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Oct. 12, 2022

Must-Read Fantasy Novels - Frankenstein

Must-Read Fantasy Novels - Frankenstein

Best place to be a scientist

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Who are our mythmakers in fantasy and sci-fi? In a new thread to this podcast, Julia Golding highlights her 'must-read' picks from the fantasy greats. Find out the reasons why you should try Frankenstein (1818) - the novel rather than any of the spin-off films you might've seen. Hear about the structure, the ideas, the state of science in the 1810s, the politics of rights - and so much more that have a really modern relevance. Let us know your picks for fantasy must-reads. Julia ends with choosing the best place to be a scientist in all fantasy worlds - see if you agree!

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Welcome to Myth Makers. Myth Makers is the podcast for fantasy fans and fantasy creatives, brought to you by the Oxford Center for Fantasy. My name is Julia Golden. I'm an author, but also director of the Center. I wanted today to begin a series on the essential fantasy reads, Who are our myth makers that have passed down the ideas that have gone into the way we write fantasy and science fiction? I had the very good fortune of studying for a doctorate in Oxford, um, quite a few years ago now. Uh, and the period I studied was that of the romantic era, which is thought of as the years 1790 to 1830. Now, thinking about that period right in the heart of it, there is one of the most important novels ever written, which has spawned so much science, fiction, and fantasy that followed it. I wonder if you can guess what I'm talking about. I'm talking about Frankenstein. It was written by Mary Shelly and published in 1818, but she actually started writing it a few years earlier. So that meant when she first came up with the idea in about 1816, she was only 18. And this is, uh, a work that has changed the way, not only that we think about stories involving, um, creatures and monsters and, uh, mad scientists, all that, all those kind of familiar tropes, but it has become one of those stories that crosses over into society and shapes the way we think about particularly things like scientific innovation. Now, the origin story of Frankenstein is almost as interesting as the book. This was the famous stormy night in the Villa Dear dti, where Mary Shelley, um, who was at that time, Mary Godwin, was there with her future husband, Percy Shelley. They'd eloped and run away from England, leaving behind Percy Shelley's first family. Uh, and along with them was Mary Shell's half sister Claire Clairemont. Also in the villa was of course Byron. And then Dr. Paula Dori, who was a sort of companion to Byron a, a doctor. Anyway, this group got together and they had a literary competition where they all to go away and write something in this, you know, in the nature of a ghost story, that kind of thing. Um, I think that the, the two more famous men, um, Byron and Shelly both kind of struck out on this. They didn't particularly follow through with that. But the two others, um, who took up the writing challenge, Mary Godwin and, uh, Dr. Poll Dori, both went on to produce novels, which were published. Poll Do's is the Vampire, which is an interesting idea in its own writing, and that leads on to things like, uh, Dracula. But, uh, Mary Shell is, Mary Godwins was to be Frankenstein. Now, why is it important? Well, I'm sure you are aware of its place in culture just because you've heard of such things as Frankenstein's food and, um, you've seen the Boris Carlo films of the Man with the bolts in his neck being woken up by electricity, all those kind of things. But this series about encouraging people to go back to the origins of this story, the where it starts as a fantasy novel. So the first thing I wanted to sort of point you towards it has is how interesting it is structurally as a novel. It starts off as a letter written from a seafarer called Walton, and then it takes the form of like an onion. So the outer skin is Walton's narrative within that he's being told the story by, um, Victor Frankenstein, that is the scientist, not the creature. And within Victor Frankenstein's narrative is embedded the creatures narrative. And then it sort of comes back out again. You get Victor Frankenstein telling his story, and then it goes back to the reflections of Wharton at the end of, at the end when there's a, a sort of de newmore in the icy fields of the North Pole. So that structure of the sort of becoming into a point, inward point, you may have come across this in the modern novel Cloud Atlas that also became a film which has multiple narratives that sort of work into a central point and work out. You may when you've read that thought, oh, how original. But actually at the same time as Mary Shelley was writing, uh, there was an experimental novel quite similar to this, um, called the Manuscript Found at Sarah Gossa. It's written originally in French by a Polish man. Are you following me here? Uh, his name is Kowski. The cause of courtly language, um, to get a wider readership was French at that time. So that's why a Polish man is writing in French, and that one is a, has insane numbers of levels. Um, it, it is, it is out Cloud Atlas seeing the David Mitchell book. So playing with the form is definitely available as an example in Mary Shelley's era, but she does it very simply. It's a very clean three level and back out again. And one of the effects of this, these shifts of perspective, is rather than a modern fantasy novel, which keeps moving point of view without much relation to each other, um, it's just, okay, right now we go over to, you know, this warrior over in this battlefield. The way this is structured is that you keep changing your view on what the story might be about. It's a bit like hearing, um, arguments in a trial. First the defense and then the prosecution. And you have to weigh up who you think is right. And of course, the central battle is between Victor Frankenstein and the creature. Just as sidebar here, I'm very carefully calling, uh, the creature, neither Frankenstein nor the monster, because the monster is what other people call the creature, the creature himself, uh, who hasn't even been given a name by his creator. He, he's calling on the fact that he has been created by Victor Frankenstein and he actually points out to Frankenstein that he has a responsibility like God to Adam. Uh, there's a famous line about, am I not your Adam? So that that whole structure really works for the book. Cause you've got the rational seafarer, um, Walton who's like the sort of anchor. Then you've got Victor Frankenstein pleading his case about the terrible things that happened to him once he created this creature. Then you've got the creature to confessing or telling his story how he, um, came to Senti, really, and why he acted as he did. And your feelings change as you read more because he goes from the sort of abused innocence to going on a bit of a rampage in a way. But there's the very interesting question there is nature versus nurture. So is his evil from the way he's been neglected, or is there something in, you know, something gone wrong? A choice that he is making? The book leans towards the nurture argument on the whole. Another reason why it's worth the read for the, the non obvious reasons of it said jolly good tale is that the story also examines the question of the rights of the creature. This was an era where the rights of man that booked by Thomas Payne, that was very influential on the French Revolution, the American Revolution and radical thought, and Mary Walston craft's answer of the rights of women, which is obviously one of the origins of feminism. Mary Shelley is chiming in with something which has, uh, a residence now with the rights of such things as artificial intelligence or other creatures, because the creature is arguing that he has the right to be looked after and nurtured and recognized as a for his dignity. He has the right to appropriate. That's one of his, his real sort of, of the point where he really flips out is when Victor Frankenstein tries duplicate him, says, Oh, yes, yes, I'll, I'll make you a female, and then gets cold feet, and he tears up the almost completed, um, lady creature. Um, and that of course is a form of, um, murdering the creature's future. He can't go off and start his own race because Victor Frankenstein is afraid of what he can become. You know, our sympathies, as we are reading, are divided on that, but it's, it, it does feel a bit like the debate going on in AI as our, is AI the biggest threat to us. Um, the late Stephen Hawking said it was, you know, one of the big challenges we were gonna face in the 21st century. And of course it occupies a lot of science fiction. Now that question, or is there a debate to have about at what point do, do these artificial systems, these androids get rights of their own? So here we are talking of, um, things like, um, do Android stream of electric sheep, The, the book that inspired a Blade Runner or even data in the, um, John Picard, Star Trek. All these debates are about, are, are defining what, at what point there is a right, a human right is the wrong word, isn't it? We're looking for a right, um, to be respected something akin to human rights. And obviously that is a huge area for people to write about now. So if you're thinking, how did this start? Where did people begin to ask his questions? Frankenstein is a wonderful place to go to see how it was handled in its early days. There's another interesting sidebar here. I've mentioned Mary Walston Craft in passing about the Rights of Women, but the connection between Mary Shell's rights of the Creature book is even closer than you might think because, uh, Mary Walston Craft was the mother of Mary Godwin, Mary Shelley. Um, this was through her union with William Godwin, who was a radical thinker of the time, and we're gonna come back to him in a minute because both influences of both father and mother can be seen in Mary Shelley's work. But moving on from the question about the rights, which I think is a very fruitful area in and of itself, there's also the, the way that Mary Godwin, Mary Shelly treats the whole question of science and scientific progress. We are used to, um, science fiction picking up these ideas and perhaps even paving the way for scientists to think the unthinkable. You know, the Isaac as AOVs, good old Star Trek, other Arab Star Wars too, uh, places where people imagine a science that doesn't yet exist, and then the scientists come along and fulfill it. What was happening here is exactly the same. Um, Mary Shelley had become interested in Galvanism. Galvanism is named after, uh, Italian scientist called Galvani who was experimenting with electricity. This is the early days of electricity. You've got figures such as Michael Far Day in the Royal Institution, who is just at this point, in fact, a couple of years later, uh, inventing the electric motor and explaining much more about electricity in his lecture series that follow on in the 1830s. But at the point at which Mary Shelley is writing electricity was very poorly understood. They'd be, they'd begun to build rudimentary batteries, but they had no idea if it was like a liquid or, um, they hadn't really got the idea of a force yet. So it was a mysterious, um, it's a mysterious thing. Electricity, they knew it was important, but they didn't quite yet grasp how important. But one of the people paving the way that led to the great electrical scientists of the 19th century in Michael Faraday and, um, Maxwell in his equations that happens later on, um, one of the really key things that happened is that he applies the electric current to the, uh, the bodies of dead frogs. You're following me? And he makes some twitch. Uh, and there is evidence that the nervous system carried on reacting to electricity after death. So this of course got the idea that maybe electricity in a sense is the life force, that they're the same thing. It was, it's the animating principle. I mean, they aren't completely wrong because obviously our body, you know, synapses and all that kind of thing, There is a, there is a link here. Um, they weren't on a completely wrong path, but it doesn't stop the novelists running with the beginnings of an idea and actually saying, Okay, maybe, um, you can revive people with electricity. Thankfully, we often do that now in hospitals with, um, defibrillators. I mean, she, they're right, aren't they? But she also thought, Well, maybe it can instill life. It can kind of bring a soul or whatever you think of the animating principle of a person into the body of the creature. Hence all those filming moments that you see of, um, the creature being wired up to, uh, a machine and lightning striking and upy gets. So she, she's playing with scientific ideas and pushing them to a really fascinating extreme. But where her sort of fame comes is it's clear the experiment's gone too far. So the very thing that Frankenstein creates comes back to rip his part, his world apart. So that is why we have phrases such as Frankenstein food. The idea is that these are in some ways unnatural creations, which might come round to bite us in the future or destroy us in the worst case scenario. So she, she got there first and she gave us a very clear way of thinking about the dangers of scientific pro progress as well as its excitement. It, she also looks back though, because Victor Frankenstein has an unorthodox education. He delves into the world of the a cult, the world of, um, alchemists. So she's also playing with the science of the past, which again, you often find in fantasy, uh, the idea of the philosopher's stone. Does that sound familiar? Uh, and, and things like that. So she's also showing how past scientific ideas, which are now thought of as defunct, can still be wonderful material, um, for a literary creation. And then the author sort of contemporary issue that she touches on in this is the whole idea of dissection. There was a great difficulty getting hold of bodies to be dissected for medical procedures. And this whole led to sort of the grizzly time of the body snatches the burke and hairs. Victor Frankenstein becomes a kind of body stature because in order to make Frank, to order to make the creature, he sews together a number of bodies, which is kind of assembled in his laboratory. So it was regarded as taboo breaking, uh, in some ways transgressive. So she's, um, she's clueing herself in on the worries that people had about that their bodies might be snatched, which is why in some, uh, graveyards she had make great show of locking them, putting heavy stones down, um, locking the moli. All those things were in part fear that someone would come and dig up a body and use it for experimentation. In the end, this sort societal deal was that they used the body of criminals who were executed, and if there weren't enough of them, they, uh, used poor people. So, uh, yeah, I mean, it wasn't a, a brilliant solution, but that is how they solved that one. And the final why you should read about Frankenstein, I think is the story theme that she's picked up, which is very powerful of two Titanic wills that are locked together in this fight to the death. There she isn't the only person in the era using this kind of image. Uh, a contemporary to her wrote a really fascinating book, which I'd kind of also put on your reading list if you get a chance, um, which is James Ho Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which was published in 1824. And in that one you've got somebody who has a doppelganger, but it is also in a, in a way, uh, it's, it feels a bit like a, a book about mental illness as well. It's very interesting. That is, is shadow figure fighting for, um, which one is gonna prevail out of in that story is a fascinating book. But going back to her parents, Mary Shelley had a, a much more close to home example that she may have found some inspiration in, and that is William Godwin, who is best known for his political theories such as political Justice. He was regarded as kind of, he's kind of way out on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders, but more, more leftof the time, a real radical thinker, unconventional lifestyles. But he wrote a novel called Caleb Williams, which is a kind of class struggle book because Caleb Williams is the servant who discovers the secret of hi his master Portland, and that could destroy this man's reputation, which leads to this bitter battle, which they're fighting, um, trying to destroy each other. And so they're locked together trying to, you know, chlo each other down. So that story of the, of an obsession, it ends very differently to Frankenstein, but the intensity of that battle of a central pair, one of whom is subservient to the other, the kind of servant master relationship does have echoes in Frankenstein anyway, Um, Mary, Mary Shelley's version of it is even more powerful because the master creates the very thing that tries to destroy him. And you can see how this is fed through to future books. Probably the most famous one of those is Dr. Jacqueline, Mr. Hyde, with the split personality that feels like the love child of Confessions of a Justified Sin. And Frankenstein, that book, um, a fantastic, that's another must read, which perhaps we should talk about in another podcast. So what's the takeaway? What's the summary? Why Reed Frankenstein? Well, if you are a fantasy fan and want to be a fantasy writer, I think it definitely needs to be on your list. It's not that long. Um, the language is that of the 19th century, so you might need to tune yourself into it, but it is a fantastic story. You can also, one sort of more faithful rendering of it is the stage play, um, which they did at the National Theater, which originally starred Benedict Kamba and Johnny Lee Miller. What was interesting in that is by switching roles in the play. So one, one night, one of them would be playing Victor Frankenstein and the Monster, and then they would switch. It shows the closeness, um, of the two, the struggle between the two, how they are reflections of each other. They make each other in, in a way. Um, that's actually, if you, if you don't fancy reading the novel or you find it difficult, do look up a recording of that. They are, it is, was filmed and does get, um, re broadcast. It was broadcast during lockdown, so you may have spotted it then. Anyway, do, um, pick up on that story because what you're getting is an amazing novel written by a girl who is in 1819 who influenced the way society sees science, both as a warning and how it can be used in literature. And she changed the world as a result. She made the modern myth, which is the myth of the modern print Prometheus, which is her subtitle for that story. The idea, the person who, who strove too far. If you have any ideas for a must read fantasy novel, which should be part of this series, do let us know. We always end with where in all the worlds is the best place for something. And thinking about this one, I suppose the obvious question is where in all the world is the best place to be a scientist? That's quite a tricky one because, um, I suppose we'll be looking in science fiction if we did that, but on the whole, I think maybe my choice would be, um, were candor. Um, I'd, I'd choose to go into the lab there because obviously they're way ahead in the Black Panther of all other societies, and you get your own lab all to yourself and you can create fantastic flying machines and ones that you, um, you can fly from the ground. Yeah, no, I think that's where I would choose to be a scientist. I'd go to Wakanda and ask for a job in that laboratory. Thank you very much for listening, and I hope you have enjoyed this little visit to Frankenstein. Look forward to sharing some more ideas with you next time. Thanks For listening to Mythmakers podcast, brought to you by the Oxford Center for Fantasy. Visit Oxford Center for to join in the fun. Find out about our online courses in person stays in Oxford. 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