Jeanette Winterson’s new novel, Frankissstein, is a lively homage to the biotechnological future first made thinkable in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is one in a long series of remakes and commentaries that equate “Frankenstein” with biotechnological developments such as cloning, AI, GMO, and sex-change surgery, at times to marvel at human ingenuity, more often to decry it. Frankissstein tempers both impulses. But what sets it apart from recent spin-offs focusing on the U.S. occupation of Iraq (Frankenstein in Baghdad), disregard for Black lives (Destroyer), and artificial intelligences variously running wild (Re-Animator, Ex Machina) is that Frankissstein plays out cultural parallels within the novel by telling two separate stories from two different locations and historical eras. The story of the creation of Shelley’s novel in 1816 is interwoven within a contemporary plot set in 2018, whose characters are updated embodiments of the ur-story’s protagonists and preoccupations.
Names alone (Ry Shelley, Ron Lord) signal that we are entering parallel worlds, as do each group’s professional interests in science and literature. While the zany technologies of the contemporary plot’s sex-bots, crawling hands, and vitrified heads may seem a far cry from the humanoid materials in Victor Frankenstein’s lab, the interpretive genius of Frankissstein is highlighting their connection and the desires underlying both attempts to extend the boundaries of life, including by means of fiction. Frankissstein, that is, reads Frankenstein and the story of its composition as stressing affinities between scientific and literary creativity—shared inventiveness, zest for discovery, desires to suspend the reality and heartache of death—that humans ignore at their peril by oversimplifying either domain. This reading is a shrewd bid to narrow divides between sciences and humanities, Romanticism and postmodernity, but it assigns to its own reading a difficult evaluative challenge. Depth of appreciation turns on apprehending Frankissstein as simultaneously a novel and a work of literary-cultural criticism.
The dominant story is narrated by Ry Shelley, a white F-M transgender British medical doctor, whom we first encounter at a Global Tec-X-Po on Robotics in Memphis. There Ry meets Claire, a black evangelical Christian; Polly D, a white teledildonic enthusiast and journalist for Vanity Fair; and Ron Lord, whom Ry has come to interview about his sex-bot franchise in post-Brexit Wales. But Ry’s chief interest is Victor Stein, a professor whom we first encounter at the Royal Society delivering a lecture on “The Future of Humans in a Post-Human World.” Over the course of the narrative, Ry and Victor’s romantic relationship develops in tandem with their interests in biotechnology. As medical doctor, Ry furnishes Victor with body parts for robotic prostheses and, as lover, with a body that instantiates the world beyond binaries that Victor contends “AI will make possible.” Eventually, all of these characters arrive at Victor’s underground laboratory, where procedures to scan the brain of the vitrified head of his mentor go awry. The four make it safely above ground, but Victor vanishes without a trace.
Frankissstein begins, however, in the rainy and charged atmosphere of “Lake Geneva, 1816,” and intersperses throughout the novel episodes from Mary Shelley’s life that elucidate the composition and longevity of her “hideous progeny” (as she terms Frankenstein in the 1831 preface to its reissuing). The first episode situates the origins of the now-famous novel within literary and sexual rivalries swirling among the ghost-writing contestants—Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. Those rivalries take the form of heated, deeply gendered debates over the origin of life and its activating principle. “Where is consciousness in the womb?” Is the “male principle” “readier and more active than the female principle”? Can “humankind” be “perfected”? Is the “life-spark” a phenomenon of spirit or body? The first episode also connects Mary Shelley’s origin story to her portrayal of Victor Frankenstein’s desire to surmount death by animating an assemblage of dead body parts. For Mary’s birth is twined with her mother’s death, a loss she maintains is forever lodged “inside of me” and a loss of “something of myself.” Subsequent episodes narrate the deaths of her children, “my beautiful Ca” (Clara, at age two) and “Willmouse” (William, at age three), as sharpening the felt reality of being “pregnant” “with death.” In other words, these scenarios function less as historical context than as psychological accounts of the motives still fueling technological inventiveness in 2018.
Alliances between then and now are deepened in the connections that Frankiss-stein forges between “love” and “story,” announced by Winterson’s translating of Shelley’s subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” into “A Love Story.” Even in its most conventional sense, as signifying the history of an intense sexual-emotional connection between two people, the depicted pairs of lovers in Frankissstein spotlight the centrality of mind, story, and myth to the origins and experiencing of love. The fabled love between Mary and Percy would never have existed without their love for books. Books arouse their love (Godwin’s books being why Percy enters Mary’s life), ratify their sexual transgressiveness, and sustain their connection, both while a philandering Percy is living and once he drowns at age twenty-nine. The other pairing, of Ry and Victor, heightens the dependence of love on shared intellectual pursuits. Ry worries that the connection between them is purely instrumental, that their body satisfies Victor because it is hybrid, self-redesigned, and because Ry services him as a conveyor of body parts for his robots. Insight by both Shelley narrators into relational vulnerability—meaning also receptivity—distances Mary and Ry from each of their partners’ efforts to “phase out the bio-element altogether.”
Ry and Victor’s relationship spotlights the literary-philosophical dimension, and one could say the phenomenological relevance, of correlating story and love. For Ry Shelley’s partner is named Victor Stein, not some re-engineered version of Percy Shelley, and thus is the only character in the dominant plot whose name does not evoke one of the live participants in the original scene. Portrayed as Ry’s human love interest, the fact that his parallel is a fictional character accentuates the intercourse that Frankissstein is foregrounding between story and love. On one level, it casts Ry’s and Victor’s relation as a trans-partnership in that Ry’s transsexualism arouses Victor’s desire and fuels his machine-human trans-species experimentation. On another level, the partnership embodies the intimacy that the personae in both plotlines find in books as sources of companionship as well as transport and information. “Naming is power,” as Frankissstein repeatedly affirms. Moreover, designating their partnership as one that crosses borders between fiction and reality has historical as well as postmodern implications in underscoring the age-old fine line between genius and madness.
The skirting of madness in literary and scientific creativity reaches its zenith in four episodes set in “Bedlam 1818.” These episodes puncture the parallel planes of the two stories by being narrated by an outside party (“Mr. Wakefield”) and place fictional characters within Frankenstein (Captain Walton, Victor Frankenstein) into dialogue with their live, human creator (Mary Shelley). In this, the dialogues mirror the Creature’s impassioned speeches to his maker at the center of Frankenstein, his efforts to reason Victor into creating him a companion as the only antidote to the misery of the existential loneliness that is fast transforming him into a fiend. But they also accentuate the consequences of the inability to demarcate fiction from reality or to control the shaping realities of illusion in fiction and love. In the Bedlam series, a “composed” Mary Shelley enters to convince a raving Victor that “you and the monster you created” both exist in “the pages of a novel.” But this provides small comfort to Victor, who is convinced that he is “the monster” that Shelley “created” and also the designated protector of “the human race” from “fiendish, pitiless” experimenters like him. Bedlam Victor’s plea that Shelley “unmake me,” like the Creature’s plea that Victor make him a companion, ultimately goes unanswered, though the original Victor takes a stab at it. Bedlam Victor’s demand is ontologically unanswerable, both because, as a creature of fiction, “I have never lived,” and because he knows from experience that, once unleashed on the world, ideas have a life of their own and sometimes go viral.
Shelley’s ensuing question to Victor, “If you are not of the human race, why should you care for it?” prompts an answer for whose answerability Frankissstein solicits readers. “For the love of it that you bear, he answered. Love that you have taught me. Shall I quote our book?” Insisting that he and the monster are “the same, the same,” Winterson’s Frankenstein assumes responsibility for the havoc on humanity that by means of his Creature he has unleashed. She thereby modifies the heartlessness of Shelley’s Frankenstein, who never owns up to the consequences of his creativity and thus merits the popular conflation of Frankenstein with monster and/or monstrous. According to Frankissstein, critical outrage is aptly directed at the hubris and irresponsibility of the scientist depicted in Shelley’s novel but should not be generalized into Shelley’s attitude, or the ethical attitude, toward technology tout court. At the same time, Winterson’s critical act of recovery leaves intentionally unresolved the status of Victor’s madness and of fiction’s grasp on reality. “Is his story the result of his madness or its cause?” ponders Mr. Wakefield. Victor’s problem is deeper. “I do not know if I am the teller or the tale.”
Posing these questions garners some sympathy for the plight of what in Shelley’s day was understood to be genius. Shelley’s voiced intentions are to depict Victor not as “a madman” but as “a visionary. . . . I will show his glory as well as his horror.” Ry Shelley’s “love” for Victor is not blind to his being “an egomaniac.” Such limited expressions of sympathy give rise to the interesting question of why Frankissstein excises the Creature’s story from its narrative, given the centrality of that story not only to exposing humankind’s failure to extend sympathy to those who are different but also at generating love for this novel-Creature that speaks so powerfully on behalf of disenfranchised groups and causes. Absenting this story is the riskiest of Winterson’s narrative choices. The risk is indicated by the split reaction of most early reviews that herald the ideas as compelling, well-researched, wacky, and wry but fault the storyline for lack of cohesion and gripping characters. I suspect that challenging the split embodied in “interest” between spheres of cognition and emotion is by design and built into the parallel stories. Their interplay reworks the connection between story and love to better suit “geeks” aka “loners” and their relational needs.
Winterson is poised to take this risk, because she has already retold the Creature’s story in the text that precedes composition of Frankissstein. Abandoned at birth by its maker and raising itself primarily through discovery of books, the Creature’s parallels the story of Winterson’s early life as she so poignantly tells it in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011). Plus, the diverse identities of the protagonists in the dominant plot of Frankissstein indicate some degree of progress stemming from the Creature’s protests against humankind’s cruelty toward those they deem different. With both of these elements established, Winterson can take up second-stage considerations of how to make their being sentient bearable for intelligences that are artificial, machinic, dissociated, dull. The first answer is language: “without language, or before language, the mind cannot comfort itself.” But language that massively revises the “power” inherent in “naming,” where the envisioned goal is no longer taxonomy and hierarchy but mutation and living-with.
Technophobes thus need to get with the program, as we witness in Claire’s shift from decrier to co-partner in Ron Lord’s sex-bots franchise, still equally devoted to the service of the Lord. We have this on good authority: Biologists no longer consider Homo sapiens “a special case”; computer scientists find their “life in numbers” just “as wild as any life lived among words”; journalists are right to investigate stories as well as technologies that deform, overtake, and overturn reality. Facilitating this reprogramming involves purging humans of their exceptionalism and beliefs that they can control the future, but it need not necessitate eradication of love. As Victor assures Ry, inability to “keep” love does not nullify what “has been changed by this love.” Put the other way, “all life forms are capable of attachment.” And post-humans are attached to all kinds of things that they often hail as persons, whether Siri, Alexa, or the book-creature-creator-progeny-monster Frankenstein.
I love thinking about what the parallels between the two stories help readers to think or rethink about Frankenstein, its composition and evolving futurity; about writing as a technology that transforms and deforms; about creativity as a drive spurred by eros and death; about why humanists and post-humans both have difficulties extending their minds or hearts. Scholarly purists may question Frankissstein’s analyses of the Shelley circle and the historical development of AI; those who prefer their humans or love unadulterated will refuse to be moved. For the rest, Frankissstein suggests that since humans “have never been ready” for the future, why not begin from there and see what unfolds? One of the novel’s most provocative questions is whether the extraordinary passions that fuel romance quests and the special province of literature are a holdover from genius and its avowed hold of the few over the many. In stating that Mary Shelley gave that line to Percy, who turned it into the refrain of one of his most rousing poems, Frankissstein establishes where Winterson’s affinities lie.
Thought experiment as love story.
Frankissstein: A Love Story. By Jeanette Winterson. New York: Grove Atlantic, 2019. 352 pp. $27.00.