So, how many “ss’s” are there in the title of Winterson’s Frankisstein? Why couldn’t there simply be two?
Novelistic retellings/commentaries on past masterpieces are all the rage at the moment; Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte is also on the Booker longlist this year. But I haven’t read Don Quichote yet.
I will admit I approached this book with some skepticism. I mean, have you seen the title? It sounds like a version of Frankenstein written by a very horny teenager. In fact, when I saw the cover, my memory immediately jolted to this Saturday Night Live sketch.
Anyway, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be?
I mean, I didn’t love it. But I didn’t hate it as much, as I thought I would.
We have two timelines: Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein in 1818, and Ry (who started her life as Mary) a transsexual doctor living in 2018. Ry falls in love with an AI expert, Viktor Stein, who is fascinated by the way in which Ry has chosen and altered her body to mirror her mind.
Ry brings Stein body parts from the hospital to experiment on. Professor Stein’s search for body parts leads Ry to Alcor (a real place, in which people who bet on the advent of AI choose to freeze their corpses). During the journey, Ry meets the entrepreneurially minded Ron, an enthusiastic salesman of female sexrobots (why do men need wives when they can have robots), and an enterprising journalist working for Vanity Fair.
In the 19th century, meanwhile, Mary Shelley is called to Bedlam to examine a man who claims that he is Viktor Frankenstein himself…
In some ways, this book feels like a school report that Winterson has compiled from her readings on AI and Mary Shelley’s biography. All the information is there, and there are some parallels painted in rather broad strokes. It’s interesting, but somehow one feels that it would not have made the Booker longlist, had it not been written by Jeanette Winterson.
I was slightly confused by the ending. It implied, for me, that Viktor Frankenstein’s transgressive work was never truly completed in the real world – whereas the cloning of Dolly, or the invention of the atomic bomb, seem to say otherwise.
If you are interested in AI, you might do worse than read Frankissstein. But I would heartily recommend starting with Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, instead.