If you ever wondered what a conversation between Mary Shelley and Elon Musk would look like; wonder no more. Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein is the embodiment of that chat.
With its heady combination of Romanticism and science, it’s no wonder that Frankissstein made the Booker longlist this year. It moves between past and present, changes perspectives, and sometimes demolishes the fourth wall entirely.
Winterson blurs the lines between art and science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein quickly evolved from a fictional horror story into a cultural phenomenon, falling into common language and rooting itself in pop culture. But Frankenstein’s monster is nothing but a story, an ingenious pigment of Shelley’s incredible imagination. So, Winterson poses the question: what happens when Frankenstein’s monster becomes something real? When it has a tangible effect on the world? When our non-human creation genuinely threatens the future of humanity?
Enter Victor Stein and his experiments into AI. He’s doing the same as Shelley’s Victor: building a life form that wasn’t birthed. Ry Shelley, our present-day protagonist acts as his sanitised grave-robber, bringing amputated body parts from the hospital they work at.
I loved Ry. I felt an instant connection to this transgender doctor. Winterson has crafted this character in a way that makes me weep with jealousy: there is no inquisition, no interrogation. Instead, you get glimpses of their sardonic, dry sense of humour. They speak with a tone that’s part cynical, part logic, part marvel. Ry, for me, is the perfect narrator. Charmingly unreliable, thanks to their love affair with Victor, but unfailingly likeable.
You can’t mention this book without mentioning Ron Lord. Given some of the best lines, with scenes coated in disbelief, I read most of Ron’s part with half a chuckle in my mouth, my eyebrows stuck in a constant arch. One of my favourite lines in the book comes from Ry to Ron:
“Is manhood dickhood? I ask Ron.
He looks at me like I am the stupidest thing he has ever seen. He says, Why would you want to be a man if you don’t want a dick?”
This Donnie Darko-esque sentiment instantly won my heart over.
Questioning like this is constant. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be human? Like all the Romantics’ work, Frankissstein desperately claws for the answers. Is humanity in our minds or in our physical bodies? Would you be happy living forever without your body, or would you miss physical sensations?
The book plunges straight into this first question: what is life? And we see Mary Shelley attempt to correct both Byron and Doctor Polidori:
“…no living man has yet given birth to anything living… It is you, sir, who are made from us, sir.
The gentlemen laugh at me indulgently. They respect me, up to a point, but we have arrived at that point.
We are talking about the animating principle, says Byron, slowly and patiently as if to a child. Not the soil, not the bedding, not the container; the life-spark. The life-spark is male.
Agreed! said Polidori, and of course if two gentlemen agree that must be enough to settle the matter for any woman.”
Among the debates and portrayal of what humanity is, comes the topic of transgender. Victor Stein sees it as the next step in evolution: Ry has shaped their body to suit their mind.
“Weren’t we just saying that in the future we will be able to choose our bodies? And to change them? Think of yourself as future-early.”
But while Stein sees Ry as a concept, a step towards ‘accelerated evolution’, Ry doesn’t swallow this philosophy. Ry knows the discomfort in doubleness, in being in the wrong body. And that reason fuels their interest in mind over matter.
Despite Stein’s persuasiveness, his charismatic and enigmatic personality, Winterson doesn’t let him fool her readers. She gives him space to argue for his disembodied future, but she’s quick to ram home the implications of AI, robotics and technology.
“Professor Stein, you are the acceptable face of AI, but in fact the race to create what you call true artificial intelligence is a race run by autistic-spectrum white boys with poor emotional intelligence and frat-dorm social skills. In what way will their brave new world be gender neutral – or anything neutral?”
This is a topic I LOVE talking and writing about: the ethics of AI. Whether it’s how we treat robots, as per Westworld, or deciding on who can give AI ethics, morals and discrimination, Winterson brings these vital – but seemingly unanswered – questions into the narrative.
There is, at times, a heavy-handedness to Winterson’s message. Expect a deluge of information around AI, machine learning and algorithms – and don’t expect it sugar-coated. However, I loved this. I write about technology for my day-job, so anything that pushes the realms of tech – that turns sci-fi into reality – is right up my street.
Consider this your warning: you might pick up Frankissstein to marvel at its quick plot, full-bodied characters and hybrid concept. But you’ll get a full education around the finer points of technological advance.
This hard science is broken up by the quirky characters and quick stream of dialogue. Ron Lord – is it too redundant to call him Byron’s present form? – runs a sexbot company. Available in different models, from economy to vintage to religious to deluxe, Lord’s XX-BOTs are at once a hilarious yet disturbing yet thought-provoking addition. Through this one narrative, Winterson attacks Brexit, xenophobic nationalists, loneliness, sexuality and desire.
Every sentence in this book is sharp; so sharp, their blades would be invisible to the naked eye. There is no filler content or dashed-off thought. Every word is carefully chosen, placed for impact. The rhythm, the lack of speech marks (is this a ‘thing’ now?), the undulating sentence lengths. It all comes together as Winterson’s manifesto against unchecked technological progress; against dehumanising humanity.
This book is the Shrek of the literary world. It’s an onion that needs careful peeling, shedding layer by layer to absorb not only the plot, but the themes, the language and the messages. One read is not enough for Frankissstein, and I’m probably doing it a disservice by letting my first read guide this review.
It’s hard going at times, while at others it’s light, irreverent, witty. It asks hard questions and it expects you to take a side and give an answer. I loved it; but I’m a technology nerd who spent three years studying the Romantics at university.
If you enjoy anything by Douglas Coupland, if you like Frankenstein, if you’ve read P.Z. Reizin’s Happiness for Humans, if Black Mirror and the singularity keep you up at night – read this.
Frankissstein is a worthy entry on the Booker longlist, and a novel that taps into philosophical questions that have haunted humanity since the dawn of time, and ones that have sprung up in the quest for pure AI.
“WHAT IS SO SMART ABOUT THE END OF THE HUMAN?”