Mary Shelley and the Birth of SF – Gary K Wolfe. Lecture 1.

I’ve started listening to a lecture series by Gary K Wolfe on SF. Here’s a few jottings from the first lecture.

  • SF has grown more respectable and more misunderstood.
  • Literary writers trying their hand at SF: Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, John Updike. William Golding, Rudyard Kipling.
  • SF lit has never been widely popular or bestselling.
  • At the movies though, SF rules the roost. One of the top grossing genres.
  • Reason is probably thatspecial effects have a wide popular appeal.
  • Hollywood SF movies run 3 or 4 decades behind current literary SF. Exceptions are movies like Bladerunner. A movie that has influenced how writers think about future cities.
  • Dragons in SF. Anne McCaffrey, Michael Swanick. But their dragons are not created by magic. They are dragons of science. SF dragons. Using speculations from known science.
  • SF “should be possible”.
  • Delaney. Realistic fiction is “what could’ve happened”, fantasy is “what could not have happened” and SF is “what has not happened yet”.
  • Damon Knight and Adam Roberts. Critics who have traced the origins of SF back to prehistory. Plato, Lucian of Samosata, Kepler’s short story Somnian. Bruno’s being burned at the stake the inception of SF. Cyrano de Bergerac.
  • SF in the modern sense arose as a consequence of the rise if science in the modern sense. And that happened in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • The creation of monsters. Monsters are prehistoric. The Epic of Gilgamesh’s Humbaba, Beowulf and Grendel  etc but SF starts with monsters created by science.
  • The Law of Unintended Consequences
  • Hubris vs. Nemesis and Cautionary Tales.
  • Reasons for the Birth of the first work of SF: a dead frog, a volcano and a teenage bride.
  • The dead frog – Galvani passed electricity through the leg of a dead frog inducing a muscle contraction.
  • The volcano – Mt Tambora erupted in 1815 lowering worldwide temperatures so much so that 1816 was called the year without summer.
  • The teenage bride was Mary Shelley, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was vacationing post marriage with her husband and friends, Polidori and Byron at Byron’s mansion on the continent. The weather was so terrible that they were confined indoors and embarked on a ghost story writing competition. Shelley wrote a fragment of poetry, Polidori wrote a story called The Vampire which would later inspire Bram Stoker and Mary wrote the first draft of Frankenstein.
  • Victor Frankenstein’s creation is not one of magic or divinity – it is of science – of the day.
  • Brian Aldiss claims Mary Shelley as the mother of the genre.
  • Young Victor’s education – in natural philosophy was followed by a shift to modern science.
  • More than 50 film adaptations of it. First in 1910, the most famous in 1931 starring Boris Karloff. I, Frankenstein (2014) – one of the worse ones, 3% on RT.
  • Herbert J Muller: SF is about technological solutions and the loss of values.
  • SF is about the possible , given what we actually know.
  • But what do we know? Are scientists in agreement over what is known? Isn’t knowledge constantly being contested?
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