Review of Global Frankenstein
Margaret Davison and Marie Mulvey-Roberts, eds. Global Frankenstein. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Hardcover, 344 pg. $119.99, ISBN 978-3319781419. Ebook, $89.00, ISBN 978-3319781426.
I first found Global Frankenstein, part of Palgrave’s relatively new Studies in Global Science Fiction series, when I was searching for material for my first-year seminar course titled “Global Frankenstein.” Both my idea for the class and this ambitious anthology participate in the 200th anniversary celebrations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which may or may not be the first modern science fiction text. Regardless of where you may stand on that issue, the popularity of the mad scientist and the monster for those 200 years certainly justifies the hoopla. I was particularly excited by the global moniker, however, as I am always eager to learn more about how the novel has been received, translated, adapted, and transformed beyond English-speaking cultures. All too often, “global” content still remains Western and Eurocentric, and I hoped this volume would help me avoid this problem in my own course.
Sadly, Davison and Roberts have not been as successful in collecting scholarship on Frankenstein’s international travels as I hoped, a shortcoming that they admit frankly in their introduction: “Despite its title, this critical collection cannot fully convey the enormity and scope of Frankenstein’s global reach [. . ..] we acknowledge the linguistic and cultural limitations of this collection and welcome other international interrogations”. (8) As a scholar and teacher who was drawn to their text specifically because I hoped to find an English-language consideration of that global reach, I would have preferred a different title, or perhaps a subtitle that clarified these completely understandable difficulties. The blurb claims that the book “reassesses Frankenstein’s global impact for the twenty-first century across myriad cultures and nations, from Japan, Mexico, and Turkey, to Britain, Iraq, Europe, and North America.” Indeed, articles touch on works from all of these countries, but the analysis definitely focuses more substantially on direct readings of Shelley’s text and its British, American, and European afterlives than those in the other countries on this list. Nevertheless, the number of non-English Frankensteins covered within this volume is notably higher than any other collection I have seen, so perhaps my disappointment exceeds justification.
Having noted my reservations regarding the title, I must declare that the essays in this collection comprise a thorough, thought-provoking, and occasionally brilliant body of scholarship. Sixteen essays are presented in five sections, devoted to the novel’s science, corporeality, stage and screen adaptations, illustrations and literary adaptations, and “Futuristic Frankensteins.” The editors have each contributed, Mulvey-Roberts with an analysis of the surgical context of the novel and the contemporary French artist ORLAN’s radical body modifications, and Davison with an intriguing account of balletic interpretations of Frankenstein. I applied the adjective “ambitious” earlier in this review—the range may not be “global” in the specific sense that I had hoped for when I saw the title, but in terms of sheer scope and comprehensive consideration of where the influence of Shelley’s text can be found, the word is appropriate. In addition to the usual textual issues and filmic adaptations that any collection must address, the plastic surgery as art and the danse macabre are joined by stage plays, television series, picture books, graphic novels, interactive digital texts, video games, memes, philosophical riffs, and even a poem as afterword.
When these authors focus their attention on Shelley’s text, they provide cogent analysis in thoughtful conversation with earlier scholars. The editors’ introduction succinctly reviews the critical history of the novel, noting major critical insights as well as the biases that inflected them. The essays advance many of these conversations. For example, Bruce Wyse reads the novel’s deployment of disability and disgust and the evolution of those themes in texts from Bulwer Lytton to Doctor Who, noting ways in which these adaptations “broaden the representational purview of Frankenstein to clarify its subtext” (89) through the lens of disability studies. Carolyn D. Williams explores the marked lack of humor in the original novel as a symptom of Shelley’s concerns with decorum, a “dangerous strategy” because “like Gothic monsters, laughter, if banished, may return with devastating effect” (91). In addition to her careful reading of Shelley’s manuscript and revisions, Williams also considers the challenges and opportunities this creates for critics, interpreters, and adapters.
As the essays move further from the original novel to explore its global and cultural adaptations, they provide nuanced considerations of a wide array of responses to and reworkings of Shelley’s text, direct and indirect. Many essays in the collection concentrate on the visual traditions, and some of the strongest—and most international—focus specifically on illustrations, comics, and graphic novels. Emily Alder provides an especially interesting analysis of how Frankenstein adaptations for children, even in such apparently simplified forms as picture books, show exceptional sensitivity and creativity as they “alter the original’s script about otherness, acceptance, and responsibility [in order to] answer back to oversimplification of Frankenstein through film and popular discourse” (223).
Sometimes the connections become rather attenuated. Xavier Aldana Reyes pursues the creature’s influence on the specific subspecies of zombies produced through human-engineered viruses as well as recent portrayals of sympathetic zombies. While he acknowledges that most zombies are rightly distinguished from Frankenstein’s creature, Aldana Reyes argues that these “lumbering creatures who walk the line between life and death may now be embodying the most relevant aspects of the myth” (179) for current audiences. I am not sure yet if I accept the argument (in part because I don’t know enough about zombies), but I want to run it past my students. This satisfies the purpose that drew me to the collection in the first place: to stimulate my thinking about the novel and enrich my teaching with new examples, insights, and questions. Less successful for me, though still provocative, is Tanya Krzywinska’s review of Frankenstein’s impact on video games. With few direct game references to consider, Krzywinska focuses on visual and creative aesthetics several iterations removed from the original text. While I don’t doubt their lineage, I do wonder what to do with it.
I cannot conclude my review without addressing the final essay, written by the renowned Fred Botting, “What Was Man . . .? Reimagining Monstrosity from Humanist to Transhumanism.” Botting questions the relevance of Shelley’s novel today, a cultural touchstone easily mined for metaphor but otherwise displaced by more modern monsters: “Frankenstein and creature—all two-human [sic]—seem to have no place, deleted by global posthumanism, either in the voracious supersession enacted by the attractive vampires of neoliberalism or in the nonhuman hordes of walking dead that testify to a transhumanist future present, subsisting as refuse, less than meat, and barer than bare life” (310). Botting finds a powerful reimagining in Bernard Rose’s film Frankenstein (2015), but one which may mark the end point of the Frankenstein myth, clearing the way for “some cyborgs, chimeras, hybrids, and posthumans [to] begin, without fear or fantasy, to foster some other imagining” (315).
Taken as a whole, Global Frankenstein provides a varied and fascinating array of critical approaches to Frankenstein itself as well as a truly remarkable range of related works. If more of those works are from Western, and especially English-speaking, cultures than the title suggests, I recommend following Davison and Mulvey-Roberts’ excellent collection with further scholarship on the international reach of Shelley’s hideous progeny.