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

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…