Monsters of the Imagination: Gothic, Science, and Fiction

Fred Botting
Fred Botting

Science fiction and Gothic? The conjunction of two hybrid genres composed from diverse literary and mythical precursors breeds monstrosities: strange beings and disturbing other — and underworlds lurk at the limits of modern knowledge.

Despite so many Gothic science fiction mutations, it is strange the genres should cross at all. Gothic writing conventionally deals in supernatural occurrences and figures, looking back, in its architectural and cultural settings, to superstitious and barbaric “dark” ages without the enlightened reason and empirical technique so important in science fiction’s imaginings of human progress.

Gothic fiction, for all its wanderings in desolate landscapes and invocations of diabolical forces, never strays far from home, playing upon the anxieties of its uncertain present. In looking forward to change, science fiction also projects figures of fear. In the crossings of two generic monsters, monstrosity returns from the past and arrives from the future. As long as it is not “predictable,” “calculable,” or “programmable,” “the future is necessarily monstrous” (Derrida 1992: 386).

Gothic fiction begins as a hybrid, a “new species” of writing combining ancient and modern romance (Walpole 1982: 9). A “strange monster,” critics considered its plots improbable, its narratives ill-formed and unrealistic, its morality dubious: “monsters of the imagination” — a deluge of tales, romances, novels threatening familial and social mores — propagated only depravity (Williams 1970: 151, 162).

Hybrid, disturbing, monstrous, Gothic fiction developed in the shadow of acceptability. Science fiction, another monster, relishes “its vitalising bastardy, its immoral interdisciplinary habits, as it feathers its nest with scraps of knowledge seized from the limit of the expanding world” (Aldiss 1973: 41).

Disrespecting disciplines, it disobeys generic divisions to emerge from fantasy, fairy tale, myth, romance, fable, and epic (Aldiss 1973: 8–19; Parrinder 1980: 39). It is “a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth” (Frye 1973: 49). H.G. Wells described his tales as “scientific romances”; Hugo Gernsback (introducing the Amazing Stories magazine in April 1926) defined “scientifiction” as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (Ketterer 1974: 50).

Monstrous in form, romance bred monstrosities: on the one hand, idealised figures, drawn from chivalric or fairy tales, were so impossibly unrealistic as to be “monsters of perfection”; on the other hand, grotesque and deformed, its characters were “out of nature.” The creations of romance “transport the reader unprofitably into the clouds, where he is sure to find no solid footing, or into those worlds of fancy, which go forever out of the way of human paths” (Williams 1970: 162).

Romances idealise and deform, science fiction creates “as many hells as heavens” (Nicholls 1976: 181). Romance reading is unprofitable, failing to offer proper moral instruction: its generic category lies, like science fiction, in the popular and low realms of “paraliterature” (Broderick 1995: vii). In eschewing firm ground in favour of flights of fancy, romances establish the trajectory of science fiction’s unbounded explorations of change, outsiders, escape: its “freedom of imagery” is freedom from realist conventions.

In this respect, science fiction liberally exploits linguistic possibilities, “the great modern literature of metaphor” (Nicholls 1976: 179–82). Metaphor, etymologically, is a form of “transport,” substituting terms, moving readers to imaginary locations, creating new associations and combinations.

Raymond Williams, discussing the differences between utopian and science fictional treatments of paradise and hell, altered worlds and willed or technological transformations, observes that “the presentation of otherness appears to link them, as modes of desire or of warning in which a crucial emphasis is attained by the element of discontinuity from ordinary ‘realism’” (Williams 1979: 54).

In the eighteenth-century, monster metaphors repeatedly served to demonstrate and warn against immorality. Realism and social reality recoils from strangeness and monstrosity. In contrast, science fiction embraces metaphorical possibilities to “defamiliarise the familiar, and make familiar the new and the strange” (LeFanu 1988: 21). As a “literature of cognitive estrangement” presenting “a novum,” science fiction depends upon metaphorical creation (Suvin 1979: 4). But the “novum” is simultaneously a “monstrum,” the difference a matter of perspective. Strangeness also evokes the “uncanny,” an experience of the disruption of boundaries between reality and fantasy caused by the return of repressed psychic forces or uncertainties surrounding technical and textual mimicry of humans (Freud). In making the familiar strange, the new can be seen as a threat (monstrum) or promise (novum). Part of science fiction’s success stems from the way it has “diversified the Gothic tale of terror in such a way as to encompass those fears generated by change and technological advances which are the chief agents of change” (Aldiss 1973: 53).

In the 1831 introduction to ‘Frankenstein’, Mary Shelley allows her “hideous progeny” to slide from authorial control and “go forth and prosper” (Shelley 1969: 9). The monster in the text and the monster that is the text (composed of diverse generic fragments, multiple literary and cultural allusions, and different epistolary narratives) complies.

While Frankenstein refuses the monster’s demand for a mate, fearing the birth of a “race of devils,” the culture that receives the novel has no such qualms: in a proliferating host of dramatic adaptations, literary reworkings, cinematic productions and popular citations, Frankenstein and monster are repeatedly invoked as synonyms for acts of uncontrolled experimentation (Easlea 1983; Turney 1998).

The novel begins in a ghost story competition but takes its bearings from the contemporary scientific endeavours of Erasmus Darwin, Humphrey Davy, Giovani Volta, and Luigi Galvani. It looks back and lurches forward, moving between the work of alchemists seeking the elixir vitae and the empiricism of new scientific ideas and techniques for understanding and transforming the physical world.

Generically, too, the novel is difficult to categories: emerging from a context of Romantic companions, aesthetics, and experiments, it abandons the supernatural events and superstitions of Gothic fiction. Geographically located in northern, Protestant, and bourgeois countries and set in the present rather than a feudal past, there is little evidence of the castles, abbeys, and ruins so central to Gothic formulas. The desolation and wildness of natural spaces in the novel offer darker reflections on the solitary figures inhabiting them, opening Romanticism to the return of Gothic horror in the “progressive internalisation and recognition of fears generated by the self ” ( Jackson 1981: 24). Self is divided, the novel becomes a psychodrama. At the same time, monstrosity is also found in external formations and institutions: in class antagonisms, revolutionary mobs, legal, social, and familial exclusions (Vlasopolos 1983).

Indistinctly Gothic, until later revisions and interpretations firm up the association, Frankenstein is also problematically related to science fiction. One editor regards its experiments as “switched-on magic” and “souped-up alchemy”: it does not employ “the technological plausibility that is essential to science fiction” (Shelley 1974: xxvii).

Few scientific details contribute to Frankenstein’s laborious suturing and reanimating of dead body parts, though it is made clear that the “secret of life” is taken from nature. Only belatedly, in the 1831 introduction’s discussion of electricity and its passing reference to “some powerful engine,” is there a hint of any imaginative extrapolation of current scientific discoveries (Shelley 1969: 9). The fact of scientific, rather than supernatural, creation is enough for the novel to be declared “the origin of the species,” the “first,” “unmistakable” example of modern science fiction (Aldiss 1973: 7; Priest 1979: 189; Russ 1995: 126). Frankenstein sets the pattern: “combining social criticism with new scientific ideas, while conveying a picture of her day, Mary Shelley anticipates the methods of H.G. Wells when writing his scientific romances” (Aldiss 1973: 23). It shows the “seeds of all diseased creation myths,” leading to the monstrous experiments of Dr. Moreau and the threatening robots of Karel Capek’s automated and dehumanized industrial society in R. U. R. (Aldiss 1973: 33). Frankenstein’s influence is extensive: “every robot, every android, every sentient computer (whether benevolent or malevolent), every nonbiological person . . . is a descendant of the ‘mighty figure’ Shelley dreamed one rainy night in the summer of 1816 and gave to the world two years later” (Russ 1995: 126).

Writers frequently return to its theme and story for inspiration, to develop or correct its science, to explore further its ramifications or to pay it playful homage: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Dial ‘F’ for Frankenstein” (1965), Harry Harrison’s “At Last, The True Story of Frankenstein” (1965), Kurt Vonnegut’s “Fortitude” (1968) (see Haining 1995: 681–8, 728–34, 697–715). The origins are revisited most spectacularly in Aldiss’ Prometheus Unbound (1974) in which a modern time traveller returns to the scene of creation to meet Mary and the monster.

In ‘The Last Man’ (1826), Shelley confronts utopian ideas of social and political organisation with a natural disaster of global proportions. Set in the twenty-first century and adopting a visionary tone, the novel contains few modern innovations (balloon travel, a republican England). Quickly abandoning the pretence of futurity, it remains “no more than Gothic” (Aldiss 1973: 33). Its enduring impact lies in its representation of global catastrophe: a feminine and devastating plague wipes out humanity and leaves its civilisation in ruins.

Frankenstein and ‘The Last Man’ inaugurate “two great myths of the industrial age” (Russ 1995: 126). They engage with the effects of economic, political, and scientific change on individual, familial, and social structures. Enmeshed in the uneven development of modernity, in economic shifts to commerce, industrial production, and imperial expansion, in political calls for reform and democracy, in aesthetic notions of free, imaginative individuals, and in scientific innovations rapidly and visibly transforming the conditions of human existence, the novels identify monstrosities in the new: revolutionary mobs are many-headed monsters, industrial workers are hulking brutes, new economic and political structures reduce humanity to slaves or automata. Like Gothic writing, science fiction “draws its beliefs, its material, its great organising metaphors, its very attitudes, from a culture that could not exist before the industrial revolution, before science became an autonomous activity and a way of looking at the world” (Russ 1995: 10).

Gothic and science fiction are complex and contradictory effects of modernity, bound up in the metaphors and practices with which it transforms the world.

Modernity, in inventing an array of disciplines along with economic, individual, and political liberties is a curiously doubled formation. It is, like Frankenstein, bound up with matters of production and reproduction, concerned with social and industrial developments shaping individuals, making humans, and making monsters at the same time. In this context, Frankenstein’s concern with a split or alienated self provides an appropriate metaphor to negotiate change and innovation.

Darko Suvin, in charting the relationship between the industrial revolution and Romanticism, further divides the novel between “flawed hybrid of horror tale and philosophical SF” (Suvin 1979: 127). Where Percy Shelley is the “great poetic forerunner” of “SF anticipation,” Mary’s novel participates in a “widespread recoil from Promethean utopianism” (Suvin 1979: 124, 127). Where Frankenstein is located “in the tradition of the Gothic story,” in horror and disgust, his creature is identified as “compositional core and the real SF novum that lifts Frankenstein above the level of a grippingly mindless Gothic thriller” (Suvin 1979: 129–130).

The division is important, if difficult to sustain, in marking out two very different trajectories for fiction. Science fiction, “oriented towards humanity’s furthest horizons,” takes its bearings from Romantic idealism and the imagination of human progress (Suvin 1979: 170). William Godwin and Percy Shelley are exemplary figures in this line of flight: the former, a radical and humanist philosopher, imagined the rational perfectibility of social relations. Developments in technology, he optimistically speculated, in relieving want and the material hardships of labour, indicated the capacity of the mind to overcome matter. Similarly idealistic, Percy Shelley allied the benevolent and transformative potential of scientific discovery (his interests in electricity as the “spark of life” appear in Frankenstein) with poetic visions of human freedom.

Romanticism informs many of the intellectual aspirations and aesthetic attitudes of science fiction. H.G. Wells acknowledged his place “in the tradition of Godwin and Shelley” (Wells 1966: 552). Gernsback wrote of “charming romance,” “scientific fact,” and “prophetic vision.” Isaac Asimov, in practice and criticism, associates the genre with scientific advancement, human improvement, and rational understanding (see Broderick 1995: 4).

The triumph of mind over matter recurs in Arthur C. Clarke’s fiction: in ‘Childhood’s End’ (1953) scientific progress has the power to save humankind and produce an “overmind.” “Naive romanticism” (Priest 1979: 189) or “transcendental mysticism” (Hollinger 1990: 34), Clarke’s “supermind,” appearing in the immense modern network of electrical, telecommunicational, and satellite relays in “Dial ‘F’ for Frankenstein,” also has malignant potential. Aesthetic attitudes and critical judgments of science fiction also evince Romanticism: opposing the vulgarity and banality of mass consumption, Aldiss is inspired by a “love of art and science” and a “rebellion against smug bourgeois society” (see Broderick 1995: 53). For Ursula Le Guin, imagination supplements reason on a journey “leading us to the freedom that is properly human” (see Broderick 1995: 76).

Marking the boundary that allows science fiction to rise imaginatively to poetic heights or collapse in monstrous dissolution, Frankenstein makes it difficult to sever Romanticism from its darker counterpart. Both are inextricably bound together, one defining the other in a relationship of difference and reversal akin to that of creator and creature. In the novel, science is associated with visionary enthusiasm, wondrous discoveries, and miraculous knowledge (Shelley 1969: 47–8). The motivation for reanimation is framed aesthetically: Frankenstein, like Percy Shelley, is poet and experimenter. His project has benevolent and humane aims, idealistically imagining the end of disease and death.

Though oversized, superhuman in body and strength, the creature is designed to be beautiful: it will be the first of a “new species” blessing its father-creator (Shelley 1969: 54). Borne on the wings of fantasy the project encounters its limit in horror: Frankenstein trawls through charnel houses and graveyards to steal the “secret of life” from the body of feminised nature. The creator is appalled by his animated handiwork rather than elated by technical achievement: his horror stems from aesthetic revulsion. Frankenstein’s world is overturned, beauty collapsing in horror, heaven becoming hell. His rejection, repeated by the idealised Romantic family that unwittingly educates the monster, defines monstrosity in terms of social and familial exclusion. Outcast, the monster accepts his designated destructive role.

Idealisations, the novel suggests, readily engender monsters, figures marking the return of excluded material bodies. The two poles of existence are inseparable: imagining life beyond death, Victor’s actions only exacerbate its work. The painful education of the monster occasions some astute observations on an irreparably divided modern humanity: “was man, indeed, so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” (Shelley 1969: 119). Humans are doubled creatures, minds and bodies, individualistic and social, noble and base. The novel’s appreciation of doubleness, its attention to ideas and materialities, bodies and institutions, resonates with the constitution of modernity: the body forms a crucial object of power, a site of knowledge, discipline, normalization, and individuation constructed in a network of discursive and material practices ranging from schooling to legal and medical procedures (Foucault). The body, moreover, is crucial in establishing an imaginary sense of individual wholeness, its mirror image serving in the process of motor and psychological coordination (Lacan). Frankenstein’s fragmented, monstrous modernity, poised between the idealisations projecting a free, humanist individual and the gloomier consequences of industrial and bourgeois revolutions, has yet to integrate its individual, social, and political bodies.

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