What distinguishes man from machines? What is artificial life, death, progress? These are just some of the questions Jeanette Winterson explores in her brilliant new novel, Frankissstein, a modern take on Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein. Two warnings: first, the structure is complex, as the narrative segues (at times, unclearly) between the early 1800s and the present; second, readers unfamiliar with Frankenstein will find parts of the novel difficult to follow, especially when Winterson quotes from Frankenstein without explaining that she is doing so. Those riders aside, Frankissstein is a rich, multilayered book that is at once a transgender ‘love story’ (the subtitle), a warning about the perils of unchecked scientific progress, and a frightening look at the potential of artificial intelligence.
First, a brief recap of Frankenstein and its context. In 1814 seventeen-year-old Mary Godwin scandalised English society by running away with the married poet Percy Shelley. In 1816 they spent a summer at Lake Geneva, with Lord Byron. There, Mary wrote Frankenstein, about Victor Frankenstein, a doctor who creates an animate creature, only to be filled with remorse when his creation turns into a murdering monster. When the monster argues that he was born good and only became evil after being abandoned by Victor and spurned by other humans, Victor is forced to acknowledge his responsibility as a creator. ‘Learn from me’, he warns, ‘how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.’