30 August 2008

The Mother Of Us All

Tonight I will become Mary Shelley. I will braid my hair over my ears like a proper Victorian lady, and don my long skirt and my blouse with the puffed sleeves. I will pin the cameo displaying the Death of Achilles above my heart, take up my fan…

And give those “Great Gentlemen” of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” the thrashing of their lives.

Serve ‘em right, too. In the year since its introduction, the Dead Authors panel has become one of the highlights of Dragon*Con’s Science Fiction/Fantasy Literature Track. Writers and fan guests channel their favorite dead sf/fantasy authors for the amusement of the audience and any free drinks they can cadge in the process. (It is a late night panel, after all.)

And until I showed up, not one of them--not one man, not one woman--could think of a single woman author to add to the mix.

Well, Mary will set them straight. She was good at that. Far from being an appendage to her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she’s the one who earned her living as a writer. Her husband didn’t. He didn’t have to. He was the grandson of a baronet. As the saying went, he had “prospects”, which translated into loans whenever his grandfather cut him off for agitating among the Irish, pamphleteering in support of atheism or rampant vegetarianism.

Mary Godwin Shelley came from a famously intellectual background. Her mother was the renowned and scandalous Mary Wollstonecraft, an early proponent of women’s rights and sexual emancipation. But the only legacy Mary W. granted her daughter and namesake was an ideal and a belief in free love. Mary read widely, in several languages, but she enjoyed little formal education. Nevertheless, she had no trouble keeping up with the intellectual high-fliers of Shelley’s circle.

She wrote Frankenstein, the first mad scientist novel and the first modern science fiction novel, when she was only twenty. It wasn’t a fluke. From her late teens until her death at fifty-three, she wrote and sold travelogues, novels, plays, short stories (often to spec) and biographies. Frankenstein wasn’t her only foray into SF, either. The Last Man, written in 1826, describes how a future in which the human race is destroyed by plague and war. Think Mad Max meets Beau Brummel.

Despite frequent bouts of depression, she was a feisty cuss. Politically, she was as radical as her husband and continued to fight for their ideals after his death. She was just sneakier about it. She put her politics in her novels and biographies. She fought her husband’s grandfather, the baronet, to the mat when the old tyrant tried to take only surviving child and starve her into submission.

She kept her son and her career. She had the last laugh on many levels, including creative ones. Modern science fiction relies not only on her plots but on their explicit critique of heroic individualism (Frankenstein) and imperialism (The Last Man). Not to mention the other “quaint notions” she championed--little things like universal suffrage, women’s rights and gay marriage.

It’s a legacy even Byron, the glorious snob, could envy. After all, when was the last time anybody made a movie of Childe Harolde?



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