Book Review: ‘Frankisstein’ By Jeanette Winterson
It seems apt to call Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein a pastiche, in both content and form. It’s about the future of transhumanism–the idea that we can create immortality for our consciousnesses beyond our bodies–and its roots in the dream of Frankenstein. Winterson’s scope encompasses different genres, melded with abandoned: there’s postmodern satire; there’s romance; there’s historical fiction, and a close history of Mary Shelley. It’s fitting, then, too, that one of the novel’s protagonists, the scientist Ry, is trans and nonbinary (using the pronoun “he/his”). His lover, the scientist Victor Stein, muses that Ry’s nonbinary identity prefigures some future transhumanism: an existence as brains uploaded to the Cloud, without bodies or gender identity at all.
The book opens in the past, with Mary Shelley at Lake Geneva in 1816. Readers follow her as she embarks on the project that would be Frankenstein. It then flashes forward to a “Tech-X-Po” on robotics attended by the second protagonist and viewpoint character, Ry. He draws the connection for us rather baldly: “It’s why we’re here […] Frankenstein was a vision of how life might be created–the first non-human intelligence.” Ry is also there to interview Ron Lord, who makes sex bots. If that sounds a little flip for a novel engaged in weighty topics, it shouldn’t: themes of sex and love underlay the whole of the book. Without love, Winterson implies, why would we wish to live forever?
The scenes set in present day, centered around the expo, feel almost cartoonishly satirical, with shades of Tom Wolfe. There’s a lot of dialogue, much of it very funny. There’s a religious character, Claire, who strikes up an unlikely partnership with the sex-bot manufacturer, Ron Lord. Lord himself is a fascinating character. He is, in some ways, a naif: his reaction to Ry’s gender identity is simple confusion leavened with unmalicious bigotry. He accepts Ry gradually, after some persistent misgendering. Similarly, he bumbles into profundity in his explanation of why people want sex-bots and what they want from them, and what it means for the future of humanity. There’s a refreshingly feminist perspective from a journalist at the expo, who debates what sex-bots designed by primarily cis male engineers might do to society. Her concerns, though, seem swept aside in the unstoppable rush forward, toward progress. These characters each express distinct viewpoints, but they come across as little more than mouthpieces for those views; it’s an entertaining read, but Winterson sacrifices character for idea in her scenes set in the modern era.
The reader is treated to emotional connection once again when we meet Victor Stein, the enigmatic scientist who becomes Ry’s lover. He is also obsessed with immortality, and uses Ry to help him obtain human body parts for his experiments. The parallel drawn to Mary Shelley’s protagonist is clear and intentional. Winterson’s juxtaposition of past and present, as well as some of Victor Stein’s explicit dialogue, put it to us that there is something prefigured about humankind’s yearning toward this particular sort of immortality. It is a wish that has lain latent for centuries or even millennia, waiting for its technological vehicle. Christian mythology, the Platonic realm of the Ideal–these concepts of transcending the physical indicate that human beings have prefigured its attainment.
Less abstractly, we watch Mary Shelley grapple with the deaths of her children and husband. In the modern era, Ry contends with transphobia, including a violent incident. The tragedies of the characters’ lives, though, don’t take up the meat of the narrative. They’re incidental, as if the whole book were being written by an AI trying to synthesize human feeling.
The story takes a turn for both the creepy and the meta-fictional as it winds toward a (somewhat inconclusive) conclusion. Fictional characters might be real. There might be a contemporary scientist working his own ghoulish resurrection. In one dramatic scene, our characters find themselves trapped in an underground room as water begins to rise… but there’s no need for spoilers. The beating heart of the novel, or rather its lightning-strike, is in the ideas it explores. It is not a perfect book, but it is a deeply affecting one. If you want to lie awake at night thinking of the future of humanity, the future of gender and indeed selfhood, and the implications of sex dolls with sentience… if you loved the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”… Frankisssteinis for you.