Jeannette Winterson has written a fascinating reimagination of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ in her most recent novel, Frankissstein. Winterson successfuly brings together romanticism and science through her exploration of current technological advancements and developments in artificial intelligence juxtaposed with speculative chapters of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein and her views, and the views of her peers, regarding life, death and the soul.
The novel begins with Shelley composing Frankenstein, before skipping to the present day and the life of Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor. We read how Ry meets Victor Stein, a mysterious professor who is working on ‘accelerating evolution’ to live forever as a consciousness in a machine, and Ron Lord who is on the road to launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men. The interaction between these three characters, all of whom have vastly different views on life, death, gender and sex allows any reader to maintain any opinion whilst insisting that they question their beliefs on all these issues. For instance, whilst I am thoroughly opposed to Ron Lord’s attitude, I found it enlightening to gain insight into how he perceived the world and why he chose to run a business producing sex dolls.
Winterson beautifully explores some of the problems we may face as a society if we continue on this quest to live forever through technology. For me this was the most interesting aspect of the book because it both highlighted different concerns that I had not previously considered and forced me to confront my instinctual resistence to certain forms of artificial intelligence. In particular, Victor Stein’s obsession with existing without a physical form fascinated me (likely because of my interest in Philosophy and consciousness). The concept of existing simply as a consciousness is an immediately unappealing one to me and so to read about a character whose life’s work centres around this goal was deeply intriguing.
Finally, I would like to praise Winterson’s ability to seamlessly switch between Ry’s 21st Century world and Mary Shelley’s 19th Century one. The way Winterson is able to create two vastly different worlds and successfully draw meaningful parallels between the two is truly incredible. I found myself thoroughly absorbed in each world without ever being thrown when switching from one to other.
This is a novel I would definitely recommend for anyone interested in the questions surrounding artificial intelligence and how it may intersect with issues of sex, gender and how we understand the difference between life and death.