It is simply not possible to discuss the beginnings of science fiction without talking about Mary Shelley.
She is widely acknowledged as the Mother of Science Fiction and her novel Frankenstein Or The Modern Prometheus laid down a lot of the groundwork which we would build on for many hundreds of years.
The story behind Frankenstein's creation is by now legendary.
In the summer of 1816 when Mary was just 18 years old, she and her husband Percy Shelley were visiting their friends Lord Byron and John Polidori in the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. And as you do on a quiet evening when television hasn't yet been invented, they started telling each other ghost stories.
Mary Shelley later wrote:
I busied myself to think of a story – a story to rival those which had excited me to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart. Mary Shelley
The beginning of science fiction
Pinpointing the moment any movement of writing, art or music truly begins is difficult, even these days. Often Gulliver's Travels is credited to as the first science fiction story. However, Gulliver's Travels is first and foremost a satirical novel, using the speculative to make a point, rather than debating the science itself.
While Frankenstein follows many of the well-trodden elements of Gothic fiction and monsters, the Creature, unlike vampires, werewolves and any other number of things that go bump in the night, is the first to be the product of science.
We are now so familiar with this idea that the Creature (often misnamed as Frankenstein) and the mad scientist have become such a trope we often forget this all sprung from the mind of an 18-year-old.
Mary Shelley was able to so something most authors strive to do.
She tapped into something so human and so inbuilt into our way of seeing the world, it's stuck with us for almost two hundred years. She created a monster which became as powerful a figure for us like vampires and werewolves, which have been around for hundreds of years.
There are the prolific monster movies and Hammer Horror movies of the 50s and 60s. This is probably what you think of when you picture Frankenstein. It's also where we first started naming the Creature Frankenstein. There's Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein which is probably one of my favourite movies, but it still owes more to the monster movies than the book. And movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show have some pretty overt references.
And, of course, Kenneth Branagh's misnamed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the worst adaptation of the novel in the history of adaptations. In my opinion. Really the movie was just an excuse for Branagh and De Niro to get naked and wrestle.
On a side note...
What's always struck me is how Frankenstein it's both typical of its time, but also breaks with a lot of Victorian belief. Initially, the book sets up the conflict as you would expect. You see fears about the new wave of science (known as naturalism) overcoming old values and beliefs. A worry that was growing with the dawn of the industrial era. The civilised gentlemen Doctor Victor Frankenstein and the manifestation of the baser, inhuman thing he created. Very Jekyll and Hyde.
Victor Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831 - Wellcome Collection
Except no. By the end, Frankenstein is an out of control madman bent on revenge. And the Creature is a sympathetic, well-spoken, philosophising and rational man. And, yes, a murderer, but no one's perfect.
The point is, the destruction and the 'laying low' of a hubristic character is not uncommon in Victorian novels. The raising up of something so unnatural into a pseudo-gentlemen is. Remember, this is an era which believed that someone's face shape could definitively prove their character. But this sown together Creature from desecrated dead bodies has a better understanding of the philosophy of life and meaning than its creator?
And not long after I wrote this post, some modern-day mad scientists managed to partially revive pig brains four hours after slaughter. Ew.