Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Frankissstein cover

Frankissstein is a fresh, thoughtful novel that blends a retelling of Frankenstein using AI with the story of Mary Shelley thinking about life and death. In the modern day, Ry—a young trans doctor in love with Victor Stein, professor working on AI—meets Ron Lord, businessman from Wales trying to make his range of sex robots sell. Ry met Victor at a cryonics facility in Arizona, but now Victor is working on something and Manchester and Ry, Victor, Ron, and the religious Claire somehow all become part of it. And in 1816, Mary Shelley starts work on Frankenstein, thinking about vitality and the moment of life. Across both narratives, questions are asked about what makes life, what is the future of humanity, and what control do we have over our own and other bodies?

There have been a lot of retellings of classic novels over the past few years and a lot of attempts to fictionalise the story of Frankenstein‘s creation for its 200 anniversary. What Winterson manages to do with Frankissstein is blend the two in a way that makes sense, allowing modern questions of AI to mix with Shelley’s look at life creation and ethics, but also making a novel that says more than that. The modern storyline is often funny and engages with medical concepts of the body as well as how technology can remove people from traditional ideas of a body in a way easily comparable to the manufactured body of the Creature in Frankenstein. Ry being trans is used to explore his own sense of body and the fact that people often change parts of their bodies even without digital technology or robotics.

Winterson’s version of Mary Shelley’s life—not only Villa Diodati and the creation of Frankenstein, but going beyond that to her experiences of death and to the work of Ada Lovelace—is highly fictional, based around conversation rather than reciting historical fact. This means that it is mostly about debate and about thoughts on artificial life and related areas, including gender roles. The key figures are painted as complex, not simple heroes and villains, which is refreshing in the subgenre of fictionalised versions of the people Mary Shelley knew, and it feels like one of the few that allow Mary Shelley to think and consider the issues she raises in Frankenstein and clearly have an interest in scientific thought, but also be a woman in a strict society who runs away because she falls in love with a poet.

Considering the many afterlives of Frankenstein as a novel and how unfaithful most of them tend to be, Frankissstein shouldn’t be a shock, but it also feels fitting, sewing together parts of Mary Shelley, other stories, quotations, and a new twist on a Frankenstein-inspired narrative that considers the human body, its changeability, and its future. Both witty and informal, and engaging with interesting debate, Frankissstein is unsurprisingly good. It isn’t really about the story as much as what it is saying (which may be what a lot of people think about Frankenstein, too).

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