[Spoiler Alert: this review contains spoilers. However this book was first printed in 1986. I gotta figure, if you haven't read it yet, you're probably not going to. Still, if you want the summary of my review without spoilers, I'll tell you now. You should buy this book and read everything but the last chapter. Trust me. You don't want to know.]
Before I say anything else about this book, I have to tell you that it pulled me out of a slump. I hadn’t read all the way through a book for more than a month and I was getting a little discouraged about it. Reading has always been important to me, but lately I had been having trouble really getting into it. I got bogged down somewhere in the middle of a book about the philosophy of science called Blast Power and Ballistics by Jack Lindsay and after that failure I was having trouble getting into reading anything at all. Then as I was browsing through the stacks at my local used book store I came across this little gem.
I was instantly intrigued by the unique concept. An epistolary novel set as a sequel to the original Frankenstein, with the monster telling the story in his own words? Count me in.
There are so many things that are right about this story. Firstly, and most important to me, it is well written. Fred Saberhagen does a wonderful job of recreating the voice employed by so many Victorian era epistolary tales, and that adept handling of the prose really helped to draw me in to the verisimilitude of the novel.
The story too is well handled, for the most part. Its focus on the monster’s quest to understand his true origins drew me in, making me share in his burning desire to know from whence his consciousness came.
The bulk of the novel consists of entries in a journal made by the monster himself. If you’re surprised that Frankenstein’s monster can read and write, it may be that you’ve been watching too many movies.
The monster’s journal is interspersed with a series of letters from the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin to his father. Franklin’s son is investigating the rumors of the monster’s existence at his father’s request. These portions of the book are pure genius, in my opinion, because they give Saberhagen the opportunity to pick at the niggling threads of the original story, plot elements which make very little sense when given closer examination.
By pointing out these inconsistencies, Saberhagen is then able to make the leap into claiming that the entirety of the original manuscript is untrustworthy, a fabrication plucked from the clutches of the truth by nefarious men with a dark purpose. The monster is not a killer, Frankenstein is not dead. All these things are made up by men who desperately hope to capture the monster and divine his secrets.
Saberhagen begins by calling tiny details into doubt, but gradually his rationalistic probing widens its scope calls into question the most important detail of all: could Frankenstein really create life? Could a Victorian era doctor truly hope to call a ghastly assemblage of corpses into renewed being?
Of course the answer is no. At first this might seem unfair. The story is about the creation of the monster. No matter how improbable it may be, that is the drive of the narrative. But on closer examination such a question of the doctor’s abilities bring about the books greatest moment of genius.
Frankenstein has not created life. But he believes that he has. He believes that he has called a soul into his rotting assemblage of corpses. And he believes he can do it again.
The pathos evoked by Frankenstein failing again and again to bestow life upon dead flesh while the apparent evidence that he is capable of doing so lurks outside his window is powerful stuff. The image of limbs rotting away on his operating table while Frankenstein endlessly attempts to shock them into life is profoundly disturbing.
But, you’re asking, if Frankenstein did not create the monster where did it come from? This, this is the book’s failing. The question unanswered throughout the narrative, the burning drive in the monster’s own heart: “Who am I? What is my name?”
The answer? He’s an alien.
No. I’m not making that up. It makes sense (sort of) in context. But it totally shatters the mood of the book. For three hundred pages Saberhagen weaves a classic Victorian tale of grotesque monsters, revenge, and betrayal. Then he slashes it to ribbons by having the last chapter of his novel being written on board a flying saucer. I understand what he was trying to do, but…
I feel bad about ending on a negative. In spite of the failings of the ending, this book is really a great read. Saberhagen clearly studied the original source material thoroughly and he spends a lot of time layering in details of the era that make the book seem remarkably vivid and believable. This isn’t a bad book. It just has a bad ending.
I would happily recommend that you read it in spite of its few failings. The book is out of print now, which makes me more than a little sad, but you can pick up the used copies cheap from Amazon.