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From Lisbon to The Last Man

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Brooke, Christopher  ORCID logo


According to Eileen Hunt in her excellent new book, Artificial Life after Frankenstein, Mary Shelley is the fountainhead of the tradition of ‘modern political science fiction’, which she describes as imaginative works ‘with a distinctively futuristic and political orientation’ whose ‘stories and allegories draw on facts gleaned through science and history to construct powerful counterfactual narrative premises’. Behind Shelley stand both of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and behind them in turn stands Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The point Hunt wants to emphasise is that these predecessors’ political novels—Maria (1798), Caleb Williams (1794), and Émile (1762) respectively—showcased this specifically counterfactual approach. The ‘almost preposterous scenario’ of Émile allows Rousseau ‘to test the hypothesis that a poor system of education causes the vices of modern civilization’; and Wollstonecraft and Godwin both followed in Rousseau’s footsteps, imagining ‘alternate political realities in which disenfranchised and disempowered people such as Caleb and Maria nevertheless find ways to struggle against the injustices of the eighteenth-century British legal system’. We know that Shelley was reading all three authors in 1814-15, ‘the first year of her elopement with Percy’; Hunt’s view is that Émile ‘may have been the most important source for the counterfactual form of Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man’.



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Political Science Reviewer

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