This could have been a classic little SF ‘What-if’ short story – and the only reason it remains in our consciousness is that great idea – of man creating sentient life. And the possibilities – the Promethean echoes – have been explored a world more effectively in, for example, ‘Blade Runner’ – which, I must admit, owes much to the central ideas of this book. But move just about anywhere beyond these central ideas in Shelley’s own book, and it becomes a big, irritating, disappointment. It says so much for the potency of the concept that it wasn’t utterly swamped by the appalling execution. Even though it’s a relatively short novel, it’s still way too long.
Probably the key complaint I have is that there is pretty much only one character in the story, and it’s a character with a seriously annoying voice. Sure, if you had a list of the ‘dramatis personae’ at the front you could name a dozen, and there are even three separate narrators given several of their own chapters … but they merge. Captain Waldon can, perhaps, be excused for sounding so similar to Frankenstein himself: in his ambition and outlook he is meant to parallel the younger Frankenstein, and his social and economic background is comparable. But when the unnamed ‘monster’ starts rambling on for page after page with the same repetitive, tedious, whining, histrionic voice, it’s as laughable as it is painful (although at least the monster has some reason for self-pity). I hate shouty authors (like Cherryh or Donaldson, who bug me in many of the same ways as Shelley) who in their worst novels have no contrast but narrate every page as some superlative climax of the worst, best, lowest, most horrifying, always, never event/emotion/character. On top of this, perhaps Shelley could not imagine writing in any other style than the standard ‘educated-verbose’ of so many 19th Century writers (thank goodness there was a Mark Twain to balance a Herman Melville: the former could make an everyday exchange engaging; the latter could somehow dull the narration of any of the several amazing events in his own life). Her explanation for how a newborn semi-human, wrenched into life and then abandoned to the cruel elements, could in less than a year have developed to sit and debate philosophical niceties working from the same intellectual context and vocabulary as the adult, socialised and highly educated Dr. Frankenstein, is completely outrageous – but she needs it because she can’t produce more than a single type of dialogue (or narration). Moreover it’s such a missed opportunity: you’ve come up with an idea to explore a critically original perspective – but then make this wonderful creation sound exactly like its creator. Even doing that could have been poignant, but only if we were taken on a plausible journey to show how Frankenstein’s creation was moulded into the image of his maker. Again, Blade Runner does a world better with this, mixing the childishness of the four year old replicants with their high intelligence and better than human athleticism.
The perspective is consistently juvenile. It would be nice if you could see Shelley’s self-awareness in this, using craft to highlight the unreliable narrator’s blindness. Perhaps even making some veiled theological observation about being the creation of an absent and narcissistic god. But while you can form your own view of Frankenstein, and draw parallels, I don’t think Shelley herself does anything to integrate such depth. You can see, for example, how Frankenstein only views others as minor players, mere foils for his own personal drama (perhaps most tellingly in the shocking way he openly feels more sorry for himself than for the innocent and condemned Justine:
The poor victim, who on the morrow would pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not, as I did, such deep and bitter agony. I gnashed my teeth and ground them together, uttering a groan that came from my inmost soul.”
The girl’s about to go to the gallows, but he still can only feel sympathy for himself), but Shelley herself does little to undermine this. The women, for example, are all precisely the same fantasy angels – Elizabeth, Catherine, Justine and Agatha are the one clichéd soul clothed in pretty much the same clichéd bodies. Likewise Frankenstein’s father and Agatha’s grandfather are more conventional props than characters. I could deal with Frankenstein being so wrapped up in himself to not bother to see their individuality, and to act as if they have no existence outside of contact with him, but it felt like Shelley viewed them this way too.
Apart from his crowning act of creation, I found Frankenstein’s actions as exasperating as his egocentric and melodramatic voice. And at the moment of creation he seems to have not had the slightest notion of what he’d do if his experiment was successful, but runs off like an irresponsible child who’s broken a window, hoping nobody has noticed and trying to forget it happened. And then it’s a case of the hyper-Hamlets: a deluge of words, vows and declarations, but not even the simplest of steps taken to preserve the safety of those he purportedly cares about, or bears any responsibility to. I’m hard pressed to find a more stupid and objectionable character than Frankenstein, which is tough going when he’s your hero. “Ah,” some might say, “Shelley meant you to feel that way.” But if she was aware of how pathetic Frankenstein is, I don’t know why she wallowed for so long in his repetitively whiney world. Shakespeare could get away with it because he was writing stinging poetry, and having actors jumping around a stage. I wonder if the poetry thing is key: if she had to keep this whole book in iambic pentameter she would have been forced to be more succinct. The whole idea came from hanging about with Shelley and Byron, who both also seem to have been up for some of Frankenstein’s megalomania, but somehow this is forgivable in, or even positive fuel for poetry. You can turn a self-pitying scream into a sonnet, or a punk song, and have it work. But not into a novel.
Which brings me back to where I started: if Shelley had have been given a word limit, she may have produced a masterpiece. But with every extra word (like so many sermons) she chipped in another flaw into what was perfect in its simplicity. Like Asimov, the genius is in the idea, not the writing or the characters or the dialogue, and the short story is the form where they can crystallise their strengths and avoid revealing their weaknesses.