Science and Nature in Fankenstein

  In his article “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre”, Darko Suvin posits “Science Fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement.”  By this definition and its subsequent explanation  I believe that Shelley’s Frankenstein falls short of the parameters set forth by Suvin.  Although the novel satisfies both the “cognitive” and the “estrangment” components of the definition, they are only satisfied on the skeletal level.  In his article Suvin describes those works as “juvenile” that “introduces into the old empirical context only one easily digestible new technological variable,” which, at this point, Frankenstein does. This new “variable” is Victor’s ability to give life to the non-living (deceased), and nothing else.  Although the realization of his power occurs in the context of science, nothing actully scientific is used to dillineate how this power came about or why Victor shoud be the one to have discovered it.  When describing how he came about to know and harness this power, Victor simply states that “a sudden light broke in upon me,” leaving the rest to the imaginings of the reader.  For the sake of Science Fiction, such an explanation is inadequate because it leaves too much to fancy.  That is, if Victor is able to simply have an epiphany of how to animate the dead with life, could he not then have a similar epiphany to discover the genetic makeup of woodland fairies?  If a sudden realization is all that is needed in Science Fiction to allow unknown or intangible things to happen within a story, then I think the lines between Fantasy, Fairy-Tale, and Science Fiction are not as clear cut as Suvin claims them to be.

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My name is Zach Hayden.
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4 Responses to Science and Nature in Fankenstein

  1. Josh Ambrose says:

    The gauntlet has been thrown! I’d love to hear more people weigh in on this.

    In Shelley’s defense, there are some oblique references to chemistry and old alchemists/scientists/etc. What more do you want to seem more “science-y?” (I’m not disagreeing completely with your assessment–just want to hear more of your thoughts!) Did Shelley’s audience read more scientific possibility into her story than we do? I’m reminded of computer hacker movies in the 80s that people swallowed eagerly, but now we can’t help but laugh. How much does historical context matter when defining science fiction?

    • zekemayne23 says:

      I guess the degree of importance we could attribute to historical context would depend on what approach of literary criticism you take in analysing the novel. Ha…jk…I do think it is important to consider the historical context of the novel, but I was simply basing my assesment on Suvin’s rather obscure definition of Science Fiction. To me, this novel falls under the “Horror” genre, which I would also argue (in many instances) can easily be considered a sub-genre of Science Fiction (but a “juvenile” one at that). I wasn’t necessarily looking for a more “science-y” explanation of how the monster was created, but i was looking for something….(lightnig bolts, etc. despite the cliche) that would give the creation of the monster a more realistic grounding. For instance Shelley could have gone along the lines of saying Victor learned how to harness the raw power of lightning…blah blah…and then infused his heart with that power to get it beating…so on and so on. However, perhaps Shelley didnt do this for the sake of a hightened horrific effect. The story was initially meant to be a “ghost” story, so making it too realistic or grounded in reality might have detracted it from that purpose…or not….who knows?

  2. Jessica says:

    Yeah – the description of the process for how Frankenstein came to be wasn’t very direct, but it was hinted at. Victor discussed finding body parts in graves – or discussing how learning things in chemistry gave him the knowledge to create life. I wouldn’t say this story could completely be categorized as Science Fiction, but I think there are a few attributes of the genre that are applicable: exploring new frontiers, creating a cognitive estrangement within the read.

    • zekemayne23 says:

      Yes. I agree. I was just saying that if we were to categorize the novel according to Suvin’s definition it would fall short and perhaps be one of the “juvenile” works that he mentions.

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