Frankly, it’s a wonder that the character of Mary Shelley hasn’t been revived in fiction more. Not only did the teenage writer effectively birth the genre of modern science fiction, she also reportedly lost her virginity to her future husband Percy on her mother’s grave (the same grave where she learned to write her name, by tracing the letters on the tombstone).
In any case, Jeanette Winterson was wily or brave enough to revive Mary Shelley, and her most famous work, for the modern age. Man’s desire to create and control their own creations is an evergreen conceit in fiction, but add in the modish, rich element of artificial intelligence (AI) and things get even more interesting. And complicated.
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Frankissstein flits between the past and present: in one strand, the glorious, complex and contemplative Mary Shelley is conceiving of her famous novel, and mourning the loss of three children. It would take an audacious and seasoned writer to venture inside Shelley’s interiority and give her a voice that doesn’t come off as too laboured. Yet with the help of extensive research, Winterson manages the feat particularly well.
Mary has been motivated to create the tale by a group of friends and fellow Young Romantic writers in a Lake Geneva villa. Among her fellow houseguests are known misogynist Lord Byron and his doctor Polidori; Mary Shelley’s sister Claire Clairmont, and her husband Percy. They are housebound by the rain, “gaolers formed out of a drop of water”.
Winterson’s present-day strand, set in Brexit Britain and narrated by a transgender doctor named Ry Shelley, owes more than a thing or two to Shelley’s creation. Victor Stein is a scientist involved in all manner of unseemly cryonics experiments, and is obsessed with the idea of the human brain living forever. Ry and Victor fall into a mutually beneficial professional arrangement whereby one supplies body parts to the other, despite the former’s scepticism about the ethics of the experiments. In any case, the two soon fall in love.
Ron Lord (see what Winterson has done here?) is a big-talking entrepreneur who lives with his mum in Wales. He creates all manner of sex robots, two of which are called Cain and Abel, and is intent on making Wales a centre for excellence in the robotics field (and solving the issue of rape and sexual abuse). His female sexbots are particularly compliant; a welcome development in a society where women, he posits, say no all too often. Meanwhile, the girlish sexbot (or ‘sex therapy aid’) named Claire, an evangelical Christian (also Claire), and a journalist named Polly D round out the characters in this terrifying new world order.
Over in the US, meanwhile, a cryogenics facility, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, is packed to the rafters with people essentially waiting to be brought back to life.
Winterson is a seasoned enough writer to ensure that both stories, while interplaying with each other throughout, retain their own singular voices. The assembled group at Lake Geneva make reference after reference to the encroachment of machines in their lives, and this serves as a neat enough harbinger for whatever misdeeds are going on in the present day. Winterson’s command of language, and her fine way of creating tension and atmosphere, is rarely in doubt.
But given the richness of the source material on Mary, Percy, Byron et al, the reader might feel as though Winterson is missing a trick; the interplay between them could have been more mealy. Humour is stitched through the narrative, usually thanks to Ron Lord, and it’s a welcome foil to wave after wave of scientific information.
Big questions are being asked in Frankissstein; about bodies, gender, consciousness, and the human predilection for playing God. Yet even for a writer of Winterson’s considerable abilities, some of these questions are too big, and too numerous, to be tackled conclusively. Ultimately, it’s a brave, ambitious and often entertaining work, but Frankissstein isn’t quite as boldly brilliant as it clearly set out to be.
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