Book Review

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson


Frankissstein is a novel that I picked up at this year’s Hay Festival following a fantastically entertaining event with Jeanette Winterson.  If you do get the opportunity to see the author, I highly recommend it.

In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with Mum again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere.

Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryonics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.

But the scene is set in 1816, when nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writes a story about creating a non-biological life-form. ‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.’

What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet? Jeanette Winterson shows us how much closer we are to that future than we realise. Funny and furious, bold and clear-sighted, Frankissstein is a love story about life itself.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often considered to be the first work of science fiction, and it’s widely known that the story came about while Mary was at Lake Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband), Lord Byron, John Polidori (Byron’s doctor), and Clair Clairmont (Mary’s stepsister).  Taking up the challenge to create a story of the supernatural, the story that became known as Frankenstein was born.  This is where Winterson’s story begins, in reimagining that trip to Lake Geneva in 1816.  It works to set the scene nicely for the modern-day storyline, and highlights the cleverness with which Winterson has reimagined Shelley’s novel, as well as providing a reminder of the storyline to those who may be less familiar with it.

The present-day storyline alternates with that tale of Mary Shelley, and features a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who was born Mary.  After meeting Victor Stein at a cryogenics facility in Arizona, the two begin a relationship, and the reader gets to see the modern-day Stein pursuing ideas of non-biological life and extending life expectancy.  I love the deliberate lack of subtlety in the naming of Winterson’s characters – there can be no doubt as to who takes which role in what’s to come.  Of course, in 2019, non-biological life is most likely to come through the development of AI and ideas around transhumanism, and Winterson broaches these ideas through healthy debate (the scene at Stein’s lecture is an excellent example of this).  I think that this is a clever reimagining of Shelley’s novel that works completely in its modern-day form.

Through Ry Shelley, Winterson also highlights the issues and prejudice faced by those who are transgender, and the struggle in being accepted in the way that they identify themselves.  While I can’t speak as to the accuracy of these experiences, I thought that this was tastefully and intelligently done, and showed that while some are accepting of those who are transgender, we still have a way to go in combatting the prejudice of others.  Through Ry, Winterson also highlights the ways in which we can go beyond the body that we are born with, and perhaps argues this as an early example of the changes that Stein is pursuing in terms of human re-embodiment.

Told with intelligence and a sense of humour (I’m looking at you here, Ron Lord), this is an excellent reimagining of a classic that works brilliantly to bring up to date Shelley’s ideas from 200 years ago.

Frankissstein was published in May 2019 by Jonathan Cape, and is available in hardback and digital formats.

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