Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Published by Jonathon Cape, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Past, present, and future collide to glorious effect in Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. Thematically rich, linguistically stimulating, and narratively enthralling, it’s a book that begs deeper thought and discussion; somehow both of its time and yet utterly timeless.
Lake Geneva, 1816. Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairemont hunker down to await the passing of a storm. Conversations on the nature of life and death lead a teenage Mary to begin working on her magnum opus, Frankenstein. Meanwhile, in modern-day Brexit Britain, transgender doctor Ry Shelley, sexbot businessman Ron Lord, journalist Polly D, and the evangelical Claire become entangled in scientist Victor Stein’s research concerning AI and human nature.
Riffing on the life and work of Mary Shelley, whilst weaving Shelley’s own story into the narrative, allows Winterson to explore many thought-provoking themes. Chief amongst these is the intersection between mind and body, and the very definition of being human. With advancements in AI and technology making the concepts of transhumanism and digital eternity all the more plausible, our present-day characters find themselves debating the ethical and moral implications of separating consciousness from biological matter. Is life defined by our inner voices (the thoughts, feelings, and memories that make us who we are), or is it the physicality of change, interaction, and sensation within our bodies that make a life worth living? Does life require death to lend it meaning?
These may feel like particularly modern questions and concerns, but Winterson shows us the timeless nature of the debate surrounding the self. Just as the present-day characters fear that AI threatens to make them obsolete, the characters in Shelley’s day are unsettled by the coming of the industrial revolution, which threatens to unbalance society and rob them of their jobs. The juxtaposition between an insatiable thirst for progress and a fear of the resulting implications is a fascinating one. The Parallels between the two narratives show us both how far we’ve come (with Shelley’s fear that science could make autonomous artificial life possible having been realised) and yet how much our primary concerns remain the same. We are always destined to play at being gods, seeking to transcend the limits of our bodies and overcome death.
Comparing past and present also allows Winterson to comment on the changing role of women, and our ever-evolving attitude towards gender and identity. She also deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, perhaps toying with the idea that art is itself a form of creation. It is not coincidental that, whilst most of the present-day characters are representative of real people, Victor Stein has stepped quite literally from the pages of a book. If fiction is a construct, what is reality, and where do the two meet?
It’s not that Winterson deigns to hand us all the answers to these huge, existential questions. But I would implore you to come away from this without your mind in a spin. Through the actions of her title character, Mary Shelley warned us that just because something is scientifically possible, it doesn’t mean we should pursue it. Winterson shows us how close Shelley’s nightmarish vision of the future really is, and asks us to consider our collective next steps very carefully. At once a beautiful slice of historical fiction, an unexpectedly funny satire of our current political climate, an arresting speculative tale about the near future, and a love letter to the genius and foresight of Mary Shelley; Frankissstein offers a truly singular reading experience that is not to be missed.
If you’d like to give Frankissstein a go, you can pick up a copy with free shipping from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d live to hear your thoughts!