Examining the science of “a work of fiction that has enthralled, inspired and terrified for two centuries.”
In 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), an educated young woman, used the latest science to “create her masterpiece, Frankenstein.” Gothic romances, featuring a wide array of grotesque backgrounds, were the rage of her era, but all relied on ghosts, magic, and other supernatural elements. By sticking to facts and accepted theory, Shelley produced the first science-fiction novel. It was a hit. “The terrifying spectacle of a creature brought to life from a collection of dead flesh, scavenged from dissection rooms and graveyards, was all the more terrifying because it felt all too possible,” writes chemist and author Harkup (A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, 2015) in her second book. Much of Shelley’s science was wrong, but the author keeps readers entertained with an expert mixture of biography and the scientific problems that we—but not Victor Frankenstein—would face in reanimating a collection of body parts. Harkup breaks no new biographical ground, but few readers will object to another account of literature’s most famous ménage à quatre in which Mary and her stepsister matched wits with poets Byron and Shelley, leading to much immortal writing and many pregnancies. While Mary’s Frankenstein discovers the essence of life, scientists no longer postulate such a substance, and Mary reveals few details. Rather than speculate, Harkup devotes the majority of her text to histories of the sciences that Victor purportedly mastered (electricity, chemistry) and the medical problems that should have defeated him (rejection, decay, infection).
A lucid and entertaining book that is neither literary criticism nor a biography with serious ambitions but mostly a series of essays on science, history, and early-19th-century British society often only distantly related to building Frankenstein’s monster.