If I could write for just 5 minutes like Jeanette Winterson I would die a happy woman.
Over the years I have continually been amazed by her intelligence, insight and biting wit. Since reading Oranges are not the only fruit in my mid teens, a complete revelation to a young some what sheltered girl (!), I have been completely hooked. No two Winterson books are the same, such is her rare versatility and style, both setting her apart from the crowd.
In that respect Frankissstein is no different.
But it all other respects Frankissstein is completely different.
It is unlike anything I have read before.
To the point where I am actually not sure where to even start with this book.
It is such a feat of fact, beautifully woven with fiction, that encompasses so many relevant and current themes. Winterson’s discussion and consideration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) takes the reader both into the past, the present and the future.
Here is a dual narrative so cleverly employed. Finding ourselves in the company of Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, we see Shelley’s influences and hear her stories. As an observer of ongoing discussions between Mary, Percy Shelley and Byron the reader witnesses the new and emerging thinking of great these minds , debating what is the nature of a human. There is a tangible feeling of excitement and hope as they stand on the edge of advancement, but also a fear and apprehension about what the future holds.
We are then thrown into the present with the transgender protagonist, Dr Ry Shelley, and his lover Victor Stein pioneer of AI. Ry has changed his body, making it a place his mind feels at home. This character introduces and embeds the idea that as a race we are constantly redefining our understanding of what makes us who we are. It is a debate that has raged throughout history and is explored throughout the novel, in both narratives.
This is an treaty on, amongst other things, what it means to be human and how this debate should be guiding some of our thinking as we progress ever further in our quest for advancement and knowledge.
Winterson opens the discussion, raising question after question. Are we more than a sum of our parts? What is the essence of ourselves, and does this lie in our minds or is it part of our bodies too? And if our sense of self lies within our mind, then is the way to eternal life to download our minds and live within an alternative body? Or maybe not even a body? And would we be happy with this, or is our body important after all?
Winterson draws no conclusions but skilfully uses a cast of characters, both past and present, to shape both the potential and the pitfalls of Al and all that goes with it.
Stein is the champion of the technology, pushing it’s boundaries, seeing it’s potential. He is focused on it’s possibilities and is willing to accept any disadvantages for the greater good.
Ry is a moderating presence, open to ideas and possibilities but questioning how far we as a race should go.
Ron Lord, millionaire sex bot creator, sees the commercial advantages of AI, extols the virtues of commitment free sex but also asks the layman’s questions, questions that have a crucial validity in their simple insightful nature.
Enter Claire, American and far right religious, trying to make the moral case for AI, sometimes with twisted logic, making what she sees fit into ‘God’s’ plan. Here we see shades of Darwin and the up roar his theories caused, similarly AI takes us further from long held and traditional views, views which have underpinned belief systems and societies.
Winterson has opened the debate on AI, showing us just how far we have come, where we currently are and questioning how far we can and crucially should go. We are challenged to discuss how AI will benefit the human race, but also what it may cost us. We should question who benefits from these potential advances. Is the progress universally enhancing or does it have the potential to compromise or even destroy that which we hold dear?
The dual narrative shows us that as a race we have always been on a continual journey. Questions that we are asking in this era of advanced technology, Brexit and Trump are questions that were debated by the Romantics in the Villa’s of Florence and Geneva and others throughout time. You can’t stop humans discussing, progressing and push boundaries; there is an inevitability here.
Frankissstein is a book that challenges, that encourages questions, discussion and debate. It’s not a cosy, ‘keep it to yourself’ read. It’s one to push the boundaries, be argued over at dinner parties. It is a book bursting to get off the shelves and out into the big wide world.
A book with a voice that needs to be heard.
I, for one, can’t get this book out of my head. It’s ‘food for thought’ is still being digested and I can’t wait to feast again when I see Winterson at the Manchester Literature Festival on 5th October. (Link for tickets right here !)
I am left with a feeling that this is a book with a very important message in our rapidly changing world.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape.