The Horrible, Horrible Roots of the Science Fiction Genre

Last month, I posted a piece on my own blog highlighting some of the real people and places from history that show up in The Edinburgh Dead, including a dastardly graverobber called Merry Andrew and houses of ill-repute called the Holy, Happy and Just Lands (the Scots had a rather dry and ironic sense of humour even then).

But shortly after posting it, I realised I’d left out arguably the most interesting fragment of historical truth lurking in the whole novel.  Annoying in one way – because when I first started thinking of doing that post I made a mental note to be sure to include that particular snippet, and then … didn’t, obviously.  D’oh! – but fortunate in another, because on reflection it’s worth more discussion than I would have given it over there, and probably deserves a post of its own here at the happy home of Orbit on t’Web.

So: here comes the tale of Mathew Clydesdale, his gruesome fate and what it has to do with the very beginning of the whole science fiction genre we know and love today.  Never heard of him?  I’m not surprised; neither had I, until I began researching The Edinburgh Dead.  But trust me: it probably won’t take you long to realise how he connects to the origins of science fiction.

My novel opens with a scene set in 1818, ten years before its main plot gets going.  It’s a scene I lifted in almost its entirety from the historical record, and the events described conform very closely to what actually took place.  Those events centre upon Mr. Clydesdale.  Or, to be more precise, the late Mr. Clydesdale.

Clydesdale was a weaver by trade, but in 1818 he was convicted of murder – an apparently almost random killing, fuelled by drink – and was sentenced to death by hanging.  But in those days, the judicial punishment of the guilty did not necessarily end with their death.

Clydesdale was publicly executed on 4th November, in Glasgow.  His still warm body was cut down from the gallows and transported the relatively short distance to the University of Glasgow.  Specifically, to an anatomy theatre there.  Waiting for him was one Dr. Andrew Ure, along with an expectant, attentive crowd of eager onlookers.  What happened next is not pleasant to contemplate, but contemplate it we must, if we’re to get to the point of this post.

To the astonishment, fascination and in some cases distress of the audience, Ure performed upon Clydesdale’s corpse a series of galvanic experiments.  Incisions were made in the body and – by the application of metal rods attached to a Voltaic pile (a primitive kind of battery) – an electric current was passed through certain of Clydesdale’s nerves.  The results were dramatic.

The dead murderer moved his limbs.  His chest heaved in a parody of breathing.  His face was convulsed by a series of grotesque expressions.  For the full, gory details, I’ll refer you to The Edinburgh Dead, since they occupy a good chunk of the first chapter.  For now, just imagine the scene: a tense, fascinated audience – most of them almost entirely ignorant of the then recent advances in anatomy, and in the science of elecriticity – packed into a steeply raked theatre, every eye fixed upon a human corpse that was made to mimic the movements of life before their very eyes.  It must have seemed miraculous.  Dreadful.  Sacrilegous, perverse, wondrous or awe-inspiring, depending upon the inclinations of the viewer.

Ure, to the best of my knowledge, did not spell it out for his audience, but his ambition was nothing less than the restoration of life to the dead, by means of electrical stimulation of nerves.  He believed it both possible and desirable, so intoxicated was he by the promising vistas opening up as scientific knowledge and discovery accelerated towards our own, modern world.  Needless to say, he never fulfilled his ambition.  His transformation of Mathew Clydesdale into a puppet of dead flesh was – at least in public – the high point of his experimentation.

So, to the roots of the science fiction genre.  What else happened in 1818?  Frankenstein was published.  Mary Shelley’s book is often cited as the first clear example of what we now call the science fiction genre (and, I can’t resist adding, it’s absolutely brilliant).  It was unlike anything that had gone before it, and a great deal that has come since, in the literary sense, flows from it.

Now as it happens, Frankenstein was published a few months before Ure performed his grotesque public experiments upon Clydesdale, but the connection is there, for Ure was not the first to engage in such a display.  In 1803, one Giovanni Aldini had achieved much the same effect, before several witnesses, when applying current to a prisoner executed in London’s Newgate Prison.  He had performed other startling demonstrations with the severed heads of oxen.   Throughout western Europe, intellectual elites were fascinated by the newly discovered effects of electricity upon the body – living or dead.  Galvanism, as it was called, was seen as a possible clue to the nature of life itself.

And Mary Shelley knew all this, of course.  The disastrous experiments she had Frankenstein embark upon in her novel were not entirely figments of her imagination, but directly informed and influenced by the public fascination with – and unease about – the galvanic craze that was regularly reported on, with a  mixture of awe and horror, in the press of the early 19th century.

I have no idea whether Ure had read Frankenstein by the time of his meeting with Clydesdale in that Glasgow anatomy theatre, but with his acknowkledged desire to restore life to inanimate flesh with electricity he was truly a real life counterpart to Shelley’s misguided scientist.  And in all likelihood, Frankenstein the novel would never even have existed without the experiments of his fellow galvanists, and we would be calling some other, later novel the origin of the science fiction genre.

Of course The Edinburgh Dead isn’t strictly science fiction, but it too would have been a very different – and perhaps non-existent – book were it not for Dr. Ure and Mary Shelley.  So I’m grateful to the pair of them.  And, in a way, to Mathew Clydesale, I suppose.  Not that he had much say in the matter, but his fate gave me a striking first chapter to my novel, and inspired a great deal of what unfolds in the subsequent pages …