In response to a challenge launched on a rainy day, Mary Shelley wrote the first science fiction novel; a book that would forever influence the way the world looks at science.
“I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. … He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; […] yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Mary Shelley opened hers. The year was 1816 and she was eighteen years old. She and her lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were visiting a friend, writer Lord Byron, at his villa by a lake in Switzerland. It has been raining all summer, however; the eruption, that year, of Mount Tambora in Indonesia had spread thick clouds of volcanic dust and darkness across the planet.
“A year without a summer.” Interminable days trapped indoors. The friends, to pass the time, read ghost stories. Then, Lord Byron issued a challenge: Who among them could write the best one? Percy, Byron himself, and his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, were established writers in their own right; three worthy opponents.
As for Mary, in a time and society when women were often relegated to domesticity, she was no ornamental bystander. She had grown up among natural philosophers and had been raised as a free thinker. Her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had been fiercely independent, highly intelligent, and, incidentally, the founder of feminism. And through her father’s research, Mary had been exposed to the exploding possibilities of technology and science.
The young girl accepted Lord Byron’s challenge, and within eighteen months, would write what remains to this day one of the most visionary and influential works of literature:
Once upon a time, a young Victor Frankenstein, grieving the death of his mother, dared ask a terrible question: Could science be used to create life?
He threw himself into research, read, conducted countless experiments, and finally succeeded in bringing a heap of dead flesh to life. The creature awoke! But it looked so hideous, so “monstrous,” that Dr. Frankenstein abandoned it.
Rejected, alone in the wilderness, the monster suffered terribly. Eventually, it educated itself and returned with bloodthirsty vengeance…
Mary Shelley had written the first novel of science fiction. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, was a revolution in thought. Itdared to raise radical philosophical questions about the relationship between morality and science; the limits and consequences of technological progress, and the responsibility of creation.
Sound like pressing questions in today’s world? Yes, Mary won the bet. The book was published on the first of January 1818. It would spawn hundreds of theatrical, film, artistic, and musical adaptations, create a new literary genre, and introduce concepts now commonplace in popular culture: the “mad scientist,” the word “Frankenstein” itself…
Most importantly, however, the book would influence the way, two hundred years later, the world still contemplates science and creation. Centuries before public consciousness of bioethics – before synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, or even the term “scientist” had been conceived – , Mary Shelley imagined the future of scientific innovation and shaped our view of it.
The fable and its moral have also seeped into discussions and research on gender, race, society, politics, and theology…
And it all began with a rainy day, a challenge, and a girl who asked: What if?