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Tag Archive: Mary Wollstonecraft


Review by C.J. Bunce

In Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, chemist and author Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, reveals the results of a thorough investigation into the scientific knowledge available to young author Mary Shelley at the turn of the 19th century when Shelley wrote the first science fiction novel (and basis for the first horror movie), Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus The result is a detailed, marvelously interconnected picture of notable minds of the Enlightenment and their theories, a useful history of science and technology, and a worthy supplement to any reading or study of the classic story.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was greatly influenced by noted authors of her era, beginning with her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (through her writings), and her long-time companion and eventual husband, the noted author and political thinker Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Mary Shelley lived in a world of scientific improvements, while also at only the barest beginnings of modern chemistry, biology, and medicine.  Author Kathryn Harkup looked back to writings of the late 1700s and earlier, where religion, politics, and culture were undergoing a radical shift, with old concepts like alchemy winding down its influence on the thinking world.  As Harkup writes, “Dark, discredited, ineffectual alchemy was contrasted with enlightened, rational, powerful science.”  She follows Mary Shelley’s travels as documented in letters and diaries Shelley and her contemporaries wrote to locate hundreds of opportunities that could have influenced the author’s story as well as Victor Frankenstein the character inside the world where he would create life from the dead.  In doing so the reader will get a snapshot of the world in 1800-1818 and a class in a major chapter of the history of science and technology–what someone in Shelley’s circumstances as a woman among affluent families living among vocal sharers of ideas including the likes of Erasmus Darwin, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and Lord Byron.

Harkup takes her research a step further in Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, locating the possible influences of not only Shelley but those around Mary Shelley like her father, her husband, and Byron, whose access to cutting edge science and free thought reached across the ocean and nations.  She references the ongoing relationships and likelihood of the sharing of ideas among these men and Mary Shelley, all leading to the famous trip during the rainy summer of 1816, where the world was overtaken by darkness thanks to the earlier eruption of Mount Tambora in far off Indonesia.  Mary Shelley, age 18, with boyfriend Percy visiting Byron and Dr. John Polidori at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, were hunkered down reading ghost stories to each other from the French book Fantasmagoriana, when Byron suggested each should write his/her own ghost story (Polidori’s story would become The Vampyre, the first vampire novel).  Along with the science, Harkup provides a complete background of each step of Shelley’s life before and after completion of her Frankenstein contribution.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Lists, and by extension, books with lists, are the stuff that sprout conversation.  Sometimes good conversation, sometimes knock-down-drag-outs, but always something to talk about.  We saw that last month in our look at Must-See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies that Are Out of This World, and it applies to Scott Christianson and Colin Salter’s new audacious work, 100 Books that Changed the World This book is not merely a list of books, but an argument supporting why the authors think each book merits recognition.  After all, with more than 2 million new books published each year (300,000 per year in the U.S. alone) and documented writings going back thousands of years, whittling them all down to 100 is a bit daunting at a minimum.  Grade schoolers, college liberal arts and sciences majors, and everyone else has probably encountered a list like this before, usually styled the “greatest,” “most influential,” or “most significant” books ever written.  Ultimately, readers may find the compilation of 100 books that “changed the world” results in a very similar set of books.

What would make your list?  You can probably list 20 included without much work.  The authors state in their preface that there are 50 books everyone would agree should be included.  Think religion and myths (the Torah, the Bible, the Quran), math and science (Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), philosophy and politics (Plato’s The Republic, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man), works of fiction (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), classic children’s books (Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales), works of the often-disputed literary greats (I’m looking at you, James Joyce), and works of long undisputed literary masters like Homer and Shakespeare.  Yes, these are all “givens” for a list like this.  But noteworthy great additions I don’t recall seeing on a list like this before include Louis Braille’s Procedure for Writing Words, Music and Plainsong in Dots, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of TimeAnd no author made the list more than once, except the writers of the Bible, which appears on the list twice: for the Gutenberg Bible and the King James version.

The authors hope their book “makes you question your own choices or ours, or introduces you to a book.”  Criticisms of 100 Books that Changed the World aren’t going to be all that dire as much as simply topics for discussion.  They’re the same critiques of any list or book like this.  Thirty-seven books on the list were written by authors from England, removing the inclusion of any books from some countries.  The list is heavily back loaded, with 26 books from the 19th century and 35 books from the 20th century–explainable in part since the authors didn’t have a lot to select from the first 3,000 years covered.  The oldest book included is the I Ching, roughly 4,800 years old, and the most recent, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein, only four years old.  The late history scholar Robert E. Schofield postulated that historians cannot accurately assess the influence of a historical period unless at least 50 years has transpired, and consistent with that theory, nine books shouldn’t have made the cut, removing books like Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Art Spiegleman’s graphic novel Maus, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  

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