Examine the relationship between science fiction and the Gothic in either Frankenstein OR the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. 2500 words.

The shared language of Gothic and science fictions is the language of abandonment, alienation and subversion of natural roles. The production of unsettling fiction, what Botting terms 'writing of excess'[1], has been one of the ways in which the collective human psyche has dealt with rapid technological change and its possible implications.

Through this essay I intend to illustrate links between Gothic and science fictions in the associated discourses of science and gender. I shall begin with a discussion of the categorisation of science fiction and go on to delve into the scientific preoccupation of the Gothic (a foray simultaneously investigating intertextual concerns present in Dracula.) There will follow elaboration of the conflict constructed in discourse between the binary opposition of science and nature, concluding with a selection of responses to the social criticisms inherent in fiction.

Before beginning, it falls upon us to construct a tentative working definition of science fiction, a reassuringly non-limiting one I find in:

'the current name for a class of prose narrative which assumes an imaginary technological or scientific advance, or depends on an imaginary and spectacular change in the human environment'
(Oxford Companion to English Literature, p. 876)[2]

When talking about the difficulty in delineating between Gothic and Romantic, Botting observes that the novel "tacitly, raises the issue that an interpretation of the novel is dependent upon its prior categorisation",[3] logic which lends itself also to the further siting of the novel in other genres. Quoting Rieger he goes on to contend that:

'the science-fiction writer says, in effect, since x has been experimentally proven or theoretically postulated, y can be achieved by the following, carefully documented operation. Mary Shelley skips to the outcome and asks, if y had been achieved by whatever means, what would be the moral consequences?'[4]

Some critics have tended to see the monster's creation as rooted entirely in alchemy and occluded quasi-mystical process, but we are furnished with very little description as to the act of creation ("I collected the instruments of life around me"[5]), too little and too ambiguous to deem Frankenstein's creation a true golem or homunculus.[6] There is in operation a distinct blurring of "equivocal distinctions between alchemy, art, science and humanism."[7]

Further to this, Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement (that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) contains a potential inversion: That magic is simply a technological form yet to be understood or a set of undiscovered physical laws. What is apparently arbitrary and devoid of cause and effect may merely be unrevealed, whatever illogic the observer or author cares to suggest or inscribe.

It is therefore perhaps overly presumptive to attempt to delineate with too much certainty between fantasy, gothic horror and science fiction in the convenient manner of literary purveyors and canonists. As Duff notes, the term 'genre' is often used pejoratively and synonymously with 'genre fiction' to denote "standardisation".[8] What may be more certain is that to study from but one angle a complex intertextual and consciously referencing work such as Frankenstein would be reductivist.

Many Gothic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula are what might be termed 'genre fluid' narratives, their interpretability evident from their ready reconstruction and assimilation into modern popular culture. There are certainly obvious parallels in the bridal deaths and denial of a female mate for the monster of the piece[9], and fear of the reproductive capabilities of the transgressive other is a motif as equally evident in Stoker's narrative as Shelley's. Seward describes Dracula as 'the father or furtherer of a new order of beings',[10] the threat lying in the power of the unnatural to usurp the place of 'rightful' beings to promulgate and perpetuate their monopoly.

Neither Dracula nor Frankenstein atttempt to separate the horror from mainstream society; the bulk of the narratives are centred in loci of civilisation, despite both beginning and ending in exotic locations. Frankenstein's loved ones die despite the protection traditionally offered by the private sphere of the home; Dracula and the nameless monster are able to transgress personal territorial boundaries in search of victims. Much of the fear stems from the fact that hitherto naturalised notions of refuge are defamiliarised as colonized or violated territory (a metaphor substantiated by the connotations of usurped virginity inherent to the wedding night murders.)

Commenting on the discovery of the creator that his work disgusts him only after the fact ("the beauty of the dream vanished"), Homans notes that "Frankenstein's desire for his creation lasts only so long as that creation remains uncreated" [11] Both the Gothic and science fiction posit a status quo which, if transgressed, results in a defensive reaction from an anthropomorphised and quasi-aware nature. In her introduction to Dracula, Howes notes that "the book's accounts of the battle against the count are full of references to the latest Western science and technology—rail travel, telegrams, phonographs, typewriters, criminology, physiognomy, vivisection, hypnotism"[12] However, as in Frankenstein, science cannot deliver an end to the horror; primitive fire, stakes and brutal nature are required to end the threat of the alien to nature. For, as "a destructive effect of scientific experimentation, Frankenstein's creation tends to be located in opposition to humanity",[13] through the essential anti-scientific and anti-reason of humanity, nature reasserts 'her' dominance.

Further to the definitions of science fiction she quotes, Mellor postulates a genre "grounded on valid scientific research", "persuasive prediction" of future developments and a "humanist critique"[14] of science. It is, as we have already begun to see, inescapably gendered:

Frankenstein and Walton are both the products of the scientific revolution of the Seventeenth century. They have been taught to see nature 'objectively', as something separate from themselves, as passive and even dead matter [...] that can and should be penetrated, analysed and controlled. They thus accord nature no living soul or 'personhood' requiring recognition or respect.[15]

Science is typified as masculine by the gendered metaphors scientists employ to describe their observations, which are frequently denoted as intrusive, even if 'justifiably' so. Those such as Waldman desire to "penetrate into the recesses of nature"[16] in an overtly sexualised discourse. Science is without character, but is regarded as implicitly male in the action of its distancing 'objective' ideology. Darwin's gendering of the language of reproduction owes much to the iniquities of Aristotlean thought; a gendering even now perpetuated in Brian Aldiss' definition of science-fiction as "the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science)."[17]

In its quest for definition and validation, science fiction, perhaps more than the Gothic, does not resist the affirmative affixing of authorship necessary to imbue a work with authority and pseudo-scientific feasibility. In the 1818 preface, Shelly enlists Darwin and Germanic physiological authors to grant her textual authority by locating the prospects of scientific realisation within the realm of credibility. Mellor points to Darwin's proposed "hierarchy of reproduction [...] 'the most perfect orders of animals are propagated by sexual intercourse alone'"[18], and builds a strong case that Shelley constructs Frankenstein's promeathean endeavour in direct opposition to the "gradual evolutionary processes"[19] outlined by Darwin—it is not only Victor's rash acceleration of evolution but the imperfect nature of the endeavour itself which dooms it to misery.

However, the transgressive properties of science contain an irreconcilable dichotomy: It is also the 'innocent' curiosity of scientific endeavour that remains pure and worthy, the physical result or process of exploration that is imperfect, to no implied fault of the enterprise. The moment of acting upon curiosity, of abandoning "happiness in tranquillity" for "ambition"[20] may be isolated as the moment of trangression. It is therefore possible to read Frankenstein as the tale of the reclamation of one soul from this investigative precipice: Walton, who announces early in his letters that he "shall kill no albatross"[21], turns back from his quest for Promethean knowledge and assured self-destruction, acknowledging the toll it has taken upon Victor, who assumes in this respect an knowing authorial parallel with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner[22].

From further perspectives, science is simultaneously capable of great positive and negative feats concerning its abolition of emotion from its studies. It defeats the horror inherent in the corpse exhumations of the Gothic, evident in Frankenstein's lack of superstitious fear in his forays to graveyards[23] which display the lack of affective power Gothic horror holds over science:

I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life [24]

Scientific endeavour frustrates those who wish to maintain social taboos which forbid foregrounding of death, suggesting like Darwin (or Huxley) that "the soil nourished by the decomposition of human bodies ought to be available for growing plants."[25]

Science challenges the defamiliarising unknowability of the Gothic, and this is where they meet in science fiction: In unheimlich nature. Freud arrived at the view that as a source of this, "[literature] is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides"[26]

In the Gothic, artificial life exists to the detriment of naturally occurring life; there is the uncanny and irrational feeling that the space occupied by the creation requires the production of a space through the absence or usurpation of another. (For example, by Frankenstein's mother, "Elizabeth was saved, but the consequences of this imprudence were fatal to her preserver"[27]) Likewise, Elizabeth's death at the hands of the monster (a horror engendered by Victor's creation) is foreshadowed in his delusional day-dream: "as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they become livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms"[28].

Frankenstein's creation is not the sum of its constituent body parts, nor is it any way greater or lesser; its consciousness begins with his bestowing of life rather than reanimation. However, he admits this to be his eventual aim: "I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption"[29] Since the major death in Victor's life is that of his mother Caroline, the extrapolation of the ends to which this as-yet fictional science might be turned is not hugely complicated to follow.

This process of substitution is at work in the way in which binary oppositions continue to dominate the text in the nemesis relationship of Frankenstein and his creation: both become dependent upon the other for definition and furthermore the two exist in a Derridean state of conflict for privileging dominance. Hocquengham's argument that science ('reason') "pathologizes"[30] homosexuality is as valid when applied to the female or any like Other: Expulsion of the element deemed 'transgressive' defines normality for the dominant ideology.

Victor's inability to empathise with his creation or to harmoniously co-exist has led many structuralist critics searching for a unifying meaning to join with Bloom in reading Frankenstein as echoing the Miltonian philosophy that creation devoid of love, or at any rate the perception of love by that creation, brings only woe. There are many interwoven narratives present within the text, but this central opposition is returned to repeatedly. The book is at least nominally titled Frankenstein, and Victor is aptly named, for he does succeed in his enterprise. However, many readers have found his erudite creation to be the more sympathetic character. It does seem to be this fluency that contains the most uncomfortable challenge to dual standards: Suppression of the voice of the monstrous Other begins as early as the 1823 stage adaptation witnessed by Shelley,[31] and continued as recently as the 1955 banning of the text in South Africa as "indecent and objectionable."[32] Hence, whilst it may be that in modern appropriation, "the threatening Other is incorporated within safe and recognisable limits"[33], in response to the articulate voice granted the monster by Shelley, a proponent of cultural criticism such as Harriet Hawkins might conclude as she does of Shakespeare's Caliban and the Creature from the Black Lagoon: "we are thus encouraged to look at what we most despise or fear with a measure of compassion and understanding."[34] The artificial human, a theme recurrent in much science fiction, serves to problematise identity: Not merely that of the creation, but also every identity in relation. When Bloom states that "Frankenstein breaks through the barrier that separates man from God and gives apparent life, but in doing so he gives only death-in-life"[35], he cannot escape a perpetuation of the hierarchy which privileges the normative human over a constructed Other which is yet distinct and aware; a creature which we are given no indication begins life with any less a blank or preconceived a canvas as any other. The 'monster' is sentient, learns, and demonstrates sapient logic.

It may be an academic distrust of such dictatorial philosophy which brings Botting to suggest that: "Perhaps Frankenstein can be understood as a misreader of the doctrine of perfectibility, denying the implications of science as he pursues absolutes, a quest for closure that is also rebutted, structurally, in Frankenstein".[36] This understanding and lack of possibility of closure is borne out by our never learning the ultimate fate of the monster and also in how, at the end of text and despite Victor's case for humility, we are left uncertain as to how far his words correlate with his desires; for as he states, he failed, "yet another may succeed".[37] Ambiguity is always allowed for, made integral to the uncanny: We are provided with but a distanced account of events, sourced from Walton's recollections in letters; whilst within the frame structure textual authority is never absolute or conclusive.

This indefinite deferral of ultimate meaning leads me to the determination that science fiction is as plagued by excessive consciousness and uncomfortable philosophical questioning as the Romantic cum-Gothic movement ever was; its social awareness moving beyond a text of excess in which science is constructed as an abstract binary-opposition to nature. The stereotyping from a literary and artistic perspective that "science = control = bad" is as reliant upon historicized ideology founded in the elitism of absolutes as the position it seeks to critique.

A postmodernist approach of reading which makes possible free play of Gothic and science fiction generic classifications might find common ground with Waldman when he states: "the ancient teachers [...] promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little."[38] If we seek commonality for purpose of study or instruction, it does not assist us either to be too preoccupied with abstract grand narratives, or too specific and exclusory of the Other.


Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, frank14.txt from http://gutenberg.net

(all textual quotes taken from this searchable resource)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Pan, 1994 (film tie-in with afterword by Harold Bloom)

Ed. Fred Botting, Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays, Macmillan, 1995

Fred Botting, Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, criticism, theory, Manchester, 1991

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism, Bedford, 2000

Rivkin & Ryan (ed.), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 1998

Rice & Waugh (ed.), Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Hodder, 1992

Henry Duff (ed.), Modern Genre Theory, Pearson Education, 2000

Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition, Princeton, 1991

Bram Stoker, Dracula, Everyman, 1996

Bram Stoker, Dracula, dracu10.txt from http://gutenberg.net

(all textual quotes taken from this searchable resource)










WordWeb v1.63 (available from www.wordweb.co.uk)

Database maintained by Princeton University.


[1] Module seminar hand-out extracted from The Gothic, London: Routledge, 1996

[2] Quoted at http://www.watershed.winnipeg.mb.ca/literature/frankenstein/faq2.html

[3] Making Monstrous, p37

[4] Making Monstrous, p164

[5] Frankenstein, e-text

[6] "an artificially created human being that is given life by supernatural means" (wordweb)

[7] Making Monstrous, p164

[8] Modern Genre Theory, xiii

[9] watershed.winnipeg.mb.ca/literature/frankensteindracula/taleof2monsters5.html

[10] Dracula, e-text

[11] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Homans, p148

[12] Dracula, xxvi

[13] Making Monstrous, p164

[14] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Mellor, p127 (all in sentence)

[15] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Mellor, p131

[16] Frankenstein, e-text

[17] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Mellor, p127 (my italics)

[18] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Mellor, p116

[19] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Mellor, p119

[20] Frankenstein, e-text (both)

[21] Frankenstein, e-text

[22] watershed.winnipeg.mb.ca/literature/frankensteindracula/taleof2monsters4.html

[23] Making Monstrous, p174

[24] Frankenstein, e-text

[25] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Mellor, p118

[26] http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html

[27] Frankenstein, e-text

[28] Frankenstein, e-text

[29] Frankenstein, e-text

[30] Rivkin & Ryan, p347 (and second quotation)

[31] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; Introduction, p3

[32] Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays; O'Flinn, p21

[33] Making Monstrous, p193

[34] Classics and Trash, p176

[35] Frankenstein, film edition

[36] Making Monstrous, p172

[37] Frankenstein, e-text

[38] Frankenstein, e-text