Review: Making the Monster

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Kathryn Harkup

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published February 6th 2018 by Bloomsbury SIGMA

Source: Copy received from publisher

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The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790-1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.

It is unlikely that Frankenstein would have been successful in his attempts to create life back in 1818. However, advances in medical science mean we have overcome many of the stumbling blocks that would have thwarted his ambition. We can resuscitate people using defibrillators, save lives using blood transfusions, and prolong life through organ transplants–these procedures are nowadays considered almost routine. Many of these modern achievements are a direct result of 19th century scientists conducting their gruesome experiments on the dead.

Making the Monster explores the science behind Shelley’s book. From tales of reanimated zombie kittens to electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Mary Shelley and inspired her most famous creation, Victor Frankenstein. While, thankfully, we are still far from being able to recreate Victor’s “creature,” scientists have tried to create the building blocks of life, and the dream of creating life-forms from scratch is now tantalizingly close.

I confess, I still haven’t read Frankenstein.  It’s on my list – especially after how much I loved Romantic Outlaws about Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft.  But I admit I’ve spent most of the last 18 months reading fluff and I’m not ashamed.  In the future though – Frankenstein and Anna Karenina – I’m coming for you!  So, back to Mary Shelley, when I received a message about Making the Monster I was completely intrigued.  How closely did she follow the science at her time?

I admit I thought this was going to be a light, maybe even silly read.  I mean we are talking about building a monster out of corpses.  It wasn’t silly at all.  Harkup gives both a biography of Mary Shelley (very brief compared to Romantic Outlaws!); and a history of medicine and science at her time.  Fascinating and gross and still sometimes a bit dry.  I loved how the book followed along with each step of Victor’s creation and what was known, what Mary might have known – down to her relevant correspondence and lectures she could have attended.  This could have easily been a silly book, but instead Harkup gave Mary and her creation the respect they deserve.

Also, this was just a really great looking book.  The cover details were carried through the chapters with great detail.  Now I really really really have to sit down and read Frankenstein.  To my book club – get ready, this is going to be my next pick!

Thank you Bloomsbury Sigma for this copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

5 Comments

  1. Frankenstein is everywhere these days! My daughter is reading it along with her teacher. It seems Mary Shelley is in almost every article I read. Now I want to read this one in addition to rereading the original story!

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