Hugo Nominee: “Pride and Prometheus”

The story, and the comment:

Nick Gevers, in Locus:

The closing story in this collection, ‘‘Pride and Prometheus’’, recently published in F&SF, is a splendid exercise in Jane Austen pastiche, a younger Bennet sister meeting Victor Frankenstein and striving to reconcile his cruel Gothicism with scientific ideals. Enlightenment scientism is beautifully burlesqued here, both Austen and Mary Shelley coming in for gentle mockery, the worldliness of the one interweaving mischievously with the emotional extravagance of the other. Each satirizes its counterpart, and the result is a spirit of wry realism. In short, a perfect summary of the complementary contraries within John Kessel, who in The Baum Plan for Financial Independence has produced one of the best collections of the year.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, at The Fix:

“Pride and Prometheus” is a technically dazzling Jane Austen pastiche which brings Miss Mary Bennett in contact with Victor Frankenstein. There is much to admire here: the language, both Victorian and Gothic, the philosophical discussions around naturalism and the limits of what empirical research ought to concern itself with, as well as the search for redemption through companionship from opposing and contrasting points of view. And yet, for me, some dramatic tension was diffused through the forced juxtaposition of thematic concerns and reverberations. The impeccable narrative style already places us at one remove from contemporary sensibilities; rather than spontaneously generating from this construct, the inclusion of Frankenstein’s world seemed more like a nifty exercise in literary mutagenesis that further constrained the dramatic potential. This story has already proven popular, though, and despite my reservations on these grounds, readers will find plenty to savor here.

Abigail Nussbaum:

If I have any complaints against “Pride and Prometheus” they are first that Kessel hasn’t really got the Austen-ish voice right. His pastiche rings hollow, emulating Austen’s grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure but lacking the spark that imbued her writing with so much humor. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the plain fact that “Pride and Prometheus” is barely even a genre story. That’s not always a problem–Kessel’s story is a hell of a lot more SFnal than Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See,” which quite rightly won the Nebula in 2004–and if nothing else “Pride and Prometheus” has once again reminded me to be grateful for the broadness and inclusiveness of the genre short fiction scene, since I can’t for the life of me imagine what mainstream short fiction magazine would publish this story. But with a shortlist already stacked to the rafters with metafictional games, literary pastiches, and appeals to the reader’s nostalgia and fannish affection, Kessel’s story, which unlike “Shoggoths in Bloom” doesn’t do much besides be metafictional, is somewhat devalued. Finally, given my chilly response to Bear’s story, I can’t help but wonder how much of my positive response to “Pride and Prometheus” has to do with my previous familiarity with the novels Kessel is drawing on.

Paul Kincaid, at SF Site:

Other than the hard-riding heroines of “The Invisible Empire” or the rather fearsome autocrats of the lunar stories, the strongest character is probably Miss Mary Bennet in “Pride and Prometheus,” in which the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice encounter Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature. It is becoming impossible to keep count of the number of novels and short stories that revisit Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though this is certainly one of the better examples. This is at least in part because of the novelty of including Jane Austen in the mix, and even more because of the consistent way in which Kessel views the action from the point of view of Mary Bennet. Rather than the horror of monstrosity, therefore, this becomes a story about the constrictions of society. Kessel’s women are as trapped by perceptions of what they should be and how they should live their lives as his men.

Best SF:

What I believe the younger generation call a “mash-up”. Kessel puts the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice together with Victor Frankenstein. Kessel does a more than passable rendition of the writing style of Miss Austen, which will doubtless please those who like their fiction written in a style now two centuries old, although it can at times err on the pastiche, and I for one was reminded of the classic French & Saunders pisstake on such costume dramas on TV (“You suppose? You suppose? Madam, I find you very suppository!”)

The two unmarried Bennet daughters, Mary and Kitty, are in London, the younger, prettier, out to catch herself a man, like Mr Darcy, of some six thousands pounds per year. However, it is Mary who is smitten – by Mr Frankenstein. The creature also lurks, and the story leads a leisurely pace until a dreadful denoument, when young Kitty dies of a fever, and her body is resurrected by Frankenstein, to furnish the creature with a mate.

Actually, this is a false denouement, as we find through means of a newspaper clipping a year hence, of the likely fate of several of the characters, although this rather wraps up the story post-haste and with less satisfaction than one would like.

Colin Harvey, at The Fix:

But where Kessel scores is in fusing two seemingly disparate genres together so beautifully; it’s a wonderful Austen pastiche, and only rarely does he ever let control of his material slip. Once the initial bemusement at such an unlikely juxtaposition has passed, it’s a well-written story in its own right, with Mary [Bennet] at times quoting contemporary beliefs in such a way that they feel as if they could as easily have come from the mouth of Mary Shelley, who was, after all, a feminist almost two centuries before the term was popularized.

While the first half of the story is as light a soufflé as any Austen created, the mood gradually darkens with the second half to bring it emotionally closer to Shelley’s Gothic denouement—although in the end, Kessel reins in the story to steer a middle course which, unlike many genre romances, avoids both a contrived resolution and some of the histrionics that characterized his source material, and he manages to wring fresh pathos from what could, in a lesser writer’s hands, simply be a reworking of familiar materials. In all, “Pride and Prometheus” is highly recommended.

Broadly positive, then — and, of course, it’s just won a Nebula award. There’s also a short interview with Kessel about the story here.

And now, over to you …

16 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “Pride and Prometheus”

  1. I liked ‘Pride and Prometheus’, but then I like Austen’s novels. Like Abigail, I didn’t think the voice was pitch-perfect and was a little too modern in places. I also thought Mary Bennett seemed less concerned with propriety than a woman of that time would have been. But then how modern should a writer make a story set 200 years ago, given that their readers are modern? It’s certainly one of the better ones on the shortlist, although whether it deserves to be there… I’ve not read enough of last year’s novelettes to make that call.

  2. As I said elsewhere today, I found the idea much much better than the execution. Kessel writes quite well but he’s no Austen and who can forget it while reading a piece like this?

  3. This was my favourite in this category, but I’m not comfortable with that. Should I be seduced by mere quality of writing? (Yes Paul, yes, you should! Hush, right hemisphere.) There are a few conversations about the subject matter, but these are more a function of the assumed style than SF. (Although I was surprised and pleased to find this wasn’t a pastiche, and didn’t rise to the many baits to do pleasingly hilarious but rather too Mel Brooks things, but was interested in a genuine story of its own heart.) I also wonder if what some readers have seen as anachronism isn’t just, as always, a question of the researched past actually being different to the general consensus. (How many times have I been told ‘women never went into a pub on their own’? What, *never’? Like they’d explode into ashes on the threshold? There was *never* a slightly louche landlord or one who’d just received a very large postal order and didn’t care? But that doesn’t happen here, I believe in the lounge for ladies portrayed, and I digress.) The question of whether or not this sounds like Austen is more important: it really should, since that’s the goal it has set itself. All in all, though, it was the story that most had me as a story, and I think that probably has to carry the day. (Yes, Paul yes, have some serotonin! Thank you, right hemisphere.) So yes, this, for me, is the one. Though ‘The Gambler’ is nearly as wonderfully written in its own way, and is much more SFnal, and infinitely worthwhile on a real world subject, which this actually doesn’t do at all, just points at where that sort of thing might be, and actually no, I may end up voting that one top instead. (Arrrgh! The headaches! No, Paul, you are correct. That is logical. Thank you, left hemisphere.) Phew. No John Clute I.

  4. Well, I’ve just got round to this. It has been a while since I’ve read Austen so I couldn’t vouch for the accuracy of the mimicry but I did like the tone. That is about all I can say for it though. Like Abigail, I’ve had enough of “metafictional games, literary pastiches, and appeals to the reader’s nostalgia and fannish affection”.

  5. First, Rich Horton’s comments, which I neglected to include in the round-up:

    This is a story that has grown on me over time, and I liked it plenty on first encountering it. “Pride and Prometheus” marries Pride and Prejudice with Frankenstein, very effectively. The main character is Mary Bennet, grown up both physically and in her character in the years since Elizabeth and Darcy married. She is resigned to spinsterhood, but then she meets a mysterious foreigner: Victor Frankenstein. But despite Victor’s apparent interest in her, any future for them seems hopeless: for Victor is engaged already, and anyway he is convinced that his past moral failures stain him. And there’s the matter of the mysterious hulking stranger … The story seems at first destined to be a fun romp, a mashup, but it darkens and deepens by the end. Notable too is the way the characters are portrayed: quite true to Austen’s vision (allowing for Mary’s considerable personal growth). This last element is something that sticks with me — I believed in the portrayal of Mary Bennet, and I found it moving and thematically worthwhile. Victor Frankenstein, and the Monster, are both also well done. I might note as well that some people complain when the Hugo ballot includes fantasies. I’m not one of those, mind you. But it can be noted that while three of the stories on the novelette ballot are arguably fantasies, two of them, including this one, are also arguably SF. In the case of “Pride and Prometheus”, the argument follows from the Aldiss argument that Frankenstein is the first SF novel: if so, then surely a Frankenstein derivation, like this one, is also SF.

    Now, my reaction: given that I have no particular affection for Pride and Prejudice, and haven’t read Frankenstein (yes, yes, I know), I wasn’t expecting this to be my favourite of the shortlist. But having read it I’m slightly surprised by the strength of my antipathy. Part of that, I’m sure, is that I find the use of pre-existing characters as pointless as in most other fanfic; as Rich notes, Kessel has to essentially re-invent Mary to make her the heroine he wants — it’s not that she was misunderstood in Austen’s novel, it’s that she really was like that, but has grown up since — and, well, why not just start from scratch? Oh, I know: intertextual larks, but the thing is, what I actually find interesting about “Pride and Prometheus” is (a) Kitty’s story, and (b) the refutation of the idea that “too much learning makes a woman monstrous” (though it’s not a terribly immediate critique, you have to say), in that order, and neither of those aspects require the Austen or Shelley borrowings. Indeed, I’d argue Mary’s conversation with the Monster would be much more interesting if we didn’t know for external-to-the-text reasons that the Monster is telling the truth. So, much to my surprise, I suspect this will only just be above Resnick’s story on my ballot.

  6. I also have never read Frankenstein, and not as big a fan of Pride and Prejudice as some , so I was surprised I enjoyed this so much. Particularly as I’ve just commented elsewhere that I wasn’t fond of the Gardner partly because it lacks genre content, and this is just metatextual fun, but I am more drawn in by Mary’s (and Kitty’s) stories than by Jack’s, perhaps because of the prior acquaintance.

  7. I think my monitor must be having some sort of weird malfunction. It almost seemed, as I was reading through this thread, as if Niall and Liz were saying they’d never read Frankenstein

  8. Is this where I admit I also have never read FRANKENSTEIN?

    (You know, long novel, very small print in the edition I ran across, I had already seen the movie … )

  9. OK, OK: I hereby commit to read Frankenstein this year. Not this month, because I have a number of reviews to catch up. And not next month, because I’ll be frantically reading Hugo nominees. July, then. I’ll read it in July.

  10. Unlike several here, I have read Frankenstein – but eleven years ago, so I’m not sure that helps me much! The main impression I have of it now is its tone, which is – as Nick Gevers notes – somewhat at odds with Austen’s irony and restraint.

    Meanwhile, I’m definitely a fan of Pride and Prejudice, and I think Kessell did a decent job with the voice; as Abigail says, it lacks something in wit, but the mannered syntax and the approach to character and scene-setting were right, even if at times it seemed he was going to mention every single character who ever crossed a page of P&P. What bothered me quite a bit more was the complete overhaul of Mary Bennett – I buy that she would have grown up, and possibly even developed a little sense, but becoming this smart and intrepid woman of science? Not so much. If you’re going to alter a character so much, why not change the name too?

    That said, I thought this was a very readable, polished and clever story, which works through its themes well. And the use of Kitty’s notorious cough was inspired, and affecting.

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