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The universe is a haunted house – the Gothic roots of science fiction

“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.” – “Ian McEwan: ‘Who’s going to write the algorithm for the little white lie?’

With this dismissive opinion of science fiction – writing that’s full of fun and gadgets, perhaps, but ultimately vapid and ignorant of more important concerns – Ian McEwan not only set the genre internet alight but also added himself to a list of hoary old authors and critics who’ve blithely dismissed genre fiction as little more than children playing with toys while the adults look on indulgently.

If only someone proper came along to write it properly, he mutters. Someone proper, the implication is stark, like him.

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Ironically, however, it’s often not the fiction being criticised that’s vapid but the criticisms and prejudices themselves. The same voices mouthing the same words, time and time again throughout history, and only the time machine of internet archives is needed to listen to them:

We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright: and yet we suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better. – Anonymous review in The British Critic, New Series, Vol. 9, April 1818, pp. 432-8.

This astonishingly sneering, scornful review was written over two-hundred years before Ian McEwan’s comments but it’s easy to see the same dismissal of the source material.

What, then, is this scorn directed at?

Nothing less than that masterpiece of Romantic Gothic horror and, according to the likes of Brian Aldiss, progenitor of the science fiction genre that Ian McEwan dismisses as little more than so many pairs of anti-gravity boots: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Two men (our anonymous critic is almost certainly a man) separated by two centuries but saying the same things – the writing we have here, they claim, is laughably empty of worthwhile content and could only become something worth attention given the proper discipline by the proper people – about two genres of writing that are not just deeply related but which are effectively, as I will argue, the same genre seen at different times.

In this series of articles I will look more deeply at some classic works of sci-fi and Gothic horror, in both film and print, to refute the claim that they have “neither principle, object, nor moral”. I will compare and contrast these selected works to investigate how they use their shared philosophical concerns – the first of which I have called Monsters & Monstrosity, Environment & Embodiment, and Duplicates & Duplicity – to talk deeply about the biggest of Big Ideas; not just what it means to be human but what it means to be.

Before that, however, I’ll use this introduction to talk about two major strands that weave through all of those forthcoming articles. Firstly, the links between sci-fi and Gothic horror and, secondly, why is it that both of them have so often been derided as empty of worth by the literary Establishment.

Both sci-fi and Gothic horror are ultimately speculative genres; they talk about the what-ifs of strange places, distant times and alien thoughts. Crucially, though, they use these speculative elements to investigate their contemporary worlds and beliefs. Frankenstein, being the crux between the two, does this wonderfully. 

Mary Shelley concocted the idea of Frankenstein during a parlour game designed to liven her holiday on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816, a holiday made dismal by the damp weather of the gloom-ridden ‘Year Without Summer’. It didn’t simply appear from nowhere, though, and in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein Shelley talks of how “various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life”. Tellingly, she goes on to say how her then-teenage self had wondered whether “[p]erhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things”.

This comment refers to the experiments of Luigi Galvini who, in 1786, had animated the dissected legs of a frog through the application of electricity. Ten years later Caspar Creve described how an apparatus which used a similar technique could be used to test whether a human body was alive or dead. In 1803, only 13 years before Frankenstein was conjured up, Giovanni Aldini (Galvini’s nephew) applied galvanic stimulation to the corpse of George Foster, who had been hanged at Newgate for murder. “The Newgate Calendar” of the time describes how:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.

We can see the influence this must have had on Shelley when Frankenstein himself tells us that “[i]t was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils […] I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs”.

Through this we can see that, alongside the Gothic horror of risen corpses and spiralling madness, Frankenstein is most definitely a work of science fiction. Shelley explicitly takes the scientific reality of her world and extends it into fictional speculation; what if Foster’s corpse had not simply been temporarily agitated but permanently re-animated. The remainder of the novel is an investigation into two further concepts. Firstly, it asks if there is “principle, object, [or] moral” why humanity cannot become, as the subtitle of Frankenstein implies, a ‘Modern Prometheus’ and take the act of creation away from God. Secondly, it is deeply concerned with, as McEwan puts it, “whether [the creature and, arguably, the creator] has responsibilities and rights and all the rest”.

Put in this context it’s easy to see how Frankenstein is a precursor, as stated earlier, to modern sci-fi’s concerns around subjects like AI sentience, cybernetics and trans-humanism. Would Blade Runner have been possible without Frankenstein? The Terminator? RoboCop? More fundamentally, it questions whether humanity is measured not in what we are but in how we are. Who is the more humane, if not the more human? The creature who clears the snow, unbidden, from around his neighbours’ cottage? Or the man who shuns and despises his own sentient creation?

So why is it, as we have seen, that commentators from the birth of sci-fi to the modern day stubbornly refuse to accept that this is the case and continue to deride both genres? Another contemporary review of Frankenstein gives us some insight:

Our readers will guess from this summary, what a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents. — It is piously dedicated to Mr. Godwin, and is written in the spirit of his school. The dreams of insanity are embodied in the strong and striking language of the insane, and the author, notwithstanding the rationality of his preface, often leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero […] Our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is — it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated — it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and wantonly adds to the store, already too great, of painful sensations. – John Wilson Croker in The Quarterly Review, 18, January 1818, pp. 379-385.

Although Frankenstein was far from universally panned – glowing reviews from figures such as Walter Scott and a slightly over-keen Percy Bysshe Shelley fought its corner – commentary from conservative, Establishment sources like those quoted above remained consistent and damning in its criticism; the novel, whilst competently written, is grotesque and abhorrent, it is immoral and the author – commonly assumed to be male by many reviewers – is assuredly as insane as the characters they describe in lurid prose.

Overwhelmingly, the opinion forms that Mary Shelley’s novel – and, by extension, Mary Shelley herself – is not proper, and she wasn’t alone in receiving such criticism. The Gothic as a whole was largely dismissed at the time as “terrorist literature”, dispensed by circulating libraries – small, private libraries which would lend books to the public for a small subscription fee – and intent on corrupting the moral fibre of readers who knew no better; the lower classes, servants and, perhaps worst of all, women. Even more truly horrifying, some of these people read not to improve themselves but simply for enjoyment!

As Andrew Reszitnyk states in “Romantic Reactions to the Castle of Otranto and England’s Gothic Craze”:

While this transgressive disregard for the distinction between high-brow and low-brow audiences surely helped the sales of Gothic romances, it also provoked a backlash from elite, conservative critics, who were loath to relinquish the cultural capital that had, for centuries, been associated with being literate.

The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an ardent opponent of the Gothic as a literary form, sums up his own attitude more succinctly in his Biographia Literaria:

For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming.

What these people are doing can’t properly be considered reading, Coleridge explains haughtily, because they don’t even understand what proper reading is. In the case of Penny Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls, the cheaply produced pamphlets that serialised sensationalist Gothic horror like Varney the Vampire, what was being read didn’t even have the decency to be proper books!

Gothic horror and, by extension, the sci-fi that followed it are disparaged by the Establishment simply because they aren’t what the elite think they should be; both genres are popular, readers like them, and they are populist, they are made easily available to readers. For the elite, populist art – Coleridge’s “beggarly day-dreaming” – is an anathema which does nothing but “fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding”.

The circulating libraries, the music halls, the drive-in cinemas, the comic shops, the VHS rental stores, the Saturday night TV schedules, the online streaming services. All of these become their own forms of “terrorist literature”, all delivering diverse “dreams of insanity” for the “diseased and wandering imagination”. All nothing but a “tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity”.

Which is nonsense.

Dr Who’s sci-fi struggles with the Daleks, for example, taught a generation of children about the problems of fascism and fighting intolerance more eloquently than many a school history book. The covert and unprovable alien invasion of 1960s sci-fi thriller The Invaders is an all-too-accurate criticism McCarthy-ism and the self-defeating, self-hating paranoia that it inevitably created. Pat Mill’s comic series Charley’s War, an unflinchingly bleak and gothic counter-point to the more commonplace Boy’s Own war stories, is perhaps one of the best and most easily grasped explorations of Nietzsche’s warning that “he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”.

The list goes on. And, as I mentioned at the start, it will go on.

To do that, though, we first need to travel long, cold roads to some distant and forbidding places. Places where no-one can hear you scream…

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By Daniel Pietersen

Daniel Pietersen is a writer of weird fiction and critical non-fiction on horror and horror theory. When not writing articles or preparing conference papers, you will find Daniel still trying to complete Dark Souls 2. Daniel is on Twitter as @pietersender and much of his work can be found through his website.

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