Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: 200 Years of Mad Science Exhibit at the Merril Collection

October 10, 2018 | TPL Staff

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Frankenstein 1831 - Frontispiece
Steel engraving (993 × 78 mm), for the frontispiece of the 1831 revised edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published by Colburn and Bentley, London.

We invite you to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: 200 Years of Mad Science, a new exhibit at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Curated by Kim Hull, the exhibit celebrates, in books and graphic novels (from the 1930's to the present day), what many consider the very first "science fiction" novel, published in 1818. Shelley's novel introduced themes which have shaped speculative fiction over the last 200 years: the mad scientist, the creation of artificial life, the quest for immortality, the undead and the meaning of human identity itself.

The exhibit is on through January 12, 2019, and is available for viewing during the regular opening hours of the Merril Collection

  • Monday to Friday, 10 am - 6 pm
  • Saturday, 9 am - 5 pm

It's free and all are welcome!

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

In the bleak summer of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, then 18, wrote a ground-breaking piece of literature; Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, which would come to shape speculative fiction to this day and is arguably the first modern science fiction novel. It would be published two years later, in 1818, and it is this anniversary that we are commemorating; the year that the world at large would become aware of this revolutionary story.

Mary Shelley portrait by Richard Rothwell
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840.

The Story Behind the Story

1816 was known as The Year Without a Summer, due to the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia the year before and the “volcanic winter” that followed. During the bleak summer months of 1816, Mary Godwin and her future husband, the popular poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were traveling through Europe. They visited with Lord Byron in Geneva, another poet, even more well-known than Shelley. During the visit, which was plagued with bad weather due to the volcanic winter, the party was confined to the house a great deal of the time, and Byron suggested a writing competition, in which each participant would write a Gothic style ghost story. Fragments exist of the other stories; Byron’s personal physician, Dr. Polidori, wrote a story called “The vampyre”, which is believed to have been a source of inspiration for another iconic novel written decades later; Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

Mary of course, wrote Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein  2006

There are differing opinions regarding Percy Bysshe Shelley’s involvement in writing both the original story, and the first published edition in 1818. He was a very popular poet at the time, and certainly a more experienced writer than Mary. Nevertheless, Mary Shelley is credited as the creative force behind the story.

The subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, refers to the character in Greek mythology who created the first humans from clay. Prometheus also stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mankind and suffered the consequences of defying the gods. This story is echoed in Victor Frankenstein’s audacious sparking of life from dead flesh.

The novel introduced many themes which we take for granted now: mad scientists, obsessions with immortality and the undead, artificial life, one’s responsibility to the creation, and “personhood”. Perhaps Mary Shelley herself was the “modern Prometheus”, breathing new life into stale and moribund literary traditions.

The exhibit uses the story of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature as the centerpiece for the exploration of the themes which inform much of speculative fiction. 

A Preview

Popup frankie

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Claire Bampton
Illustrated by Anthony Williams ; color, Rob Taylor
New York: Universe Pub., 2010, c2009.
Cover art: Anthony Williams and Rob Taylor.

This striking pop-up book summarizes and illustrates key incidents and scenes from Mary Shelley’s original novel.


Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft
Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, [1931].
Illustrated with scenes from the Universal photoplay [motion picture].

This “photoplay” edition was published to coincide with the release of the 1931 motion picture which is graced by the now iconic interpretation of Frankenstein’s Monster as played by Boris Karloff.

This movie version of Shelley’s story differs from the source material in several aspects, but the main themes remain. Shown here is a still from the motion picture illustrating the crucial scene in which Victor Frankenstein (named Henry, in the movie) sparks new life into the motley assemblage of body parts that forms his creation.

Butler adulthood resized

Butler, Octavia
Adulthood rites
New York: Warner Books, 1988
Cover art: Wayne Barlowe.

Humanity has been saved from extinction by the alien Oankali, in Butler’s “Xenogenesis” trilogy, but at a price; the Oankali demand an exchange of genetic material, resulting in human/Oankali hybrid children with strange powers.

I  Robot resized

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot
New York: New American Library, 1956, c1950.
Cover artist unknown.

Asimov was very aware of the alarm that robots would and did cause in the general population. He dubbed it as the “Frankenstein Complex”, referring to the fear that man’s artificial creation may turn on him. To quell those fears, Asimov, and his fictional robot inventors, instilled the “Three Laws of Robotics” into the programming of all robots.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with First or Second Law.

And yet, as a contrast, Dr. Susan Calvin, the scientist most closely associated with the robots in Asimov’s universe, feels a motherly tenderness toward these artificial creations.

Silently  and Very Fast resized

Valente, Catherynne M.
Silently and very fast
[Washington, D.C.]: WSFA Press, 2010.
Cover art: Julie Dillon.
Limited edition of 500 copies.

Elefsis is an artificial intelligence, a “being” that is implanted into the successive heirs of the Uoya-Agostino family, who then shares a dreamlike existence and generations of memories with its human host.

Related Events

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's classic novel, Toronto Public Library presents events for all ages - author talks, film screenings, costume parties and more, in select library branches from October 23 - 31, 2018

On behalf of the Merril Collection, we invite you to not only view our exhibit, but to come to the Merril Collection, 3rd floor Lillian H. Smith branch, on Wednesday, October 24 at 7pm for a panel discussion, The Creature Never Dies: Frankenstein's Monster in Popular Culture.

This event will be moderated by Mark Askwith, Canadian TV producer and writer for Space TV, also writer and expert in SF and comics, with the following panelists:

We also invite you to come to the basement, Lillian H. Smith branch, on Tuesday, October 30 at 2pm for a special lecture, Elements of Material Bibliography and Print Culture: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Presented by Professor Paolo Granata, Professor at St. Michael's College, this experiential class will explore some bibliographical aspects of this iconic book.

Hope to see you there!



With thanks to Kim Hull and Annette Mocek.