Frankenstein Unbound

by Brian W. Aldiss

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Brian W. Aldiss wrote this ambivalent, multifaceted novel as homage to and exegesis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which Aldiss, in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (1973), cited as the first science-fiction novel ever written. When Aldiss’ Percy Shelley voices his faith in individualism and the progressive betterment of humankind, he echoes Billion Year Spree on the Romantic climate of thought that made possible both science fiction and scientific advancement.

One of the most delightful aspects of Frankenstein Unbound is its anachronistic elegance of style and adoption of Mary Shelley’s method of conveying her story through a series of documents. Bodenland’s story unfolds through letters and cables, newspaper stories, and ultimately Bodenland’s taped journal. The speculative, leisurely quality of all these communications is comically at odds with the bare-bones communication of the current age, to say nothing of being deliciously incongruous coming from a man who moves from one crisis to another.

In its simplest terms, Frankenstein Unbound is a cautionary tale about the destructive effects of placing intellectual development above spiritual development. Bodenland believes that the Frankenstein story is a mythic representation of what has gone wrong in his age. Trying to improve on nature, Frankenstein had applied scientific principles to the imperfect human anatomy, creating a life-form that would never need maintenance and would never run down. Bodenland deplores the supposition that ever-increasing production and industrialization will lead to increased happiness.

Bodenland becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator as his twenty-first century identity melts away. His articulate, passionately held convictions are increasingly at odds with his actions. Once a loving grandfather and politician who crusaded for racial equality, Bodenland allows an obsession with eradicating Frankenstein’s creation to so dominate his life that he becomes a homicidal fiend, unhesitatingly using futuristic weapons to murder three helpless beings.

Furthermore, although Bodenland views the monster as the quintessence of technology run amok, the reader gets a different picture: The monster shows compassion by feeding Bodenland when he is destitute, quotes Milton, and dances with his new bride. In his final confrontation with Bodenland, the monster, dying, has the last word. In his obsession with destroying the two new life-forms before they breed, Bodenland reflects genocidal attitudes of the twenty-first century that have led to war.

Although Bodenland believes that Timeslips are responsible for his eroding sense of self, the novel demonstrates that time has always been nonlinear. Even when the Timeslips are not displacing Bodenland, time does not flow predictably forward. When he and Mary are enjoying ecstatic love, Bodenland observes that, for lovers, there is only the present. After he murders Frankenstein, Bodenland is stuck in that moment: The image of Frankenstein dying appears repeatedly before his eyes.

Bodenland’s references to myth suggest how historical and fictional figures may coexist on the same plane. In Western consciousness, Byron and Shelley exist as mythic figures, as Frankenstein’s monster does. There is a hint of the metafictional here. Bodenland is transported to a world remote from his own and finds that his sense of self is dissolving. His experience mimics what happens when one is immersed in a work of fiction. Only in fiction can one participate sensuously in the life of past ages and meet beings from different realities.

Frankenstein Unbound explicates Mary Shelley’s novel as a work of prophecy, though it at once invites and resists hard and fast conclusions about the dangers of technological advancement. The novel, however, unequivocally celebrates tolerance, compassion, and the transforming power of literature and myth.

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