The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.


And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Happy 110th birthday, Kelvingrove

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Today marks the 110th anniversary of a true Scottish institution opening its doors to the public: on May 2nd, 1901 the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum first admitted the people of Glasgow and Scotland to enter within this temple of delights. Generations of Scots have grown up with the Kelvingrove, walking through the pleasures of nearby Kelvingrove park, or coming down from the Gothic spires of nearby Glasgow University and the Bohemian pleasures of studenty Byres Road, to the banks of the Kelvin and this palace of wonders and knowledge and art. Those generations include me: like many children growing up in Glasgow the Kelvingrove was a regular pleasure, my parents taking me in there. It was my childhood idea of what a great museum should be – knights in shining armour, Egyptian mummies, mighty dinosaur skeletons! My, what treasures to delight a wee boy, to spark his imagination and generate a lifelong love of history and learning.

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And the adult me adores it still – when my friend (who also grew up visiting the Kelvingrove) and I went through after the museum re-opened after an extensive refurbishment we both still loved it. A real Supermarine Spitfire hanging from the cieling in one gallery right above a giraffe! An Egyptian sarcophogus. Exquisitely made medieval armour – among the many collections the museum enjoys an international reputation for is its arms and armour, it boasts one of the finest collections anywhere. And then those light filled upper galleries full of artworks, from the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys to an international panoply of artists of the ages. It is the first place I saw Salvador Dali’s powerful Christ on the Cross, an amazing work even to those of us who have no truck with religion. And it is still free – free to all the citizens of Glasgow and Scotland and our visitors, a people’s palace, open to and run for the people of its city and country, long may it continue.

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rrroaaarrrrr!!!

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Anniversary

Today should be mum and dad’s anniversary. It’s peculiar and quite depressing how a date once wrapped in happier memories becomes a slow, heavy weight on your heart as time goes on. Switched on the TV to try and distract myself a bit and what’s on but a Buffy repeat and it just happens to be the one where she is coping with the sudden death of her mother. Oh thank you, universe, that’s really what I needed to see this morning. Couple of things I can do later so I think I will take myself out to do something. I love you both so much, mum and dad, always.

a damned date

I’ve been trying my best all day to distract myself with music, comedies on the radio and work, trying to keep my mind off the damned date. I’ve grown to loathe this date, I’d cut it from every calendar on the planet if it would make a difference, but it wouldn’t. It’s exactly two years since mum was ripped away from us, just like that and nothing’s really felt right since.

Happy birthday, Mr Poe

It’s the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, a favourite author of mine since I was about ten and thumbing through a collection of his work. One of the real ale pubs I regularly drink in has a poem extolling ale written by Poe, enscribed up on the wall, which always makes me smile. I wonder if the Poe Toaster made their customary, secretive appearance today? For half a century someone has left cognac and roses on Poe’s grave, a rather lovely little tradition, I think; they have become known as the Poe Toaster. I will raise a glass if single malt in his honour myself later on (any excuse).

Last summer the Edinburgh Film Festival had a retrospective of Roger Corman and the great Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe films from the 60s in their wonderfully lurid colour and with Vincent’s velvet voice. In fact I usually tell people who don’t get Poe to read his short fiction and to do so slowly, imagining in their head the voice of Vincent Price narrating it to them. If they still don’t get it then they are beyond help.

Poe has influenced and inspired many later writers, not just in the phantasmagorical, horror and fantasy realms but in establishing one of the great literary successes of the last century and a bit, the detective tale, setting out many of the rules and procedures of a proper, modern detective for fiction; without it probably no Sherlock Holmes, no Maigret, no Rebus…

He’s been directly referenced by generations of authors and other artists, including some of the finest, such as the immortal Ray Bradbury, who explored one of his favourite, lifelong themes – the battle against ignorance and censorship – in the short story Usher II, where there is a world where all fantastical tales, from outright horror to children’s fairy tales, are banned, only the logical and rational is allowed. One rich eccentric builds a replica of the House of Usher and staffs it with robotic versions of Poe characters, inviting the great and good from this new rational society to a party.

They are all shocked by his lawbreaking but take it as a delightful piece of bad taste for one night. What they don’t know is the robot characters are murdering them all, one by one, in the style of Poe deaths – a robot ape stuffs a screaming victim up the chimney and the rest of the guests applaud assuming it all artifice. The final victim only realises the trap they have come into as he is walled up, buried alive, at the end. His host explains that if he had read the books instead of burning them, he would have known what was happening and saved himself. Ignorance and embracing censorship has killed them all. He exits and the walls of Usher II rip asunder and fall into the mere…

Anyway, for Poe’s birthday, enjoy The Raven, here interpreted in a fine manner by Omnia:

You swine!

Doctor Monastashus van der Koala, head of medical studies & sneezing at the University of Woolamaloo has been updating the Gazette to recent international epidemic news. He points out that while the mainstream media has been covering (or stoking public panic about, depending how you view it) the Mexican Swine Flu outbreak across the world (he advises worried readers that if going to a Mexican restaurant do not dance a salsa with any pigs who are present, no matter how friendly they are or how big and jolly their sombrero), he alerts us to a similarly name disease which has so far been ignored by the meedja: You Utter Swine Flu. This is a contagious condition which manifests itself in sufferers growing pencil moustaches and enduring uncontrollable urges to perform Terry Thomas impressions and generally act like utter cads. You have been warned.

You know I just realised when I got the WG back on the air tonight that I had forgotten my own sixth anniversary – the blog version (it previously existed as spoof newspaper articles done one emails from ’91 onwards) of the WG started on April 7th, 2003. I notice that by coincidence back then I was writing a satirical piss take about the media’s ridiculous bird flu coverage (or panic inducing nonsense) which had everyone convinced the world was about to end any moment and lead me to a new hobby which involved standing close to visiting Asian tourists in Edinburgh and doing an elaborate sneeze and dropping feathers to scare the hell out of them. Now today its Swine Flu. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose. I do wonder if both stories could dovetail – if some flu ridden birds and pigs, high on Lemsip, got down together and bred could they produce a hybrid strain of bird-pig flu and thus the world ends in a cloud of sneezes, feathers and the smell of bacon. Well, maybe when pigs fly. Which if the birds and pigs get it on could happen.

Happy birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Happy birthday to a writer who has been one of my favourite authors since I was a boy – happy 200th birthday, Edgar Allan Poe, born January 19th 1809 and died October 7th 1849. Or perhaps he didn’t die but was simply bricked up alive in a catacomb… Dead for a century and half and still influencing other writers, comics artists, movie makers, not to mention setting out the basic template for the modern detective several decades before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes.

In fact it seems to be quite a year for anniversaries on the literary calendar – there’s Poe, of course, its 200 years since Charles Darwin was born too, 150 years since On the Origin of Species was published and 150 years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born. Conan Doyle’s delightful adventure yarn of explorers and dinosaurs, The Lost World, is the central plank of this year’s One Book, One Edinburgh campaign in February (Doyle being a local lad – in fact he would have studied not far from where I work), following on from the last two years where Cam Kennedy and Alan Grant created graphic novel adaptations of Stevenson. There will be events, free books, school events and other happenings.

This time it will also extend to Glasgow and ties in with the Darwin 200 events across the UK, including a graphic nove biography of Darwin by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne, all of which I hope helps gets younger readers excited and reading and maybe the Lost World will give them an interest in dinosaurs then natural history (so they know to tell ‘intelligent design’ eejits to feck off when they encounter those brain-damaged idiots). It certainly did for me a kid, leading me to look for factual books on dinosaurs, then geology, evolution, which tied in with interests in astronomy and space exploration, being able to apply that learning to other bodies and… Well, that’s kind of the point, once you start a chain of reading like that it sparks off more and more ideas and questions, leading to more reading and a continually growing link of reading and learning that goes with you through life. All from a good adventure yarn and some dinosaurs.

Neil’s blog is nine

Neil Gaiman’s blog celebrated its ninth anniversary yesterday, I notice – that’s quite a long time in blogging terms and in terms of author’s sites is even more impressive. Many authors and artists and bands these days have their own sites and blogs (some designed and maintained by my good mate Ariel, in fact) but Neil’s been doing it longer than most (actually I am trying to think which published author has been blogging publicly the longest now – anyone know?). To celebrate the anniversary he and his web elves are going to make one of his books free to read online for a month – and they are asking fans to pick it out. Neil being Neil he has thought about it and offers up some advice for picking one from the four on offer (the brilliant American Gods, the very funny Anansi Boys, the recent Fragile Things and the far-too-good to be just for kids Coraline):

What I want you to do is think — not about which of the books below is your favourite, but if you were giving one away to a friend who had never read anything of mine, what would it be? Where would you want them to start?

One of the things I like about writers blogging – and Neil’s web journal in particular – is the way it allows them to interact with readers and I like the fact this interaction is being celebrated by asking those readers to pick a book of his that might get others to look at his work. Its an interesting move because it will generate a lot of online discussion and linkage for his site and interest in his books, it might introduce new readers to his material in a painlessly free manner and, as Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross and others have proven, putting up free digital version of your work (they have done it under the Creative Commons license), far from harming traditional sales seems to work to boost reader awareness and interest in your work and so help sales.

I’m not sure which of the four on offer I’d choose myself – I think American Gods is a splendid story with some great use of myth, a book which could work for readers who don’t normally go for science fiction and fantasy novels in the same way his Sandman series worked for people who normally didn’t buy comics (and my signed copy of American Gods is one of the prizes gems of my collection). But it is very long and that might make it hard to read on a screen. Anansi Boys is very funny and a bit shorter while Coraline is deliciously creepy in places and there is the movie version coming up and – oh smeg, I can’t decide! But it is still a good idea.

And on a personal note I’m still indebted to Neil as one of the writers who spoke up for me on their blogs back when I was going through the whole Waterstone’s firing thing a few years back; he said something like if he had his own bookstore he’d like me working in it, which is one of the nicest compliments a bookseller can get and that I was ‘opinionated but in the good way’ which seems like a reasonable description. Anyway, happy ninth anniversary to Neil and his web elves.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”

Adam Savage of top geek show MythBusters (one of my favourite bits of factual viewing and not just because I look a bit like Adam, especially when I have my hat on) has written a piece in Popular Mechanics in praise of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as it celebrates its 25th anniversary (link via Boing Boing). I’m totally with Adam on this one – like him I have to re-watch the film every year or so; its one of the most visually ravishing films of all time and easily up there with Lang’s Metropolis for stunning images of a future city. The opening scene of LA in 2019, towering buildings with video walls mounted on them, flames shooting into the night from industrial towers and hover cars flying between them all set to Vangelis’ music ranks as one of the most stunning visuals in movie history. It still sends shivers down my spine no matter how often I see it, the impact made all the more sudden by being prefaced by a very quiet moment as an explanation of Replicants and Blade Runners is scrolled across the scene before suddenly boom! Future LA.

Adam argues that despite massive advances in effects and digital manipulation which can now create almost anything a director imagines the film’s effects remain astonishing: “I worked on Star Wars Episodes I and II, on the Matrix films, on AI and Terminator 3; yet 25 years later there are ways in which Blade Runner surpasses anything that’s been done since.” He’s right, it still looks amazing, which is a tribute to the legendary Doug Trumbull and his effects colleagues but also to Ridley Scott too, a director who has a real flair for visuals. The film, like another now-classic, Citizen Kane, wasn’t a commercial success when first released, but (again like Citizen Kane) has gone on to gather a cult audience, critical plaudits and inspire generations of later artists.

For visualising a future cityscape it has to be up there with Lang’s Metropolis; both also owe much to photographs and film of New York in the early 20th century (imaginary cities and the real meeting, but then all ‘real’ cities are also partially imaginary, made up as much of our memories and dreams as they are what our eyes take in). The themes (very Philip K Dick, appropriately) of alienation, individuality, identity and what it is to be human and what is real and what is dream add to the lush imagery. No wonder it is still one of my personal top ten movies of all time.

Some great visualisations or descriptions of imaginary urban spaces: Blade Runner, Metropolis, Carlos Ezquerra’s concepts for Mega City one in the original Judge Dredd back in ’77, Otomo’s Akira, Bill Gibson’s Sprawl (see Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris (see City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: an Afterword), Alex Proyas Dark City, Kafka’s work, Borges, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan… I’m sure you can all suggest other good examples from books, movies and comics or any other artforms. A final bit of movie-comics trivia, Ridley cites the legendary comics artist Moebius’ Long Tomorrow graphic novel from the mid 70s as a key reference for Blade Runner’s visual look. The graphic novel was written by a young Dan O’Bannon, who would later write Alien, which Ridley would direct (one of his first big successes); Dan would later adapt another Philip K Dick tale, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale for the film Total Recall. I’m sure I could add more here, but it’s time for Heroes 🙂

Blogging anniversary

Bobbie Johnson wrote a feature in the Guardian at the weekend celebrating the tenth anniversary of blogging (ironically just as I was celebrating the fourth birthday of the Woolamaloo blog), running through various events, from the first blogs, to the appearance of Boing Boing, politicians joining the blogosphere, blogs from inside Iraq, regimes trying to censor blog and imprison their writers, the first high profile ‘doocing‘, the recent case in France with Petite Anglaise (who I’m glad to see won her case against her employers) and hey, what do you know, a mention of myself and a certain sandal-wearing Evil Boss at the Bookstore That Shall Not Be Named. Funny old world. The Guardian, along with the Scotsman, was one of the first print newspapers to pick up on that case, here it is a couple of years on still being mentioned there.