Rating 4 stars
My second read for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge is Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss. I’ve known Aldiss’s name in relation to science fiction for a while but never read anything by him. I picked this novel up in Bookmark, a second hand bookshop in Falmouth, drawn by its cover art.
It is simultaneously, as with most science fiction, a reflection on concerns about the contemporaneous era, and a projection of where current science might lead. It is also a meditation on Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein.
I read Frankenstein years ago, around the time the film adaptation directed by Kenneth Branagh was released. I’ve seen James Whale’s 1931 adaptation as well as Branagh’s more faithful version from 1994, and I am a big fan of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which imagines a future Frankenstein very amusingly.
I was reminded of the novel’s key plot points while co-curating an exhibition on the history of electricity. The 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein fell during the exhibition’s tour, and reference was included at all three venues to the author witnessing Aldini’s corpse reanimations as the possible inspiration for Shelley’s story, as well as to the influence of James Whale’s film adaptation on a young boy who went on to invent the wearable, battery-operated pacemaker.
I was intrigued by the description on the back cover of Aldiss’s book, which promised time travel from the 21st century to the 19th and a clash of cultures as well as fact merging with fiction.
Aldiss published the book in 1973. Its setting was 47 years into his future. The story begins on 20 August 2020, almost a year into my past. Protagonist Joe Bodenland is a former presidential advisor, sacked for being too liberal, despite being responsible for a lot of surveillance activity that has left his house strewn with cameras and microphones. My immediate thought was that Aldiss was writing at the time of the Watergate scandal and maybe this sparked his imagination. Bodenland is writing to his wife, Mina, who has left America for Indonesia, leaving Bodenland to raise their orphaned grandchildren alone, aided by the array of bugging devices indoors and out. A war is being waged, a race war on a global scale with all the trappings of colonialist language and notions of superior and inferior cultures, and an atomic war with all parties using the nuclear weaponry at their disposal out in space, but Bodenland reports that a rupture in space/time gives him hope that this crisis will end the war. The crisis is explained in a Times leader that Bodenland sends to his wife with his letter (written because computer communication, in a form similar to telegrams, is disrupted) as “a crisis not to survive which is not to survive at all”, caused by time and space going ‘on the blink’ so that “We can no longer rely on even the sane sequence of temporal progression: tomorrow may prove to be last week, or last century, or the Age of the Pharaohs.” After more than a year of the pandemic, I know how that feels.
In this instance, though, the trouble starts with “the great overshadowing belief of our time – that ever-increasing production and industrialization bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number all round the globe – a myth to which most people subscribe … a myth of Intellect, not of Being”, and “The Intellect has made our planet unsafe for intellect … by seeking to control too much, we have lost control of ourselves.” As did Victor Frankenstein.
This is only a dozen pages in, and already I liked the cut of Aldiss’s jib in this novel.
The space/time rupture causes timeslips. Bodenland’s house spends 35 hours somewhere in mediaeval Europe, where a panicked serf summons his liege lord, who balefully stares the timetravellers down from horseback before wearily leaving. On the next timeslip, Bodenland assumes he’ll have the same timeframe in which to explore, and sets out in his car. It’s his luck, good or bad, that the instability corrects itself after only 25 minutes, leaving him stranded somewhere alpine.
Luckily for us, Bodenland’s ‘tape-memory’ recording device is stowed in the car. Poor Aldiss. He clearly couldn’t guess that his future, our present, would be so digital. Still, Bodenland decides to record his experiences in a ‘tape-journal’, and so we follow him on his adventure, the ‘tape-journal’, intended for his wife, the equivalent of Captain Walton’s letters to his sister in Mary Shelley’s novel.
Bodenland takes a room at an inn in a town on the outskirts of Geneva. Here, he encounters a brooding young man, accidentally locked out of the city walls by a late return. The young man turns out to be Victor Frankenstein. Yes, that one. The fictional character. It’s hard to tell whether Bodenland has been dropped into Mary Shelley’s book or whether something else is going on. Elements of the story Victor Frankenstein shares with Captain Walton in Mary Shelley’s novel are presented here as a sort of fact in Bodenland’s timeslipped reality, although they come across more like a dramatic performance, or something from Bodenland’s subconscious somehow made real. It might not be a coincidence that Bodenland keeps referring to his superior self, a nod to Jung’s theory that, to be a balanced personality, it is necessary to examine feelings of inferiority for their unconscious causes and integrate them into our conscious awareness.
Bodenland makes clear early on that he is aware of Victor Frankenstein’s fictional nature, and that his physical manifestation in this timeslipped reality has shaken his ability to trust his understanding of the world. As the novel progresses and time slips again, Bodenland’s connection to his own reality becomes stretched to its limit, freeing him to immerse himself in 19th century Genevan life. Towards the end of the novel, Bodenland reflects on the possibility of multiple universes that ordinarily do not connect, brought into congress by the rupture in space/time; a nod, perhaps, by Aldiss to Hugh Everett’s Many-Worlds Interpretation. In Bodenland’s experience of 1816, a world where Frankenstein is real has merged with the world on Bodenland’s continuum where Mary Shelley imagines Frankenstein.
Wrapped around Bodenland’s interactions with the past world he finds himself in are reflections on the nature of his own era. As well as nuclear weaponry, atomic energy powers his car and his watch, which he sells to a curious Swiss watchmaker, allowing the hint of a suggestion from Aldiss that Swiss watchmaking precision owes much to this time travelling intervention. The watch becomes symbolic for Bodenland of the aspirations of his society, as its uranium core means it will never need maintenance and will never stop working. He links these aspirations to those of Victor Frankenstein:
When he reflected on how age and death laid waste a man’s being, and saw a means of interfering with that process, he acted as harbinger to the Age of Science then in its first dawn.
There’s also discussion of the way in which scientific advances in medicine and hygiene have resulted in an overpopulated world that has led to war, and an advanced industrialised world that is destroying the planet. Aldiss’s concerns in the 1970s definitely carry forward to his imagined future and our present, even if his future science hasn’t come to pass in quite the way he imagined it. Further into the book, when Aldiss has Bodenland expound further on the differences between the world of 1816, at the start of scientific progress, and the world in 2020, reaping the benefits of that scientific progress, I felt a little sad that Aldiss’s idealism didn’t come to pass. Far from moving away from the poor treatment of those who do the work by those who make the money, far from moving towards a fairer society that lets nobody slip through the cracks, it does feel that in recent years the improvements made through the welfare state, through equality laws, through trade union protections, and through the medical and technological advances that Aldiss celebrates and projects forward to his future, our present, are being unpicked, sending us backwards, but wrapped in futuristic seeming technological packaging that tells us we are an advanced society.
Reading up on Aldiss, I learnt that he believed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to be more than a gothic or romantic novel. Aldiss proposed that it be regarded as the first work of science fiction. In a 1995 publication, The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy, Aldiss says that Shelley employed “a writerly subterfuge that has since become the stock-in-trade of many SF writers,” before claiming her masterpiece inspired H G Wells. In Frankenstein Unbound, Aldiss also has Bodenland state that Shelley’s novel is the first science fiction novel.
Having made the acquaintance of Victor Frankenstein as a flesh and blood manifestation, Bodenland next makes his way to the Villa Diodati and engineers a meeting with Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary, who is still Mary Godwin at this point. Here, Aldiss has the trio perform a debate about a future planet, with humanity either set free from the hierarchies of society through the development of machines, as Percy Shelley sees it, or left in a worse condition by technological advances, as proposed by Byron and confirmed by Bodenland. It’s one of those moments of insertion into the narrative that authors like to do from time to time, something that I find jarring. The debate allows Bodenland to discover that Mary Shelley has already written Frankenstein, from which knowledge he hatches a plan to use Shelley’s novel as a map to track the monster and interfere in the lives of the Frankenstein household.
There’s a weird pot-boiler romantic interlude that seemed out of place to me, although I wondered whether Aldiss was trying for a gothic romance feel to the section, in a nod to the writing styles of the early 19th century. There’s a bit of a caper at the Frankenstein castle that lands Bodenland in gaol, leading to an epistolary expression of Bodenland’s (and presumably Aldiss’s) views on human progress over two centuries. Bits of this were interesting, but I’m generally not a fan of this sort of self-indulgence by authors.
Much of what happens next is interwoven with threads from Mary Shelley’s book, as Bodenland, escaped from gaol thanks to a timeslip that introduces some kind of arctic tundra into Geneva’s landscape, hunts down Victor Frankenstein in the hope of preventing him from creating a mate for the Creature and dissuading him from following the scientific path Shelley laid out in her novel. There are tweaks – no travel to the Orkneys, for example – and a twist, concerning the body chosen by Frankenstein as the basis for the Creature’s mate, but Aldiss has used these cleverly to create a world that is simultaneously parallel to reality and fiction.
The change to the narrative of our and Bodenland’s supposed shared reality, in which Shelley is real and Frankenstein fictional, rendered by Bodenland’s intervention in the Frankenstein story, is rationalised away by Bodenland.
I had altered no future, no past, I had merely diffused myself over a number of cloud-patch times.
There was no future, no past. Only the cloud-sky of infinite present states.
I found this pretty bleak. If the past and the future are mere concoctions of the human consciousness designed to give us a sense of place in an infinite present, then existence is an illusion and Descartes got it wrong. It could be possible to doubt that we even exist.
The novel ends with Bodenland pursuing the Creature and its mate across the frozen lands that have timeslipped into Switzerland. At one point in the pursuit, he takes shelter inside a ramshackle dwelling inside the much larger ruin of an abbey – an allegory for Bodenland’s state of mind, and for his earlier thoughts in the novel, when faced with the second, female Creature that Frankenstein has fashioned as a mate for his original, on the nature of the divine and the collapse of organised religion. In the penultimate chapter, Bodenland describes a series of dreams, a nod back, perhaps, to the theories of Jung that are touched on at the start. Bodenland’s personality is disintegrating. His dreams initially are fixed on the Shelleys and Byron. His final dream before waking is more disturbing.
His pursuit of the Creatures continues towards an inevitable end and a reflection on whether Bodenland has seen the future of humanity in the form of a glowing citadel that has timeslipped from a more distant future. We will never know. Bodenland’s ‘tape-journal’ ends, leaving us hanging.