Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to a special Halloween edition of Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks, audiobooks and, this week, Internet television.
Yes, folks, last month, I discovered the joys of Hulu and in particular one fantastic free Hulu-exclusive web series with a deceptively dull title – “The Booth at the End.” And for folks over in the UK, it sounds like you can actually watch it on FXUK.
I’m not exactly sure what genre it’s in, as I’ve never watched a show quite like it, but Hulu calls it science fiction, so I’m going to run with that. The set is about as simple as it gets – a single interior of a standard, inexpensive diner – one of those holdovers from the 50s. But the simple setting belies the deep complexity of the plot and characters struggling with difficult moral issues.
Here’s the premise. At the booth farthest from the door of the diner – “The Booth at the End” of the title – there sits a nameless man with a book. People come to him and ask him for something they want. He cracks open the book, looks at it for a moment, and tells them what task they have to do to be certain what they want will happen. The only other rule is that they come back to him and describe the experience to him, while he takes copious notes.
They don’t have to do the task, it’s always their own choice. And not doing the task doesn’t mean what they desire won’t just happen on its own, either. The audio from this trailer gives a good sense for the flavor of the show.
With this basic premise, there’s a lot of twisted stuff that happens and the characters are fascinating. There’s James, a man trying to save his son from leukemia who has been tasked with selecting and killing a little girl. Jenny wants to be prettier and must rob precisely $101,043 from a bank to make it happen for sure. Mrs. Tyler wants her husband cured of Alzheimer’s and must build and detonate a bomb in a crowed coffee shop to be sure to have him back. A detective named Allen has to kill a man to find the money from a bank robbery.
But not all of the tasks are so death centered, many are life-affirming, such as Melody who must befriend a shut-in and get him to go outside, Simon who must become a father, and Miss Carmel, who must get pregnant and have a baby if she wants to hear God talking to her again. I’m sorry, that should actually be Sister Carmel who has to get pregnant. This variety in tasks and their eventual outcome adds to the intrigue, because the motivations of The Man are all in shades of gray – you’re never sure if he’s good or evil, devil or angel.
As the story progresses, you discover the characters’ lives are far more intertwined than you might expect, and they run into each other – off screen, of course – in dramatic and compelling ways. It’s always interesting, too, to see how things turn out – sometimes the most innocuous tasks have the most disastrous results, and others asked to do terrible things seem to be judged on the morality of their actions than whether they actually do what they’re asked.
By far my favorite plot point and character is Doris – the full-time waitress at the diner with startling blue eyes.
Doris interacts with The Man after she gets off her shift and is done serving him coffee and pie. She seems to only have a desire to know more about him and foster a relationship. And this, intriguingly, seems to be the one desire that The Man is unable to fulfill with his ever-present leather-bound book. In the second season, her mystique deepens, as she seems to suggest The Man is a fugitive from a larger group with similar powers – powers which she seems to hold herself to some extent.
I once described “The Booth at the End” to a friend as “My Dinner with Andre” meets “Lost” and I think that was actually pretty close to the mark.
Each of the two seasons consists of only five episodes at about 25 minutes each, so it’s easy to take them all in across just a few days. And it’s just about the right length, too; there’s only so long you can watch this premise before it begins to feel a little repetitive.
I’ll post a direct link on my blog for you to find the series on Hulu – it’s well worth your time, and it’s sure to make you think.
Now on to today’s main review, which I need to set up a little before I get to the review proper. Some of you might remember in the Ray Bradbury memorial episode, I recommended joining a free online college-level course in fantasy and science fiction at a site called coursera.org. I hope that some of you were able to join it and that you enjoyed the experience. For myself, while I joined the course, I ran into the same problem that I had in my college Western Civilization course – namely that I not a fast enough reader to complete an entire book once a week and still live the rest of my life. In college, fortunately, if you attended the weekly lecture and group sessions and managed to get a decent idea of a book’s content, there wasn’t much need to read every last word and get the A grade.
On coursera, with no grade on the line, all that happened was I ended up not reading, participating or writing essays at all. That makes me sad, but at least it won’t wreck any grades or careers.
However, there was one book on the reading list for the Coursera class that was held in common with my old western civilization course – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” I’d always felt that I’d cheated myself by not getting around to reading the book, either during the class or afterwards, and I consider it a personal failing that the first book titled “Frankenstein” I read was by Dean Koontz, not Mary Shelly. Frankenstein has been cited as such a foundational book in the origin and development of science fiction that I feel I should not continue ignoring it.
So at long last, I have finally taken the step of reading – and now reviewing – “Frankenstein.”
A part of me trembles at the hubris of this act – nearly on an equal with that of Victor Frankenstein himself. Frankenstein is such a classic. Daring as an amateur reviewer to appraise this work that has been analyzed and critiqued to death – pun very much intended – seemed at first to be beyond me.
Still, like Victor, I heedlessly forge ahead.
I’m hoping, given this audience, that I can dispense with a lot of detailed background on the author and inspiration for Frankenstein – that Shelly wrote it at just age 18; that it originated as a challenge between Shelley, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron on a gloomy night in 1816 for them all to write a tale of the supernatural; and the standard correction of the common misconception that applies the name “Frankenstein” to the creature raised to life, rather than correctly recognizing it as the name of the scientist doing the raising.
I don’t have to do any of that… right? If you find you really need it, well, we have Google for a reason, yes?
All right, then, standard background out of the way, I’d like to approach “Frankenstein” in a similar way to how I took on “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs early on in “Cheapskates” – with a clean slate, doing my best to remove myself from any bias and putting forward the disclaimer that because I’m approaching “Frankenstein” for the first time as an adult, I’m going into it without a lot of the standard nostalgia you might expect otherwise
“Frankenstein” begins – for more pages than you might expect – with pages of correspondence from a Captain Robert Walton – a character who seems all but forgotten in connection with the novel nowadays. Captain Walton begins by speaking of his own desire to reach the North Pole, possibly even finding an undiscovered paradise tucked away up there. That plot concept is intriguing in itself and it’s something I wish we could have held with a little longer. In fact, at some point, I think I’d like to do an alternate Frankenstein story exploring just that diversion from the narrative – Captain Walton making it to the North Pole and what he found there.
Um… actually, forget I said that. Delete… Delete… Ah, well, just… do me the favor and don’t steal that idea.
The narrative gets an extra later of intrigue after Captain Walton’s crew sees an enormous figure making its way by dog sled north across the ice sheet. Not long after, the crew picks up the title character of Victor Frankenstein himself, stranded on a melting raft of ice, and after he recovers from near death, we move in another layer into the frame story, with Frankenstein taking over the narrative.
Shelly loves playing with these layers, and I have to admit, I like this aspect, too. Somehow, drilling down and down like this seems to lend credibility and I enjoy how the style subtly shifts depending on the narrator. The rabbit hole does go pretty deep – at my count five layers deep at its farthest – so it’s best not to think too actively about it if it starts hurting your head.
As soon as Shelly starts with Frankenstein taking over telling the story in Chapter 1, however, I found my attention starting to drag substantially and I struggled to keep with it. After the delicious tease of the monstrous figure spied at a distance, Frankenstein starts his tale with “I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors had been for many years counselors and syndics, and my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation.”
For me, it was like meeting someone walking down Main Street, who is followed by a gorilla riding a unicycle. Then you ask his story and he starts with “Well, it all started when I was a boy back on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin” and you just want to say, “Hey, just get to the part with the gorilla on a unicycle!”
Yeah, it was kinda like that.
That is to say, it’s something of a slow burn for somewhere between the first one-third and one-half of the book, giving a lot of background of family, education and early life experience. This information ultimately ends up being essential to the rising conflict and climax of the book, but it’s a long haul in the middle of it. During this time, the style of language – archaic-sounding to our modern ears – can be a significant hurdle.
Your other hurdle might be sheer frustration with Victor and his behavior. You actually want to start off liking him. He’s intelligent, curious and ambitious – not at all the sadistic monster I’d half-expected based off of Dean Koontz’s version of the tale. But as he goes through his education, and especially after he discovers the key to the reanimation of dead flesh – you get pretty fed up with his irresponsible behavior. You’d think that after discovering the ability to build and reanimate a corpse he might – I don’t know – mention to one of his mentors, “Hey, by the way, I can make dead people live now.”
Instead, he just forges ahead and builds himself a man from scrap and never seems to stop and question whether this is entirely a good idea. He’s not so much a mad scientist as a reckless one. Imagine your teenage son going off to college and instead of getting in trouble with drugs and alcohol, he instead goes and starts creating life willy-nilly, then proceeds to abandon that creation and do everything in his power to forget he did it because he gets freaked out by what he’s done. That’s the image you should have in your head, and frankly I find teenager with power over life and death a more frightening prospect than the traditional mad scientist.
You really, really want to sympathize with Frankenstein. But he makes such astoundingly bad choices, is so mind-boggling oblivious to the consequences of his actions, and can’t properly interpret glaringly plain warnings from his creation – that by the finale, you feel that Victor got what he deserved, even if his friends and family got a raw deal. I, for one, actually ended up sympathizing more with Frankenstein’s monster than with Frankenstein – he starts out being kinder and more human than Victor, and ends up being smarter and more clever than his creator.
There is rather a lot of flowery text, especially when Victor gets into one of his self-pitying monologues. Victor himself seems to recognize how out of hand he gets at times, interrupting himself at one point with “But I forget that I am moralizing in the most interesting part of my tale, and your looks remind me to proceed.” He does, throughout the tale, do an awful lot of “alas”ing and “woe is me”ing.
However, there are many passages of astonishing, beautiful prose – my favorite being the description of Frankenstein’s monster awaking:
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. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
Ah, you can just see it, can’t you?
Another aspect of the book that surprised me was just how much geography and nature plays a role in the novel – almost its own silent character. I found it beneficial to pull up images of the locations mentioned in the book as I read – everything from specific mountains located in the alps, to the frozen wastes of the Artic, to the wave-blasted shores of small islands off of Ireland. The scope and grandeur of these locations really enhances the epic plot – making the characters appear smaller against such a huge backdrop.
At this point, I’d like to talk a bit about genre. I find it interesting how this is considered the first work of science fiction. To a certain extent, yes, I can see the precursors of science fiction, especially because science and the scientist are taking center stage. But at the same time –to borrow an evolutionary metaphor – I see Frankenstein as more of a transitional form rather than the first of its species. Despite movie images of crackling electricity, beeping machinery and strange dials, there’s only the tiniest amount of science present. There’s the concept of being able to raise the dead to life, but the technical details are vague to the point of being basically nonexistent.
Truly, I think I saw more of the tradition of romance and melodrama in the work that the beginnings of science fiction. Again, to borrow an evolution metaphor – I never would have looked at this fish and thought it would end up as a man.
As I look at the overall work, I come to the conclusion that I ultimately enjoyed the plot, the format, the characters and the elements that would eventually steer toward science fiction, spare as they were.
But in the end, I didn’t enjoy what I saw as the book’s ultimate message – that science is a scary, dangerous thing and that some parts of nature are to be known by God alone. Speaking personally, I think that God has given us intellect and curiosity for a reason, and while there is such a thing as ethical and unethical science, we do the creator and the creation a disservice to classify areas of research as “not meant for man to understand.”
As usual, please feel free to get a discussion going on this either at the StarShipSofa forums or on my own blog site cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com.
One final note: I found it fascinating the number of scenes that I was just certain were in the book, but proved to be completely absent. For example, I thought for sure there was a scene where Frankenstein’s monster befriended a little girl, and they began to throw pretty flowers into a river. The monster, in his innocence, decides that the little girl is also pretty and would enjoy being thrown into the river. He does so with his unnatural strength, drowning the girl.
This entire scene is not there, and for the life of me, I have no idea where I picked it up.
And I could swear, just swear, that the book ended with a fight mano-a-mano between Frankenstein and his creation at the very top of the world in the arctic. Again – It’s not there and I’m baffled where I got the idea.
I think it reveals how much the Frankenstein mythos has dyed the fabric of our culture, and how beneficial it can be to go back to the source and judge the work on its own merits. For that reason, if nothing else, I’m glad I took the time for “Frankenstein.”
Frankenstein is about as much in the public domain as you can get, so the Internet is quite flooded with options for downloading ebooks. I’ll put up a few of the best on my site. There are also free audiobook versions on librivox.org, and these are all right, although the narration needs to have some stumbles and hesitations cleaned up.
However, I’m particularly looking forward to a full-cast production that appears to be in-progress at the site. I’ll link to that site as well so you can keep track of when it’s completed.
That’s all today for Cheapskates. Theme music is from “Re: Your Brains” by the great Jonathan Coulton under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial license, today with a bit of – uh – Halloweenification by yours truly. You can find Jonathan’s work at www.jonathancoulton.com. This is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap.