Mary Shelley’s Handwritten Manuscript of Frankenstein: This Is “Ground Zero of Science Fiction,” Says William Gibson

Who invent­ed cyber­punk, that vivid sub­genre of sci­ence fic­tion at the inter­sec­tion of “high tech and low life”? Some put forth the name of William Gib­son, whose 1984 nov­el Neu­ro­mancer crys­tal­lized many of the ele­ments of cyber­punk that still char­ac­ter­ize it today, even if it was­n’t the first exam­ple of all of them. And who, for that mat­ter, invent­ed sci­ence fic­tion? Bri­an Ald­iss, a sci-fi writer and a respect­ed schol­ar of the tra­di­tion, argued for Mary Shel­ley, author of Franken­stein. “The sem­i­nal point about Franken­stein,” Ald­iss writes, “is that its cen­tral char­ac­ter makes a delib­er­ate deci­sion. He suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing life only when he throws away dusty old author­i­ties and turns to mod­ern exper­i­ments in the lab­o­ra­to­ry.”

In oth­er words, Vic­tor Franken­stein uses sci­ence, which accord­ing to Ald­iss had not pro­pelled a nar­ra­tive before Franken­stein’s pub­li­ca­tion in 1818. The nov­el came out, in an edi­tion of just 500 three-vol­ume copies, under the full title Franken­stein; or, The Mod­ern Prometheus, and with­out any author’s name. Shel­ley’s deci­sion to pub­lish her work anony­mous­ly, with a pref­ace by her hus­band Per­cy Bysshe Shel­ley, led read­ers to assume that the poet him­self had writ­ten the book. Though he had­n’t, he had accom­pa­nied the then-18-year-old Mary Shel­ley on the trip to Switzer­land where she came up with the sto­ry. There, kept indoors by foul weath­er at Lake Geneva’s Vil­la Dio­dati, the cou­ple and Lord Byron, whom they had come to vis­it, binge-read ghost sto­ries to one anoth­er until they decid­ed to each write an orig­i­nal one.

It took Shel­ley some time to come up with an idea, but when inspi­ra­tion final­ly struck, it brought on an unig­nor­able vision. “I saw the pale stu­dent of unhal­lowed arts kneel­ing beside the thing he had put togeth­er,” Shel­ley writes in her intro­duc­tion to the non-anony­mous 1831 edi­tion of Franken­stein.  “I saw the hideous phan­tasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the work­ing of some pow­er­ful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” She thus began to write her sto­ry, first in short form and lat­er, with Per­cy’s encour­age­ment, expand­ing it into a nov­el. A few days ago, Gib­son retweet­ed a page of one of Shel­ley’s hand­writ­ten man­u­scripts, adding only, “This is, lit­er­al­ly, ground zero of sci­ence fic­tion.”

The orig­i­nal tweet­er of the image, some­one called Lau­ra N, describes it as “the first page of Franken­stein,” although its text page appears in the pub­lished book as the first page of its eigh­teenth chap­ter. She also links to the Shel­ley-God­win Archive, home of dig­i­tized man­u­scripts of Per­cy Bysshe Shel­ley, Mary Woll­stonecraft Shel­ley, her father William God­win, and her moth­er Mary Woll­stonecraft. There, as we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured on Open Cul­ture, you can trace the evo­lu­tion of Franken­stein by view­ing all the extant pages of all its extant man­u­scripts. A full two cen­turies after its pub­li­ca­tion, Shel­ley’s nov­el con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate, and its cen­tral ideas and char­ac­ters have become famil­iar to read­ers — and even non-read­ers — around the world. And in the view of Ald­iss, Gib­son, and many oth­ers besides, this sto­ry of a mon­ster’s cre­ation also brought to life a whole new cul­tur­al uni­verse.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mary Shelley’s Hand­writ­ten Man­u­scripts of Franken­stein Now Online for the First Time

Read a Huge Anno­tat­ed Online Edi­tion of Franken­stein: A Mod­ern Way to Cel­e­brate the 200th Anniver­sary of Mary Shelley’s Clas­sic Nov­el

Read­ing Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein on Its 200th Anniver­sary: An Ani­mat­ed Primer to the Great Mon­ster Sto­ry & Tech­nol­o­gy Cau­tion­ary Tale

Dis­cov­ered: Lord Byron’s Copy of Franken­stein Signed by Mary Shel­ley

How Chris Marker’s Rad­i­cal Sci­Fi Film, La Jetée, Changed the Life of Cyber­punk Prophet William Gib­son

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.