Monday, 6 August 2012

Frankenstein, science fiction and missing the point - commenting on Mary Hoyland at The Spectator

Every now and then magazines that write most often about that tedious world of literary fiction stray into writing about science fiction. And they usually display either or both of complete ignorance and highfalutin' disdain. So seeing a reference to Frankenstein in the Spectator's blogs filled by with expectation - with the certainty that we'd see a load of nonsense. And I was right:

The story is well known. One wet summer by the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley — 18 years old, living out of wedlock with the poet Shelley — had a horrifying dream, one that she would later write as the novel Frankenstein. What is less well known is that another of the key pillars of modern horror fiction — the vampire myth — was born during that same extraordinary holiday.

Less well known? Not to either fans of Ken Russell or us science fiction readers - more to the point Shelley's book wasn't the consequence of a dream (such a literary fiction contrivance) but of a specific decision to fuse, in story form, scientific ideas and fantastic speculation. Frankenstein became one of the archetypes of science fiction - debating issues we'd see again in Olof Stapledon's 'Sirius', in Asimov's 'I, Robot', in Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land' and, in many other stories and series.

Yet Kate Hoyland - who's clearly not familiar with horror films let alone with fantasy literature - can only refer to one source:

Mary’s morality tale has also appeared in frequent guises, some obvious, and some less so: think of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, in which androids, indistinguishable from their human counterparts, agonise over the nature of their existence.

Oddly enough the androids in Blade Runner - drawn from (like so much of recent science fiction film) the writings of Philip K. Dick, in this case 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' - are more certain of their place in the scheme of things. It is human fear and uncertainty (we might see it as a metaphor of racial prejudice given when the book was written) that Dick explores rather than android angst.

"If I test out android," Phil Resch prattled, "you'll undergo renewed faith in the human race. But since it's not going to work out that way, I suggest you begin framing an ideology which will account for-"
The presence of androids is frightening for humans yet Dick's androids are quite self-assured. 

It is a shame that writers such as Kate Hoyland persist in their misreading of science fiction - assuming, one guesses, that they have read some of it. Frankenstein is a seminal book in the genre, for sure questions about the morality of science are there within it, but the essence is the wonder of man's ability to create -  mixed with a worry about that creation.

Which is why Brian Aldiss released Frankenstein giving him spirit and independence - celebrating rather than cursing science. It is why Iain Banks made computers citizens.

And it is why, when the Spectator writes about science fiction, it should employ some writers who've actually read some of that fiction rather than watched one film.


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