Frankenstein’s Planet

I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, recently. The book is 200 years old this year (see the exhibit at the Morgan). If you have not read it, it is profoundly different from the Frankenstein created by the commercial media over the years.

The strangest transference may be the naming thing: “Frankenstein” has become the creature created by Victor Frankenstein. The man has become his monster. And the prefix “Franken-” has become shorthand for any and all technological nightmares.

Above all it is an astounding work, especially when you consider that Shelley was twenty when it was published. True, her parents, anarchist William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, were remarkable in their own right. Mary Godwin (or Mary Jr. as I like to call her), however, never knew her brilliant mother because she died soon after giving birth. And of course Mary Jr.’s partner was no mean cultural force himself. Percy Shelley wrote the preface to the first edition, published anonymously, which he dedicated to his hero William Godwin. (He was initially thought to be the author of the whole thing.)

The novel begins and ends in the Arctic. The first of three narrators, Walton, is determined to get to the pole, that icy lodestar of the northern hemisphere, focus of so many European obsessions. On the voyage into the ice, he runs into both Frankenstein and the creature. Cue Frankenstein’s narration: he is chasing his creation. And his creation is urging him on: “Follow me: I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of cold and frost, to which I am impassive.” (Yes, this creature talks, and talks well.)

It’s notable that the early world of the industrial revolution makes no appearance in the novel. (The Romantics were quite reactionary in some ways.) The sciences, too, are scarcely discussed: Victor’s means of animating life are kept a secret. But there is no escaping this context of the novel; coal-power was exponential increasing the power available to humans. Their own muscles, those of draft animals, wind and water, were as nothing compared to steam heated by burning ancient fossilized lifeforms. Here was the letting loose of a creature of another kind, Prometheus unbound, burning past millennia for power… and carbon dioxide.

Frankenstein’s creature, that unnatural born philosopher, is last seen heading into an Arctic that two centuries later has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. He plans on burning himself to death in a funeral pyre. presumably made out of the wood of the sled.

The fire was lit: the “everlasting ices” turned out to have an expiration date.

[Pictures: Iceland, 2010, the closest I’ve been to the imaginary line of the Arctic Circle.]

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