“Actually, Frankenstein was the name of the scientist, not the monster.” Has any other pedantic literary clarification become so ingrained, so frequently repeated, as to attain the status of near-parody? As is often the case, an overly familiar truth at times obscures a more interesting one. In fact, neither Victor Frankenstein nor his reanimated creation is the “real” monster – that honour belongs to the book itself. Mary Shelley’s novel has long outgrown her humble aim of writing a frightening story to enliven a rain-soaked Swiss holiday. This deathless artistic afterlife is both inspiring and cautionary. Given form, the output of our minds slips the hold of our intention and assumes an independent existence. This is all very well if your creation happens to be a novel, but what if it’s an atom bomb, or, to take an example currently lodged in the public consciousness, an artificial intelligence, one capable not only of outliving its creator, but supplanting them entirely?
The troubling ramifications of technological advancement are rapidly becoming a central preoccupation of contemporary British fiction. Last year, James Smythe’s ambitious and inventive I Still Dream followed the maturation of an AI as it grew from a comparatively simple algorithm into an all-knowing pseudo-deity. Will Eaves’s award-winning Murmur looks back to AI’s progenitor Alan Turing, using aspects of his life to construct a hallucinatory meditation on consciousness. Turing also has a role in Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, which imagines not a digital future, but a counter-historical cyborgian past.
Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel, Frankissstein, makes space for itself in a crowded field thanks to a deeply pertinent engagement with hybridity. Here, hard science and dreamy Romanticism exist in both tension and harmony. Beginning, evocatively, with Shelley composing Frankenstein, the novel leaps confidently into the present day to tell the story of Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor self-described as “hybrid”, meeting Victor Stein, a celebrated professor working at the bleeding edge of “accelerated evolution” through “self-designing” life. His interest in Ry is both sexual and detachedly philosophical. In Ry’s post-surgery body, he sees transhuman implications. “You aligned your physical reality with your mental impression of yourself,” he tells Ry. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all do that?”
Ry is quick to acknowledge the distinct and in some ways lonely intersection of science and gender fluidity that their existence encompasses. “I live with doubleness,” Ry says at one point. But where Stein sees Ry as a “harbinger of the future” who “chose to intervene in your own evolution”, Ry’s view is rooted more in discomfort with the present. “I am part of a small group of transgender medical professionals,” Ry says. “Some of us are transhuman enthusiasts too. This isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that any body is the wrong body.”
Stein’s AI-enabled vision is of a future unconstrained by physical form, in which both human and automated consciousness transcend the messy complications of fragile, gendered bodies. But his business partner, Ron Lord, has different priorities. For him, technological advancement offers the opportunity to dispense with all the inconvenient moral obstacles that attend men’s innate desire for dominion over women. Ron is in the sexbot business. He builds eerily lifelike “girls” with “top-grade silicone nipples”, vibrating vaginas, and an “extra-wide splayed leg position”. Significantly, Ron’s antiquated attitude to sex and gender prevents him from conceptualising Ry at all. When they first meet, Ron assumes Ry is a man. When Ry explains that “Ry is short for Mary”, Ron insists Ry must be a woman. When Ry stands firm, stating again “I am a hybrid,” Ron is reduced to an interrogation of Ry’s genitalia, prompting one of Ry’s most pointed questions: “Is manhood dickhood?”
Frankissstein is a fragmented, at times dazzlingly intelligent meditation on the responsibilities of creation, the possibilities of artificial intelligence and the implications of both transsexuality and transhumanism. It is peopled not only by fictional present- day creations, but by historical figures subjected to Winterson’s own powers of reanimation. Shelley, Byron, Ada Lovelace and Turing all make appearances. The effect, aptly for a work concerned with death and its technological circumvention, is a kind of interleaving of time itself – the events and ideas of the past still very much alive and lending life to the work of the present and future.
As is to be expected from a novel both constructed from and beholden to the nebulous realm of ideas, there are moments when the book’s speculative nature threatens to overwhelm its sense of tangible reality. Stein in particular is prone to lengthy disquisitions on death, consciousness and spirituality. As a result, readers may occasionally begin to feel rather disembodied themselves, immersed in the deoxygenated atmosphere of pure thought. Winterson’s great gift as a writer, though, is the ability to inject pure thought with such freewheeling enthusiasm and energy that ideas take on their own kind of joyous life. Frankissstein abounds with invention. Electronically reanimated human hands scuttle like spiders across the floor of an underground research facility. A malfunctioning sexbot unfolds from a holdall and talks dirty to a room full of bemused spectators at a rarefied drinks gathering.
Such is Winterson’s comfort across modes and forms, she’s also able to leaven the hyperinvention of rogue science with deeply evocative historical realism balanced by hilarious, almost bawdy set pieces. Shelley’s drizzly, creatively fecund holiday with Byron and her husband is particularly immersive, just as her later experiences of loss and tragedy are genuinely moving. Lord, meanwhile, is a brilliantly comic creation – a bungling, no-filter, unreconstructed misogynist entirely dedicated to the disconnection of sex from interpersonal engagement. He is also an astute and important reminder. The future, Winterson suggests, will not rest solely in the hands of fiercely intelligent but dangerously arrogant scientists like Stein, it will also be the preserve of opportunistic, brutish throwbacks like Lord.
Positioning the future between two opposing but alarmingly complementary poles of self-regarding masculinity may be depressingly apposite, but it does create something of an imbalance. Ry is an affecting, engaging narrator, but there are moments when they seem to disappear, blurred out by the barrage of ideas. Ry spends a lot of time around people who will shape the future, but is not actively involved in that future’s shape. One suspects that this is both deliberate and pointed. Ry may have taken control of their own body, adapted it in line with their sense of self, but they are discernibly excluded from the wider work of redesigning humanity – a poignant paradox when one considers Ry’s personal insight into bodies in flux.
Ultimately, this is a work of both pleasure and profundity, robustly and skilfully structured, and suffused with all Winterson’s usual preoccupations – gender, language, sexuality, the limits of individual liberty and the life of ideas. “The world is at the start of something new,” she writes, “what will happen … has begun.” We now have the technology to redesign ourselves, but to manage it, we still need a technology to understand ourselves – one fluid enough to incorporate the past and the future, the real and the imagined; one expansive enough to offer a life beyond our bodies. Winterson is reminding us that, in the form of the novel, that technology is already here.
• Frankissstein is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.