Steampunk Frankenstein: This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee

Steampunk Frankenstein!

Or to be obnoxious about it, Steampunk Frankenstein’s Monster.

This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee reimagines the Frankenstein myth in a steampunk Victorian era, where men and women with clockwork body parts tick through the streets of Europe. These gear-driven people are viewed as less than human by many, distasteful at best, abominations at worst. And isolated in an abandoned castle on the edges of Geneva lives a man called Oliver, made alive again thanks to cogs and gears and the ingenuity of his younger brother, Alasdair.

As a “shadow-boy,” someone who illegally provides clockwork limbs to those without, Alasdair and his family live in fear of discovery and capture. Alasdair suffers the additional fear of keeping his brother’s reanimation a secret. When an anonymously published book titled Frankenstein, appears, mysteriously paralleling the lives of Alasdair and Oliver, it only serves to increase the paranoia and distrust of “clockwork men.”

The story is fair, the setting rendered somewhat flatly despite it’s potential; the grimy world of Steampunk has always seemed to impress more with aesthetics than actual mechanical ingenuity.

The book illustrates several fascinating points, however. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while a bit of a slog to actually read through, is still relevant today. In an afterword, author Mackenzi Lee describes Frankenstein as a “science creation myth,” reflecting the anxieties of the day as reason began to do a serious bid with religion. Tell me that doesn’t resonate with the fears of cloning and genetic engineering that pervade our modern worries. What does it mean when you can choose your baby’s sex or their eye color? How do we cope with the idea that one day, we might not even need bodies to make new humans?

Lee chose to tell her story reflecting industrial anxieties and how these people with mechanical pieces were somehow seen as less than human. These days, augmentations like pacemakers to animatronic limbs barely cause us to bat an eye. But these parts merely replace something lost, or keep us alive when our heart is wont to prematurely fail. What about when we start upgrading?

In Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari suggests that humans may one day attain the ability to become amortal, meaning that our bodies can be made to last much longer than our natural lifespan. It doesn’t mean a good old separation of head and body, or other physical trauma, wouldn’t kill us, only that the things that typically do kill us–heart disease and cancer–will be conquered and new technologies will allow us to live on, provided we avoid I-5 in rush hour and stay off ladders.

The ethical implications are enormous. This technology inevitably will start out very expensive, meaning that very few will be able to afford it. Does life then become measured by your bank account (as though it isn’t already)? And then if people start living doubly long, how in the hell are we going to house and feed them all?

Of course, it may just happen that our technological wonders will become sentient and enslave us anyway and then we won’t have to worry about any of that.

*spare parts

  • I got tricked again into reading another YA book!

    Library binding, published 2015, first edition.

    Hmm, not very steampunk-y. I see zero gears, cogs, or goggles. I do see the clock tower mentioned in the book, being rude and trying to take out the “M.” There’s some random lightning, which may be an homage to Shelley, but since the narrative doesn’t involve any reanimating bolts, maybe just inaccurate? I don’t know if the guy is supposed to be Alasdair or Oliver. He’s blurry so I can’t make out any non-organic parts.

  • Scott Westerfeld is a YA author who writes about teenagers and stuff, but knows how a steampunk cover should look:
  • 6050678
    Now that’s steampunk!

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