I stumbled across this tidbit just a few minutes ago, shared in a group I’m part of on Facebook.
The question, “Is Frankenstein Really Science Fiction?”
I’ll get back there. First a quick detour.
It is an oddity of my professional and education journey that I have a Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Technical Communication. This can be confusing to explain to people. I will freely admit that I was more heavily invested in the Technical Communication side than the Rhetoric side but I do have grounding in that discipline.
I lay this out to set up some further thoughts that will likely come up below.
Okay, back to the question at hand. Is Frankenstein Really Science Fiction? (I left the caps on purpose.)
My first reaction to this title was, “Fuck me; this is going to be a very stupid take.” I feel it’s important to share my bias when I dive into a topic.
My second reaction (realization?), after reading the post was that it didn’t really actually spend much time at all debating the question – it was just clickbait to get outrage views. Hey, it worked.
My further thoughts though are that the entire premise is foolish. I mean, understandably foolish… But still foolish.
Let’s start at the beginning.
It’s clear that the poster is responding to articles/writing by Damien Walter in the Guardian. That is not really germane to the conversation though so I’m sparing myself those takes and keeping focused here.
The author says they were struck by the statement that “those writers who make a critical understanding of fantasy part of their work create better stories than those who remain … ignorant of it.” And I will freely admit, I went through a phase where I too thought that you had to “learn the rules before you were allowed to break them” and other such stupid adages.
Fantasy is a wide and deep pool as a genre and I hate that word (genre) for reasons I’ll get back to later. Sure, if you want to write fantasy it isn’t absurd to think that you should take some time to read some of the works of fantasy – maybe even in the subgenre you are interested in – but it’s just as useful to read non-fantasies like say, Heart of Darkness (which I argue is a fairly basic horror story), or The Count of Monte Cristo, or the Old Testament. If you want to write, read.
And sure, being aware of the history and depth of your chosen field of writing is always something worthy. I find with gaming, for example, that I often see “new games” or “deep thoughts about games” and I’m like, “hey, the new kids just discovered an argument we were having twenty years ago.” But that’s just part and parcel of the world moving on and creative spaces evolving. Just because we already had this argument twenty years ago doesn’t mean that these new players will get much out of our older argument – other than say, where we didn’t have knowledge of the landscape since they entered gaming – or that they won’t resolve it in a new, or at least interesting, way.
Literary Criticism is a difficult field and I won’t overly burden the conversation with my thoughts on it other than to say that it has its place and that it can be overburdened with purpose at times. But just like it’s hard to write comedy if you are just putting jokes in; it is equally difficult to insert critical theory into your fantasy if it doesn’t really have a place there.
I’m going to need to go back to the article he references and try to suss out what the Guardian writer even meant by that sentence because I can’t really parse it as useful.
Anyway. The blogger then goes on to discuss the Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and her four categories of fantasy stories. I’m not going to delve into the specifics of her work either because here’s where I finally get to my own thesis.
It doesn’t matter. Mendlesohn puts fantasy stories into four little groups. The Forge once went on and on about GNS and had their three little groups in gaming. Bookstores put books on the shelves in arbitrary categories made up by publishing houses and marketers to make selling the books easier. Creative Writing teachers won’t let you write fantasy stories in college because they are “obviously” genre fiction instead of literary fiction – two other made-up categories that exist only to denote a certain group of features that they approve/disapprove of. (I have days’ worth of rants on this topic but not here.) Some writers (like Jonathan Lethem) won’t let their books be put in the science fiction section of bookstores (even though that is clearly where most of them belong) precisely because he believes that science fiction is way too Star Wars and not enough… something else. And I say this as a big fan of Lethem’s writing (if not his feelings about sci fi).
Sure, creating frameworks to allow human brains to filter ideas is a useful thing. But it should remain a tool. It should not become a dogma.
Is Frankenstein even science fiction? If you asked me to put it into a genre and held a gun to my head, I’d say it was a horror story. Like, if I had to choose. But it could absolutely be sci fi if that is the label you want to put on it. Mary Shelley had no concept of “science fiction” the way we talk about it so I’m betting she didn’t see it that way (she couldn’t) but are we allowed to now? Of course we are. I’d also tell you that we invented the entire genre of magical realism just so some authors could write about magic and pretend that they don’t belong in the fantasy section of the bookstore.
Returning to the bit of analysis that the blogger gave to the story itself… He laments that in the novel, “almost nothing is made of the science fictional element.” And yes, the story of Frankenstein and his creation is a very personal tale. It is a gripping and horrifying account of a person going beyond the boundaries of science and being forced to live with the consequences. It makes a fantastic cautionary tale if one wants to view it in that light. Even the blogger’s reference to the return of the repressed is a potentially valid insight.
Ultimately, arguments about whether or not Mary Shelley wrote a science fiction story might be as much fun as arguing whether Thor could beat Superman in a fight but they don’t tell us anything about the story itself; which is quite good if you haven’t read it and only watched the movie versions. You can slap labels on a story until the day you die and fight about what they “deserve” to be called. The story stands alone and honestly, in my opinion, consigning it to a single “genre” does it the greatest disservice of all, by potentially hiding it from readers who might come along and find it – if they just knew which label to look under.