?

By / January 8, 2018 / no comments

At the beginning of January 1818 a new book was published, a novel written by a woman still in her teens, and begun as part of a ghost story competition with Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Frankenstein; or, A Modern Prometheus came out from the firm of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones, having been rejected by John Murray with whom Byron and Shelley were more closely associated. The novel was anonymous, though an idea gained ground that the author was the notorious radical and poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in part because the novel was dedicated to William Godwin, Mary’s father. For example, as early as March 1818, Sir Walter Scott’s review of the novel in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine announced that it “is said to be written by Mr Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, if we are rightly informed, is son-in-law to Mr Godwin.”

The novel was respectfully reviewed, it was praised for its ingenuity but damned as unbelievable. It was not a best seller, and indeed would not become famous until it was adapted as a melodrama for the stage. Several rival productions, based on the more Gothic aspects of the novel, were staged within a few years, the first of which was Presumption: Or the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, which opened in both London and Paris in the summer of 1823. Early reports suggested that women in the audience fainted at the sight of the creature.

The same year, William Godwin arranged for a slightly revised edition of the novel to be published in two volumes, and in 1831 a more extensively revised edition, under the name Mary Shelley who was by now an established novelist, came out from Bentley and Colburn as part of their Standard Novels series. The fame of Frankenstein was beginning. But it was a work that has always been better known, and has reached a far wider audience, as a stage drama (including the recent National Theatre production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller) or as a film (including the classic James Whale production starring Boris Karloff).

But the historical significance of Frankenstein came only in 1973 when Brian Aldiss, in his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, described it as “the first real novel of science fiction”. Actually, he had stacked the odds by defining science fiction as being “characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.” If science fiction has to be Gothic, anything before the Gothic doesn’t get much of a look-in.

Well, Aldiss’s definition of science fiction has fallen out of fashion over the last 40-odd years, as other more nuanced and more widely acceptable definitions have come along. But, curiously enough, his identification of Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel hasn’t been discarded along with his definition.

Which is why we, along with celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, we are also seeing people proclaim this the 200th birthday of science fiction.

Well, it’s not. Science fiction is a lot older than 200 years, and in the next post we’ll point you to a selection of essential science fiction novels that are older than Frankenstein.

All the same, Frankenstein is a tremendous novel, and a major staging post in the history of science fiction. So let’s just take a moment to celebrate that.

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