Monday 27 July 2009

Brian Aldiss has a mother complex.

There's no other way to explain his novel FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND. In it, Joe Bodenland, a man from the 21st century slips back in time to the 19th century; specifically, to Switzerland, where he first meets Victor Frankenstein and his monster and then, after another displacement, Mary Shelley and her illustrious companions. He becomes obsessed with thwarting first Frankenstein, and then his monsters.

There's some good stuff along the way. Aldiss' portraits of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron are colourful and convincing. The narrator's various meditations on the scientific quest to learn more and improve on nature are occasionally though-provoking, raising interesting questions about, for instance, whether rationality has really done more for human dignity than religion, even when the points they make are debatable (did religion really protect the basic dignity of every human being more than reason-based capitalism? It seems unlikely). Aldiss' depiction of the monster and its mate (yes, Frankenstein Makes Woman in this pastiche) are pretty good, too.

But there's little sense to it all. The narrator is obsessed with destroying the monster and his mate, even though they seem to deserve it little enough. Bodenland himself becomes a bit of a monster in his murderous quest. There are one too many time-slips, and nothing is really explained or tied up.

Most egregious of all, the narrator sleeps with Mary Shelley, for little reason other than that he is there, and he makes her happy by telling her that he is a time traveller who can vouch for the eventual success of her novel. It seems highly out of character from what I've read of Mary Shelley, who was no libertine, and certainly the fact that the narrator is presented as an old man, a grandfather, at the end of his career, makes the liaison that much stranger. I think Aldiss just wanted to fantasise about making love to Mary Shelley, whom he has often described as the mother of his genre, and to hell with sense or plot coherence. Having written this bit of slash fic, he then built a fairly shoddy structure around it, and then, being of a thoughtful bent of mind, fleshed it out a bit with philosophical ramblings.

The end result is less than a novel, not quite an essay. An alogether vexatious and disappointing exercise. Aldiss is one of the more interesting and original literary SF writers, and one with a keen engagement with the genre's nature and history. I expected much more from his take on what he holds to be one of the first, if not the first, SF novel.

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