Saturday, August 21, 2021

Review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

Wow—what a premise. A disgraced scientist discovers a way for women to give birth to clones of themselves (through parthenogenesis), and convinces nine women to bring nine daughters into the world and live together in a remote commune. Angry men, claiming God is on their side, burn down the community and the women and their daughters scatter across the country. Twenty years later, Mother One goes missing and Girl One has to find her.

I had so many questions and I couldn't wait for the author to explore them. What would motivate women to undergo something so very experimental for such an important and private part of your life? Were they particularly interested in creating miniatures of themselves, or was it the ability to becomes mothers without the involvement of men that appealed to them? Why live together in a commune? Was it a recognition that it takes a village to raise a child? Was it polyamoury? In what ways is the mother-daughter bond different when you share 100% of your genetic materials but experience very different childhoods?

Flannery Murphy found more to explore in the younger generation, however. That's not entirely unjustified—what is it like to not have a genetic father, to grow up famous for being a scientific miracle? But I found the answer to these questions a little unsatisfying. Respectively: you idolize a creepy scientist as a father figure; you sometimes give a bad media interview here and there and kids are a little mean about it but it isn't anything you can't shrug off.

What's most frustrating about this difference in emphasis is that the Mother generation becomes all the more fascinating as the mysteries of Dr Bellanger's role in the "scientific miracle" and who started the fire are revealed. We learn that the Mothers were women who came together as a group out of a desire to re-discover parthenogenesis—placing themselves in the footsteps from women from witchy folkloric tales who seem to have been able to give birth to daughters without fathers, although not recognized as such at the time. With their research coming to dead ends, they sought out a scientist to help them achieve this goal, and eventually discovered the ability to become pregnant on their own without his interference. Feeling threatened by these women no longer needing him at all, Dr Bellanger manipulated and abused the women. Eventually, he burned down the house, faking his death and the death of Girl Nine, who showed telekinetic abilities. These were some delightful, unexpected, and unique twists!

In contrast, the Daughter generation discovering and combing to terms with their latent magical powers felt like well-trodden ground for anyone that lived through our present era of unending Marvel blockbusters. It was a bit of a waste of such a neat premise.

I think there is space to have told the story that Flannery Murphy ultimately told, without keeping the Mother generation at arm's length. The "found media" of newspaper clipping and letters that she already used would have been a perfect device to explore the relationship between Mother One and Trish, or how the Mothers all found one another.

Character study failings aside, I thought the social commentary was explored well. As in our world, in the world of Girl One, men respond to the loss of power over women with violence and misogyny (I get the sense that Sarah Flannery Murphy would enjoy Down Girl by Kate Manne). Men, like Dr Bellanger, insert themselves into the birthing process in positions of power and authority without respect for the autonomy of women, from abortion policies to obstetric practices. Dr Bellanger does as too many men have done before him, and steals the spotlight from women and minimizes their contributions. Through Dr Bellanger's fear and jealousy at Lilliane conceiving a second child all on her own, we see a science fiction version of the uncertainty of paternity compared to the certainty of a woman always knowing the mother of the child within her. 

I got the sense that the author was familiar with the feminist movements of the 1970s and the 1990s, the decades in which the bulk of the story was set. The characters felt like 1970s feminists and 1990s feminists, not post-slut walk or post-#MeToo feminists transported through time into the 1970s and the 1990s. I mean this in a good way; the debate was kept fresh by the unusual premise.

The blurb of the book compared the story to Margaret Atwood's work, and I think this expectation worked to Girl One's detriment. I found the prose uninteresting and the dialogue and scene structure a little pulpy. I pushed myself through the first quarter out of sheer stubbornness to learn whether the boring-as-oatmeal main character's worship of the creepy Dr Bellanger was a brilliant portrayal of an unreliable narrator or astounding lack of insight on behalf of the author. (This is not the first time I've read a book for that reason!) Fortunately, it turned out to be the former, and once I adjusted my expectations that the book was going to be a medium-smart thriller with a penchant for giving implausible excuses for why the Most Dramatic Decision must always be made it was a fun enough ride.

Ignore the book's tagline and any other media that compares this book to The Handmaid's Tale. The last bit of the book blurb, "Girl One combines the provocative imagination of Naomi Alderman’s The Power with the propulsive, cinematic storytelling of a Marvel movie", is far more accurate.

 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I'm not really sure why this book was written. In the afterward, Atwood says it was in part a response to the many questions she'd received in the 30 years since The Handmaid's Tale about how Gilead fell. But the Gilead state was not, to me at least, the interesting part of the novel, as I've written before. Instead, I loved the exploration of how Offred, Moira, the Commander, and others reacted to the changing society; how they survived, how they rationalized their choices. It was very human; these dynamics exist in us now, in non-Gilead states. That is, to me at least, what 'good' science fiction and fantasy should be.

The book instead reads like fan fiction: some fan desperate to know what became of Offred's daughter and her suspected pregnancy writes a well-paced if somewhat predictable and plothole-riddled [1 (spoiler)]
account of the two half-siblings reuniting and bringing down the dystopian State.

I said above that I'm not really sure why this book was written, but I have a theory that Atwood used it to explore her own feelings in response to changing cultures as someone in a position of relative power. Atwood is included on many lists of prominent Canadians and on many lists as standout authors of twentieth century literature. With this clout, she has come under fire for protecting the status quo, and complaining about the mobs on twitter.

It's hard to read parts of Aunt Lydia's autobiography and not see in them Atwood defending her own actions (or lack thereof), warning of the terror of cancel culture, and pondering her own legacy:

How will I end? I wondered. Will I live to a gently neglected old age, ossifying by degrees? Will I become my own honoured statue? Or will the regime and I both topple and my stone replica along with me, to be dragged away and sold off as a curiosity, a lawn ornament, a chunk of gruesome kitsch? Or will I be put on trial as a monster, then executed by firing squad and dangled from a lamppost for public viewing? Will I be torn apart by a mob and have my head stuck on a pole and paraded through the streets to merriment and jeers?
and
I meant well too, I sometimes mumble silently. I meant it for the best, or for the best available, which is not the same thing. Still, think how much worse it could have been if not for me.
She also perhaps still has some things to say about #MeToo that she wasn't able to include in her OpEd:
Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.
She seems aware, also, that some may read into this book the way I have:
You’ll labour over this manuscript of mine, reading and rereading, picking nits as you go, developing the fascinated but also bored hatred biographers so often come to feel for their subjects. How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.

There was an intriguing bit of revisionism I noticed. In The Handmaid's Tale, the birth crisis was blamed on AIDS and nuclear power. In The Testaments, it is blamed on nuclear power, no mention of AIDS. (Is this cancel culture at work?)

I found the prose in this book much less vivid and enthralling than in the first. The first had these beautiful/horrific passages weaving together imagery of flowers and sex and food and death. These were not entirely absent in The Testaments, but they were sparser. The emotions of the narrator in The Handmaid's Tale were dynamic, switching from boredom, to hate and anger, to thoughtful critique of the patriarchal system, to a self-aware desire to be cared for by the system. Agnes, Lydia and Daisy were somewhat stock characters with limited emotional range. I did, however, enjoy how through Agnes' eyes, we explored how patriarchy and oppressive social norms are instilled in girls. Agnes's feelings of shame and fear surrounding men and her own sexuality before she even understood the mechanics of sex were, I thought, portrayed well.

The tone of the book was quite different from its predecessor. Where The Handmaid's Tale was meditative and focused on the narrator's internal journey, this novel read much more 'screenplay-ready', plot-driven with heists (the first also had a woman smuggled in a car, but the focus of the writing was Offred's dettached reflection of the Commander's boot, the only thing she could see during her smuggling, rather than a tense narrative of if she would be allowed through or not). Perhaps that's why this book was written? As additional fodder for the television show based on the first book?

There were a few Easter eggs and references I enjoyed picking up on, such as the Schlafly cafe being the site of Aunt wheeling and dealings. It was neat to see little bits of french language and quebecois culture alluded to, such as Ada's use of the phrase "toot sweet" (toute suite) and Daisy's reading list at school. It was also neat to follow the characters across Canadian land - which isn't portrayed often in fiction - from Etobicoke to New Brunswick.

In sum, this book didn't need to be written, and it certainly doesn't need to be read.

 1. Why did Lydia need to smuggle her report via Nicole at all? Does Canada not also have a problem with birth defects and declining fertility?

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

It's been on my to-read list for a while, and I'm glad I picked it up finally. It wasn't what I expected. I was expecting a sort of Woman Versus The Dystopian State tale, something along the lines of 1984 or Brave New World but with more women. And instead, it was a much more internal look at the how one responds to changing systems and to oppression - the lies we tell ourselves to survive and the lies we tell ourselves to forgive ourselves for perpetuating oppression.

The prose was beautiful; vivid. I think if there were more women in the metal scene, there would probably be a Handmaid's Tale concept album. A lot of very metal motifs: like contrasting flowers/life with rot, Offred's thoughtful reflections about her surroundings giving way to unbridled hatred about her situation, the ghost of the former Handmaid in Offred's room, mistrust, surveillance.....

The dynamic between the Commander and the Handmaid was well woven and reminiscent of much of the #MeToo kind of stories (despite Atwood's somewhat poor take on the movement). The commander trying to lead Offred into saying everything is better now than it was before; the way he exerted power over her to make her attend him and visit the brothel with him; the way he deludes himself into thinking she was there because she wanted to be....

I wasn't such a fan of the epilogue. The details of the world were not particularly interesting to me, and the issues Atwood takes aim at (AIDS, nuclear power plants) did not age all that well. The epilogue critiques how little we are able to empathize with the pain/humanity of people from centuries ago - but the tonal shift wasn't quite what I wanted to read at that point.

I read this during the Summer of 2020, Shelter In Place orders intact, the week after George Floyd's was murdered by the police, with curfews lasting days in cities across the country. I saw somewhere a criticism that the world reflected in The Handmaid's Tale is too unrealistic; society doesn't change so quickly. That criticism rings so hollow right now - it is very easy to see how society could change so significantly over the course of a few years. I hope it does - but in a very different direction.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Who could resist the premise "genius lesbian uses intrigue and math to save her polyamourous homeland from an evil colonial empire"?

Given such a unique pitch, I was surprised how strikingly similar the first 140 pages of The Traitor Baru Cormorant were to Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire: smart gay woman from a close-knit far-flung community is appointed to a powerful government position in the empire after the mysterious murder of her predecessor, alone but for a clever aide to help her figure out both the foreign culture and the ongoing political machinations.

Unfortunately for Traitor Baru, the contrast with A Memory Called Empire serves only to highlight its flaws. The empire of Baru's world conquers the world, exterminating gay people, enforcing an extensive eugenics breeding program, and improving record-keeping as it gobbles up cultures. It is very clearly capital E Evil, and nearly every citizen of the empire that we meet is either a political puppetmaster or a puppet. A Memory Called Empire's Mahit finds herself trying to protect her people from the Teixcalaan empire while also loving parts of the empire: its people, its culture, its literature. This contrast adds tension, but also presents a more relatable empire. The biggest empire of the 21st century is an oppressive colonial power with some wonderful people and a great canon, including notable works like Casa Blanca and Bojack Horseman.

The flat world-building extends also to Aurdwynn, the province brimming with rebellion to which Baru is assigned as Imperial Accountant. There are hints at interesting designs—the druidic Ilykari, or the Unsullied-like Clarified, for example—but it felt like all the scenes characterizing the minor characters (excepting, perhaps, Muire Lo, Tain Hu, and Xate Olake) and describing the Aurdwynni culture and history were cropped to keep the novel to a tidy 399 pages. Aurdwynn could be any fantasy country. The dukes could be fully summarized with a tagline and never developed personality beyond that: "the philosophical one", "the sailor one", "the one that collects handsome baby daddies." The result is a story packed with political intrigue and twists where I don't care about any of the players, nor do I really care about the fate of the country. The exception to this is the slow burn relationship between Baru and Duchess Tain Hu; the two have great chemistry and their scenes together are adorable. But because such long swathes of the book were low emotional impact, the book was somehow too long for it to be a tight story of a savant accountant trying to out-maneuver seasoned politicians to save her home, and too short for a compelling narrative about how economics and the personalities of political leaders shape the course of a revolution.

Baru was an enjoyable protagonist. Her weapons of war are unconventional and its fun to watch her wield them: controlling inflation to stop a rebellion, using annual tax forms to discern loyalties, identifying political ambitions through sales of commodity goods. She's very aware of the importance of keeping up her metaphorical (and sometimes literal) mask: she must project power and the right sort of ambitions, and she must hide her sexual orientation and her loyalty to Taranoke. The first person point of view gives us an intimate perspective from which to watch her calculations about which facial expressions to make, or what information to reveal when, and see her react to realizing when she's made mistakes and let her mask slip, or developed more attachment to people and places than she had intended. Still, this intimate perspective is inconsistently applied—we know she has made a deal with the shadow cabinet behind the imperial throne, but not what it is. This separation between Baru and the reader seems (to me, at least) intended to allow for a plot twist, rather than say anything about the nature of the mask between Baru and the reader. I think this would have been more effective if Baru was aware of the reader, taunting us a little with her unreliable narrator perspective.

The end of this book, the first of a planned trilogy, is dark and bleak. The Falcrest empire asks Baru to foment a rebellion then betray it. The Empire crushes the hope of the Aurdwynni people for generations to come, and Baru gets the approval of the Empire and the power that comes with it. This is the way the Empire operates: convince people there is no point in rebelling:

In Falcrest, in the Metademe, they condition prisoners just so: permit escape. Offer a rescuer, a collaborator. Slip a key in with the food. Let them come close to freedom, let them feel real triumph—they would not let me this far! This is the crux: give them the taste of victory, the certainty that this cannot be part of the game. And then snatch it away. The collaborator betrays them. The key will not open the outermost door. With enough repetition, most prisoners learn to ignore a key, an open door, a whisper to run. Led out onto the street, they will wait to be returned to their cells. After a time, they begin to teach new prisoners the same.

Her rebellion, the one to save her home country of Taranoke, will be different, Baru tells herself. The costs to the Aurdwynn people are worth it—and actually this brief, squashed Aurdwynni rebellion saves Aurdwynni lives in the long run.

Still, I am interested in where the author will take this theme over the course of the next books. Perhaps the mathematical and rational to a fault Baru will need to inspire hope in her people, inspire belief that there is a better solution and that it is possible to get there. How does one go about this? What is the answer to "well, there's no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, so I just live my life and don't think too hard about it"?


Friday, June 18, 2021

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

 It's early in the year, but I think this might end up being my favorite read of 2020.

This really is a beautiful book. The political intrigue and murder mystery are tightly plotted, and the pacing is good, but really, the book is about so much more than that.

As a language nerd, I very much appreciated the theme of culture shaping language, and language shaping how we perceive ourselves and our histories.

"Teixcalaan has seen eighty years of peace. Three of your lives, stacked up, since the last time one part of the world tried to destroy the rest of it."

There were border skirmishes reported every week. There'd been an outright rebellion put down on the Odile System just a few days back. Teixcalaan was not peaceful. But Mahit thought she understood the difference Six Direction was so fixated on: those were skirmishes that brought war to outside the universe, to uncivilized places. The word he'd used for "world" was the word for "city." The one that derived from the verb for "correct action".
I loved the philosophical elements of what does it mean to be a person? It was neat to explore this particularly through the eyes of Mahit, whose perspective on this answer is probably quite different from our own. Is personality just endocrine responses? Is a person just the sum of their memories?

I loved that this book discussed the biases inherent to artificial intelligence - that there is no such thing as a neutral algorithm.
There was an originating purpose for an algorithm, however distant in its past -- a reason some human person made it, even if it had evolved and folded in on itself and transformed. A city run by Ten Pearl's algorithm had Ten Pearl's initial interests embedded in it. A city run by an algorithm designed to respond to Teixcalaanli desires was not innocent of those same Teixcalaanli desired, magnified, twisted by machine learning.
Perhaps not since I've read Robin Hobb's Fool's Fate have I felt the same level of emotional tension while reading a book. Mahit's sense of loneliness and abandonment by her imago. The strange mix of both loving the cultural output of the Empire and the very real fear of the Empire destroying her home. The irony of self-discovery through culture that is foreign to your own, and in a foreign language. The mix of pride in being complimented in mastering imperial customs combined with the sadness in being subjugated and knowing that no matter your mastery you will never 'belong' in the Empire.

The dialogue, particularly between Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea, was great. Really enjoyed their dry humor and banter (while also really feeling Mahit's envy of their friendship).

I wish I enjoyed the poetry in the book. I often felt like I didn't quite get it - but maybe that was the point. Like Mahit, the nuances of Teizcalaanli art is too alien.

I liked the way romance was weaved in - explicitly polyamorous and non-heteronormative. Love shapes the people and the events in small ways, rather than being massive story-shifting forces. But nor is the romance just orthogonal to the rest of the plot. The reveal of Yskandr being both in love with the emperor and with Nineteen Adze is a little thread that adds support and tension to the web of events, but it's not the keystone that the whole structure of the intrigue relies on. Even if he hadn't been in love with those people, his maneuvering could have made sense. But, the relationships also feel very real and human, and messy in the way those kinds of things can be messy.

I enjoyed that much of the rest of the universe was left mysterious. It makes me curious to discover what the next book will be about.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Review: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

This wasn't a deep or profound book. It didn't change my perspective on the ethics or sociology of Silicon Valley and 21st century capitalism. But it was a very cathartic read. 

Like Wiener, I moved from the East Coast to the Bay Area around 2012. I also joined a <20 person business-to-business software start-up in a non-software engineering role. Wiener relates few anecdotes that I couldn't have also lifted from my own life. She responded emotionally in many of the same ways I do or did. Reading her memoir helped me contextualize my own experiences.

The book, which is a longer form version of her n+1 article and her Atlantic article, is at its best when describing the weird cult(ure) unique and endemic to Silicon Valley. It's a bit of a miss for me when decrying "very online" culture. It was a little limited in its analysis of the forces at work that created surveillance capitalism, disgusting amounts of inequality, efficiency hacking, monopolies and oligarchies, and disdain for art and empathy that she describes. (For example, she briefly recounts getting excited about Marx and unionization, only to be shrugged off by some worldly SWE brought up in a blue collar family who tells her that software engineers already have enough privilege and bargaining power—what would they ask for? The topic is not revisited.) It's a "safe" read, but still a recognizably "insiders perspective."


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein has been re-imagined and referenced so extensively in pop culture that I thought I knew all about it. Castle, bolts of lightning, a mad scientist yelling "it's alive!", protesting peasants armed with pitchforks and torches. Probably out of boredom with the tropes, I put off reading this book that otherwise thematically aligns very well with my interests - bioengineering, ethics, Regency Era literature by female authors

I was pleasantly surprised to instead find a very introspective and emotional story about two men, linked by a unique relationship. Rather than a climactic event marked by lightning occurring at some late part of the book, Frankenstein's wretch comes to being at the start of Chapter 5 during mundane meteorological conditions:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Frankenstein waxes poetic to himself for a paragraph or two about the sacrifices he made during his two years of study and his feeling of disgust and emptiness having finally achieved his goal (not unrelatable to a graduate student), then immediately goes to bed with nary a thought for the well-being of his creation. After one brief innocuous encounter during the night, Frankenstein tries his hardest to pretend he never created a man at all, and falls into a months-long illness so deep he can't even write a letter to his family in response to their imploring.

(Frankenstein suffers lengthy illnesses on two occasions, and I wondered at the author's reasoning. Was the dramatic and interminable depression supposed to signal how emotionally wrangled Frankenstein felt? Were such languid wallows in despair so commonplace among the aristocracy that the contemporary reader would not have remarked upon them at all as unusual? Was it merely a convenient device for explaining why Frankenstein did nothing at all for a long stretch of time while she needed the Wretch elsewhere?)

Frankenstein eventually recovers enough to read a very long letter from his adopted-sister-raised-to-be-his-wife, Elizabeth, which serves mostly to extol the kind nature and excellent nursing credentials of one Justine. Justine, nanny to Frankenstein's brother, is so perfect and virtuous that reader knows she will soon die. Surprisingly, it is the brother that shuffles off this mortal coil first.

In the long-awaited dramatic flash of lightning, Frankenstein encounters the Wretch on his way home and deduces it was he who murdered his brother. Regardless, Frankenstein continues his behavior of outwardly pretending he never created the Wretch—keeping quiet even as Justine is accused of and eventually executed for his brother's murder. Inwardly, of course, Frankenstein monologues extensively about the guilt, and how no one could possibly believe him and he had no way to save Justine.

A thousand times rather would I have confessed myself guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine, but I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me.

Frankenstein seems to think that deeply experiencing these feelings of guilt absolves him to some extent of the crime. I thought of Silicon Valley wringing their hands about about privacy, misinformation, addiction while continuing to change absolutely none of that. There is a lengthy scene where sister-slash-fiancée Elizabeth comforts Justine on the eve before her death, exhibiting her purity and virtuousness so extensively that the reader is sure that she too will soon die. 

To help process his feelings, Frankenstein goes on a solitary hike in the Alps, the lush descriptions of the beauty of nature serving as a foil against the horror of his creation. He encounters the Wretch, and reacts with an unreciprocated hate and fear:

“Devil,” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!”

“I expected this reception,” said the dæmon. “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”

The Wretch tells his tale of how he spent the intervening months. He is introspective, and sensitive. Teaching himself first how to survive in the forest alone, scared of the reactions of villagers to his ungainly form, he next forms a sort of parasocial relationship with a family of cottagers. By watching them from afar, he learns of companionship and society, and recognizes that the sadness in himself is loneliness. His attempt to form a real relationship with them fails, and he is driven out. He by chance encounters a drowning woman and saves her life, only to be shot by her partner. Despairing of ever finding a home in society, the Wretch resolves to ask his creator for a mate—in a monologue that is uncomfortably reminiscent of incels.

I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create. (...)

I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? (...) I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. (...)

What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless and free from the misery I now feel. Oh! My creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!

Frankenstein begins to make a female companion for the Wretch, but worries about the possible consequences of enabling procreation of a new race of Wretches.

[Y]et one of the first results of those sympathies for which the dæmon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?

He decides to destroy all progress he has made on the female companion, and making good on his threat, the Wretch responds by murdering Frankenstein's best friend (also noted to have excellent nursing credentials), and Frankenstein's sister-slash-wife—on their honeymoon, no less.

Frankenstein realizes the only way to end the horror is to kill his creation, and he chases the Wretch across the Arctic. The two form a sort of odd adversarial intimacy in their chase, the Wretch leaving messages and food behind for his creator to consider and consume. At the brink of death from exhaustion, Frankenstein is picked up by the self-absorbed, self-important Captain Walton, whose letters to his sister form an epistolary framing device for the novel. Frankenstein dies onboard the ship, but not before first chiding the sailors in wanting to give up and go home rather than pursue their scientific dreams, and not before making it quite clear that he felt he had done no wrong in any way since the creation of the Wretch:

In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature and was bound towards him to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature. He showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness in evil; he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end.

The Wretch sneaks on board the ship to gaze upon Frankenstein's corpse, then with this closure achieved, disappears into the night.

“I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.” 

He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

What I loved most about the book was its comfort in straying from realism. No explanation of the science behind Frankenstein's creation was offered. The Wretch's experience learning about humanity and society was completely implausible from a practical standpoint. And this rejection of the need to explain minutiae allowed for much more interesting introspection and exploration of themes.

However—I feel the themes were a little murky, or perhaps they just didn't ring true for me. Frankenstein is an ambitious, confident, solitary genius who views himself as the sole person who can make ethical decisions about his product despite its societal ramifications, and who views others as being incapable of understanding his advances. This archetype feels familiar in 21st century Silicon Valley. But Shelley presents Frankenstein's fatal flaw as having played with creating life in a quest for knowledge, as opposed to refusing to seek help or advice from others. This is evident in Frankenstein's insistence on his deathbed that he "did right" in his decisions. It is a darker view of scientific progress than one I espouse; I think all areas of Science can be developed, provided we carefully assess and publicly debate the social ramifications. 

Which brings us to Frankenstein's second hamartia: his inability to recognize his Wretch as a human with emotional and social needs. Relative to the Promethean theme, this one hasn't seeped as much into the popular conception of Frankenstein. This theme, too, feels very relevant today; current debates on social ramifications of technology include the dehumanization of Amazon fulfillment center workers, the insistence that gig economy companies will finally become profitable as soon as we can automate away those pesky human gig workers, and the omission of human impacts (or indeed, playful delight in adverse impacts) when optimizing social media Key Performance Indicators. However, I felt that the way this theme was explored itself ironically neglected the humanity of the Wretch. The Wretch was abused and traumatized and socially isolated, and so he had no hope but to become a murderer and then kill himself? A depressing attitude towards survivors of difficult childhoods.

I could envision a satisfying script doctoring in which Frankenstein confides in Elizabeth, and although Frankenstein dies, refusing to ever acknowledge the Wretch's humanity and potential for redemption, Elizabeth reaches out to the Wretch and together with Frankenstein Sr. supports him in his introduction to society. This ending would also provide a very welcome opportunity for a female character to do anything other than display purity and virtuousness and then die.

I enjoyed the dramatic, elaborate prose. Although at times I felt that the author believed the word count used must be proportional to the emotional turmoil described, overall I had a lot of fun with the unironic melodrama. I would love to see a Frankenstein-themed black metal album.