Mary Shelley: Rewiring the Deepest Roots of Science Fiction

As popular media breeds new forms of content rooted no longer in realism and possibility, the appeal of science fiction has grown exponentially. With popular shows like Stranger Things and The Umbrella Academy, as well as movies and games that explore bizarre, macabre, and even sinister themes such as zombie apocalypses, disease outbreaks, and time travel, this genre of literature and art has grown significantly in scope and audience, growing with the ever-evolving fields of science, technology, and knowledge about existence. While the universes of science fiction also grow vast and incomprehensible, however, it must never escape us that the pioneers of this genre may not always be suited-up white guys with a passion for the sciences but also possibly women in frilly Victorian gowns. 

  • Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, is widely regarded as the pioneer of science fiction despite the blatant erasure of women in this genre. 
  • Her work on Frankenstein depicts the earliest versions of sci-fi with themes and plot devices characteristic of the Romantic Period.
  • Frankenstein’s monster may depict Shelley’s views on childbirth and womanhood, but it may also symbolize the god complex of men that gives birth to the monster of the patriarchal society.
  • While Frankenstein was unable to defeat his monster, humans can still work together to defeat our own in order to allow inclusive progress to reign. All individuals regardless of their gender identity are important contributors to this change.
  • Mary Shelley left a wonderful legacy that brought forth the genre of science fiction we enjoy today; thus, she and millions of other women in different fields should never be erased from their contributions to the world we live in.

When tracing the deepest roots of science fiction, a prominent figure whose patchwork monster is a horror staple in the literary world rises above her male counterparts. A woman ahead of her time, Mary Shelley brought Frankenstein to life, placing the earliest foundations in the genre we will soon glorify—science fiction. 

A tweet from New York Times Books sparked debate online after dubbing Jules Verne, publisher Hugo Gernsback, and H. G. Wells the “inventors” of the science fiction genre. An article describing H. G. Wells as the “predictor” of the 20th century is linked in the same tweet. A simple Google search of these characters would reveal that people also consider H. G. Wells the father of science fiction, while the other two are deliberately linked to pioneering the genre as well.

The only distinguishable characteristic of all these people, aside from their undeniable contributions to science fiction, is the fact that they are all men. With the principles the patriarchy has taught us, it is easy to accept these individuals as the “inventors” of science fiction without a doubt. Men in candid shots dressed in lavish suits just seem to make sense in a frame with a plaque deeming them the creators of a beloved branch of literature; however, the tweet New York Times Books made should be rightfully deleted and clarified. 

While the undeleted tweet spreads misinformation, its impact goes beyond a simple mistake and is deeper than a mere misidentification. Other Twitter users were quick to point out that a different person was the real “inventor” or creator of the genre. User @AJLZarychta called out the article’s writer, who is noticeably a man, saying, “Are men in general just not aware that Mary Shelley existed? And that she wrote science fiction a full 77 years before The Time Machine [a sci-fi book written by H.G. Wells].”

The science fiction book in question was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as stated by at least five more users under the same tweet. This blatant disregard for female writers, displayed in the New York Times Books’ refusal to delete the tweet and take accountability, shows that the world is far from truly acknowledging the contributions of women in any field. The erasure of women still exists, and people are learning to be comfortable with the fact that only men are the “fathers” of everything we value in our world. 

As introduced, our unsung writer, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, is an English Romantic novelist considered to be the earliest pioneer of science fiction after publishing Frankenstein in 1818. She also wrote The Last Man, an apocalyptic science fiction novel, eight years after creating the tale of the iconic and horrific monster. 

Bringing the monster to life

“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

Victor Frankenstein

While Victor Frankenstein pursued unnatural creation, his own creator, Mary Shelley, brought to life a story battling both old and new ideologies of the Romantic Period with her fresh perspective on the supernatural and her frightening depictions of science and discovery. Shelley’s work on Frankenstein started in the “Year Without a Summer,” the period of time in 1816 characterized by a volcanic winter and subsequent climate abnormalities, as she was challenged to write the most chilling story in existence. In the same way we had to find productivity indoors during the pandemic, Mary Shelley took the initiative to write her monster that would soon become a significant masterpiece of sci-fi and horror. 

Frankenstein, subtitled “The Modern Prometheus,” follows Victor Frankenstein, a character obsessed with the discovery of the “secret of life.” His triumph in bringing life to dead matter, however, would only lead to his tragic demise as he runs away from his creation out of horror and refusal of responsibility. 

The subtitle of this book encapsulates the moral structure of the plot. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who brought fire to humanity, sacrificing his own comfort and showing clear defiance of the status quo. Similarly, Frankenstein was obsessed with defeating the natural order to dwell on subjects beyond his humanity, something perhaps only a god could handle. This allusion is also a signature feature of the Romantic Period wherein the untouchable nature of the ancient world was juxtaposed and even intersected with modernity. 

In the novel, Shelley depicts the supernatural and the terror surrounding it as something born in a lab. The monsters we fear from bedtime stories are concretized as possibilities in the modern world where discovery and science bring forth unimaginable things, some of which could lead to our own destruction. This sort of trope or theme is characteristic of science fiction, with contemporary examples including zombie apocalypses or disease outbreaks created or resolved in labs using the science they are grounded in. 

Beyond its literary value, Frankenstein has also been pointed out by critics to hold significance in Mary Shelley’s personal life as a woman. Shelley depicts birth as something requiring creativity but yielding destruction. Critics have thus connected childbirth and motherhood, both topics of trauma for the author, as key themes in the text. 

Frankenstein and Men, the god complex 

However, without having to look deeper into the meanings of the novel, it is evident that it was a deliberate choice to have Victor Frankenstein written as a man in a horror book. Throughout the story, Frankenstein is led to his end as a tragic hero with the hamartia or fatal flaw of a god complex whose creations he cannot take accountability for. He advertently desired and acted upon a corruption of natural order in his quest for personal gain and undignified glory. What he resembles is a man in history and a man today, carrying the god complex that perpetuates the patriarchy despite every action being carried out to dismantle it. The lengths this patriarchy continues to go to for the glory of the male race are reminiscent of the same spirit and energy Victor carried before eventually regretting his horrible decisions. Sadly, in the same manner, the patriarchy is building a monster of its own. 

This monster of patriarchy is the same force responsible for the erasure of women like Mary Shelley in mainstream media and hindering the progress of women in different fields. While Frankenstein was unable to stop his monster, humans are still capable of defeating our own.

The modern Prometheus

The real world that follows the publication of Frankenstein has experienced progress beyond the literary world, with revolutions upon revolutions revealing possibilities beyond our imagination. The world of science fiction has also grown to include newer themes following discoveries in science that make plots more interesting. The dynamic world we live in is a growing canvas for more creative stories that are immortalized by sci-fi and fantasy writers. This also entails that this canvas of ours should also be a breeding ground for inclusive progress as we face real-life and systematic issues.

As previously mentioned, Frankenstein’s subtitle of The Modern Prometheus alludes to the Titan who represents the breaking of the status quo to allow justice and alleviation of oppression. Even if this allusion shines a negative light upon the novel, this should still show us that breaking the status quo for the benefit of people and the natural good is still effective given the circumstances we live in today. 

As more and more women are erased from history and from their contributions to the human race, we should recognize the monster of patriarchy in play. The plight of women hinders the success of humans collectively. We must learn to understand that our progress is built upon the contributions of everyone regardless of their identity. Prometheus sacrificed his peace and comfort for the humans below him to save us from the oppression of gods. Oppression and the oppressors are our enemies—we should not be a hindrance to ourselves and our progress.

Mary Shelley left a wonderful legacy that brought forth the genre of science fiction we enjoy today—a world built by wonderful authors including Jules Verne, Hugo Gernsback, H.G. Wells, and Stephen King. On that matter, let us also never forget the women of the same genre such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Alice Bradley Sheldon, Nora Keita Jemisin, Joana Russ, and hundreds of others who build the most extraordinary worlds with amazing characters and stories. Without all of these individuals, beginning with Shelley and her monster, we would live in a world without the adrenaline of zombie apocalypses, the thrill of disease outbreaks, the fear of oblivion, the joy of dwelling upon science, and the possibility of what could be. Let us never erase writers, scientists, women, radicals, and the brightest minds of past, present, and future generations.



BBC Teach. (2019, August 27). Writing the future: A timeline of science fiction literature.

Gillespie, I. [TED-E. (2017, February 23). Everything you need to know to read “Frankenstein” – Iseult Gillespie [Video]. YouTube.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley | Biography, Books, Frankenstein, Parents, & Facts. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica.

Shelley, M. (1818). Frankenstein – Chapter 5 (by Mary Shelley). Authorama.

Spark Notes. (n.d.). Frankenstein: Full Book Summary.

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