Published in The Independent May 24, 2019
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has certainly had a vivid afterlife: subject to countless adaptations, rewrites, and remakes. Jeanette Winterson is the latest to re-animate the 19th-century Gothic classic, both playfully and sometimes arduously bringing it into a contemporary world of smart-tech and artificial intelligence (AI).
Frankissstein asks if we might be on the cusp of life-creating inventions as huge, and potentially troublesome, as those Shelley imagined.
Frankissstein includes a graceful re-telling of Mary Shelley’s own life – from how she came up with her famous monster while holidaying with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron through to a smart closing encounter with Byron’s daughter and computer programming visionary, Ada Lovelace. But much of the book is a modern equivalent – ish – of Frankenstein, with a love story at its heart. Ry Shelley, a young male-presenting transgender doctor (“I am fully female. I am also partly male.”) meets Victor Stein, a charismatic AI professor, doing pioneering work on uploading the brain and thus liberating humans from the limits of our biology. Victor is attracted to Ry in part because he sees them as a “hybrid”, who chose to “intervene in [their] own evolution”.
The pair’s improbable sidekicks are an unreconstructed Welsh entrepreneur named Ron Lord, who manufactures grotesquely pliant sex-bots, and an evangelical American Christian named Claire (a strained equivalent of Mary Shelley’s step-sister) who – stretching credulity – sees religious potential in the bots.
But while Winterson has lots of fun finding cute references and echoes across her narratives and centuries, it doesn’t do to expect too literal parallels. Often, they are crunchy instead. Having a trans character positioned as the architect of their own body (“I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.”) at first seems to sit uneasily with the idea of Frankenstein’s horrific cut-and-spliced monster. In fact, Ry’s doubleness sits closer to Shelley’s growing recognition of the intertwined essential nature of her own creations: that Doctor Frankenstein and his monster are themselves dual, doubled.
If this sounds heavy-going, it’s really not. Frankissstein is also gleefully Gothic, taking us into a world of underground nuclear bunkers, scampering severed hands and spooky preserved heads. And throughout, Winterson’s approach is light and comic – although in truth, some of the satiric dialogue, especially Ron on his sex-bots, is too crude to be convincing.
Beneath the zany fun and giddy pace, Frankissstein does also takes a serious, 19th-century style philosophical look at what it means to try to create new consciousness, to wonder what humans are really made of. A line from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 53”, asking such a question, haunts the book: “What is your substance, whereof are you made/ That millions of strange shadows on you tend?”
Winterson enjoys taking real or potential technological inventions, and prodding and probing at why some make us feel optimistic, and some make us feel queasy. Frankissstein is stuffed with examples, from smart-tech prosthetics to cryogenic freezing to sex robots, from asking whether technology is inherently gendered to whether AI might actually be better for the planet than the selfish human race.
In fact, the novel is overstuffed; you can sometimes feel the research bursting its stitches. Her characters also too often become clumsy mouthpieces for theories or contentious “takes” on a controversial topic. But the breezy way she handles the sheer number of complex ideas is also frequently dazzling, and ultimately means that this enjoyably audacious novel has no problem coming to life.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99