AI Meets Gender Politics (and Sexbots) in Jeanette Winterson’s Smart and Witty ‘Frankissstein’

If there’s a familiar origin story in the great halls of literature, it’s the one about 19-year-old Mary Shelley in Lake Geneva, coming up with the idea for her masterpiece Frankenstein. But just because Jeanette Winterson uses that as the jumping-off point for her 11th novel doesn’t mean it’s predictable or old hat.

Unsurprisingly, with talk of cryogenics, the future of AI and the downfall of humanity, transgender politics and, yes, sexbots, Frankissstein is thrillingly quite the opposite. The book is a mishmash of two distinct, yet interlinked, narratives that stand mostly apart, but often mirror or bounce off each other to amusing effect.

The first, beginning in those debauched days in 1816 Switzerland — wine-soaked and full of heady musings on whether the “life-spark” is male or female, and the nature of the soul — traces Mary Shelley’s early years from her elopement with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and their glorious sex life, to working on what would become Frankenstein, to the death of three children before the age of 22, and her husband’s drowning.

While Winterson’s depiction of the intrepid, female-forward and delightfully dry-witted Mary is certainly worthy of praise — because who would be more apt to paint that portrait than the Queen of Gothic herself? — it’s the second narrative, a kind of present-day hall-of-mirrors parallel, that really steals the show.

The love story between its principal narrator, Ry Shelley, a doctor studying the effects of robots on humans’ mental and physical health, and Victor Stein, a professor up to his eyeballs in AI research with the goal of scanning previously frozen human brains and uploading the data for future generations, is both devilishly scintillating and quite touching. It’s also nuanced, especially because Ry is the one supplying the body parts Victor needs for his research.

Author Jeanette Winterson, who has written the book “Frankissstein.”

In addition, Ry is transgender — born as a female, but transitioned to male. Part of their attraction stems from Victor’s fascination with that duality, what he calls “future-early” and Ry describes as “doubleness.”

“I can change my body but I can’t change my body’s reading of my body,” Ry says. “The paradox is that I felt in the wrong body but for my body it was the right body. What I have done calms my mind and agitates my chemistry. Few people know what it’s like to live this way.”

Aside from the myriad passages in which characters from both stories contemplate life’s Bigger Questions — gender fluidity, the division between the head and heart, death and the afterlife, the true nature of reality — true to form, Frankissstein is also incredibly funny.

Winterson’s Polly D, a reporter from Vanity Fair interested in doing a profile on Victor’s AI research, is spot-on, right down to the fringe suede boots and constant flipping of her hair. (There’s also this quote: “The race to create what you call true artificial intelligence is a race run by autistic-spectrum white boys with poor emotional intelligence and fart-dorm social skills.” Grin.)

But the award for raunchiest, most attention-grabbing, and, dare I say, lovable character definitely goes to sexbot salesman and buffoon extraordinaire Ron Lord — a riff on Lord Byron — whom Ry interviews at a robotics expo early on in the novel. Lord’s dimwitted yammering about the benefits of 40F cup sizes and the different styles of sex dolls tailored to each man’s needs are reason alone — and there are so many more — to buy and adore this astute, wildly inventive and totally unique book.

 

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 27, 2019)

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