Skip to main content

Making the Monster - Kathryn Harkup ****

Subtitled 'the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein', what we get here is a mix of a biography of Mary Shelley and historical context for the various aspects of science that feature in Frankenstein, from electricity to preserving organs after death. I found this a much more approachable work than the annotated Frankenstein - in fact the perfect title would probably have been a combination of the two, with annotation based on Kathryn Harkup's words plus the text of the original.

I have given the book four stars despite some reservations, because the good bits were very readable and interesting. The biographical sections filled in a lot I didn't know about Mary, her parents and her relationship with Shelley and his family. What's more, Harkup manages to make this engaging in a way a lot of the 'life story' parts of popular science tend not to achieve. The other chapters that really engaged me were the straight science ones - for example, the chapter on electricity, now so central to the Frankenstein story (though apparently it's not clear in the book that this is what was used) both gives a lot of detail on how electricity was gradually understood and on the way it was treated as a mix of entertainment and science at the time.

The medical sections I enjoyed less - partly because I'm no fan of books on medical topics and partly because they were far less of a direct link between the fiction and the medical experience of the time, given that what Frankenstein does is so ridiculously far from possibility. One of these section - covering Hunter and others dealing in human dissection - was a tad slow, as there seemed to be a lot of repetition. Too much detail for me, certainly.

My reservations otherwise tend to be in small details. Harkup seems not to understand science fiction. She comments 'Frankenstein is often cited as the first science-fiction novel [hyphenated? really?], but there is much scientific fact to be found within its pages,' as if it is unusual for science fiction to feature factual science. If there weren't any science, it would be fantasy.

There is also something of a tendency to overplay things. We are told that Mary was brought up in a family with 'very restricted income' - which, bearing in mind her brothers went to boarding school and Mary had 'tutors in music and drawing as well as a governess' would probably have been considered a little far-fetched by her working class contemporaries. Similarly, there is too much weight given to the importance of alchemy. And at one point Harkup appears to confuse Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon.

One last observation - Harkup never says how turgid Frankenstein is to modern eyes. I know the aim here isn't lit crit, but the novel is a painful slog to read now. The ideas are marvellous, but the writing style has not aged well.

Nonetheless, Frankenstein is important in the history of science fiction, and there is genuinely interesting biography and science to be found in Making the Monster. Mary's achievements do seem remarkable, given the difficulties she endured from her late teens onwards. I'd recommend this book for anyone who wants to put the novel into context.

Hardback:  


Kindle:  

Audio download:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…