Frankenstein Unbound

by Brian W. Aldiss

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1222

Frankenstein 1818), which can be considered the first real science-fiction novel, is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.” Its author, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was the mistress and later the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet who wrote Prometheus Unbound (1820) and who was in part the model for Victor Frankenstein. In Frankenstein Unbound, Brian W. Aldiss combines the titles of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s books and sends a time traveler from the twenty-first century back to Geneva in 1816, when Mary was engaged in writing her as yet uncompleted novel.

Frankenstein Unbound begins in the summer of 2020, in a series of letters from Joseph Bodenland—a liberal presidential adviser ousted by right-wing extremists and now staying at his ranch in New Houston, Texas—to his wife in Indonesia. The world is at war, but Joe hopes that the news of a space-time rupture will stop further conflict. Meanwhile, he is enjoying the company of his grandchildren, who still believe in myths. Their mythic make-believe games cause him to think of the major myth of his own time: “that ever-increasing production and industrialization bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number all round the globe....”

The infrastructure of space has become unstable because of nuclear warfare above the stratosphere. Joe thinks that “the intellect has made our planet unsafe for intellect. We are suffering from the curse that was Baron Frankenstein’s in Mary Shelley’s novel: by seeking to control too much, we have lost control of ourselves.” In New Houston, Joe experiences a thirty-five-hour timeslip back to the Middle Ages. Then, Mrs. Bodenland receives a cable stating that during a second timeslip, her husband rode out alone into an altered countryside, and when the ranch snapped back into the present, he and his car disappeared into the vanished land.

From that point onward, the novel is the taped journal of Joe Bodenland, relating his experience. He discovers that he has slipped in time and place back to Switzerland in 1816, when people are discussing the just-ended Napoleonic Wars. His years as a diplomat had made him knowledgeable about the country and fluent in its languages. He also finds that he has become young again and full of vigor. At an inn, he overhears gossip about a local murder, in which a maidservant named Justine Moritz was to stand trial for killing a small boy, William. Joe is surprised when a gentleman whose table he is sharing insists that Justine is innocent and that guilt lies on his own shoulders. Following his distraught acquaintance to Geneva, Joe learns that the man is Victor Frankenstein. “I felt myself in the presence of myth and, by association, accepted myself as mythical!” Joe follows Victor into the mountains, where they both see the monster.

As a child, Joe had read Frankenstein, but the original was confused for him by “the deplorable pastiches and plagiarizations put out by the mass media.” He remembered that Mary Shelley was the author but thought that Victor was purely fictitious. Falling in love with the unspoiled world of 1816, Joe hates the “conquest of Nature” by which the Age of Science has destroyed it and caused “the loss of man’s inner self.” Blaming Victor for this, Joe tries to undo the damage caused by his experiments. He attends Justine’s trial and hears her sentenced to be hanged. In vain, he tries to make Victor help her; Victor is too obsessed with himself, and Joe finds that a three-month timeslip has occurred and transported him overnight from May to August, when Justine is already dead.

Failing with Victor, Joe...

(This entire section contains 1222 words.)

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goes to the Villa Diodati, where he encounters Lord Byron. When Byron introduces Joe to Percy Bysshe Shelley and then to Mary, Joe finds that his “severance with the old modes of reality [is] complete.” They all engage in a debate about the role of science and the future. Shelley predicts the coming liberation of mankind through machinery, but Mary thinks that humanity first “will have to change its basic nature.” Byron suspects that machines may strengthen the evil in man’s nature and that “new knowledge may lead to new oppression.” Joe tells them that there will continue to be inequality, that “culture will become enslaved by the machines,” that goodness will become irrelevant because machines “become symbols of class and prosperity,” and that as systems become more complex, they become impersonal, have more danger of going wrong, and make it more difficult for the individual to operate them for good.

Alone with Mary, Joe tells her that her characters are alive, only a few miles away, while she insists that they are invented. Accepting “the equal reality of Mary Shelley and her creation,” Joe wants to borrow a copy of the novel to use it to ambush and kill the monster. He finds, however, that Mary has not yet completed the book. She tells him the story to the point at which Frankenstein agrees to make the monster a mate; beyond that, she has not written. Joe, in turn, assures her that she will finish the novel, marry Shelley, and become famous. For an idyllic day, Joe and Mary become lovers. Then he returns to Geneva, determined to persuade Victor not to create a female and to help him destroy the existing monster. When Joe goes to the Frankenstein house, Victor’s fiancee, Elizabeth Lavenza, and friend Clerval have him arrested, charged with murdering Victor. From prison, he writes a long letter to Mary, comparing his era to hers.

When a flood hits the prison, Joe is freed. Two other escaped convicts beat him and steal his fire. During a dreadful, freezing night in the mountains, the monster visits Joe, rebuilds his fire, and leaves him food. After recuperating, Joe returns to Geneva and discovers that a slip in both time and space has occurred; the lake has vanished, and a new ice age has come. Joe finds Victor again and goes with him to his secret laboratory, where they debate the role of science and the responsibility of the scientist. Victor is creating a mate for the monster and refuses to be dissuaded by Joe, who is shocked to find that Victor has given the mate the face of Justine Moritz. Joe then decides to kill both Frankenstein and his creature. In Victor’s stable, Joe finds his car, with a sealed nuclear drive that requires no fuel. On it is mounted a swivel gun, with which Joe plans to destroy the monster. When the monster and his mate emerge and engage in a grotesque mating dance, however, Joe watches in horrified fascination, unable to fire, while the monsters couple and then vanish. When Victor proposes making a third monster to kill the first, Joe shoots him dead and burns the tower. He then takes over Victor’s role and pursues the monsters in a hunt to the death across a bleak frozen wasteland created by a spreading rupture in time-space. Finding the monsters outside a vast citadel across an icefield—the last refuge of humanity—Joe shoots them both with tracer bullets from his swivel gun, killing first the female and then the attacking male. Then, anticipating a possible attack from the fortress, Joe waits “in darkness and distance”; the novel thus concludes with the same words as Frankenstein.