It is 1816 and a nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is staying in Geneva, Switzerland, with Lord Byron, John Polidori, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The group engage in a task: write a horror story. Excited, Mary begins, not knowing just how much her own story and characters will haunt her.
In fact, in Frankissstein, Shelley’s story and characters haunt the very pages and the reader. In the opening chapters Winterson treats us to scenes of Mary Shelley’s sharp wit, intelligence and humour as well as her feminist belief in women’s equality, which her male companions do not share. The inhabitants of that now famous lodge at Lake Geneva are then reimagined into contemporary versions of themselves, as we begin a new timeline. Winterson skilfully manoeuvres back-and-forth between the early 1800s and now, all the while investigating the same question presented in Frankenstein: can humans and the human experience be recreated through science?
Where in the 1800s timeline we follow Mary through her life, in the contemporary timeline, we meet Ry, a trans doctor whose dead name is Mary (relevant only in the intended connection to Mary Shelley). He has been providing body parts for Victor Stein, a renowned scientist who works on human reanimation and cryonics, as well as the digital downloading of the human mind. Meanwhile, newly divorced Ron Lord, in a hilarious take on a modern Lord Byron, lives with his mother and runs a sexbot business. Ron’s character, although bleak in an all-too-familiar misogynistic outlook, provides a lot of the books dark humour. This includes a hilarious scene with a sexbot who auto-responds to trigger words with innuendo. Such exchanges include:
DON’T MAKE ME WAIT, DADDY!”
“I can’t get a signal down here […]
I TOUCH MYSELF DOWN HERE!”
Disturbing and funny, Winterson has done an excellent job in ridiculing sexism while pointing towards its destructive effect for women, both trans and cis. But it isn’t just Byron that appears in the new timeline. Claire Clairmont is reimagined as an evangelist woman who aims to add Christian influence to the sexbot industry and Polidori is remade as Polly D., a news reporter attracted to Ry, who would do anything for the next scoop. All the characters’ lives intermingle and together they metaphorically explore ideas of the body, the mind, and of artificial intelligence and its potential effects on humankind, much like the Romantic writers did in Geneva. Such ponderings include:
“In theory, if you own your own robot, you can send it out to work for you and keep the money. Or you can use it at home as an unpaid servant. Or you can send it to weed your chemical-free farm. Should be great. But when have things ever worked out great? In the human dream?”
In amongst the satire and the philosophy, Winterson shows she is still a strikingly brilliant and nuanced writer, particularly when discussing the human body. She writes:
“Our beings struggle in our bodies like light trapped in a jar, and our bodies struggle in this world as a beast of burden chafes its yoke, and this world itself hangs alone on its noose, strung among the indifferent stars.”
Among the beauty of Winterson’s prose, her wry commentary on post-Brexit UK and Trump USA, and the philosophical satire peppered throughout, I was particularly glad to see a transgender character in the spotlight. As a cis woman, I’m not the best person to critique Winterson’s representation, yet I felt Winterson effectively demonstrated that neither sex nor gender are binary, which is very much in keeping with the book’s theme of the fluidity of human identity. Of course, this means that Ry being transgender is important to the novel and the fact does crop up almost excessively (it is worth inserting a trigger warning for a transphobic attack [p. 241-244]). But Ry, who refuses to be identified as anything other than themselves, despite other people’s attempts, is one of the most likable characters I’ve read in a long time.
In this fantastic remaking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Winterson has stitched the past, present, and future together to explore how modern-day monsters are created: not with the flesh of the dead, but with power and control. Ultimately, Frankissstein is a book about creation, morphing, fluidity and wondering, “if the future is now, where is the present?”
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape. Buy the book.