Gender theory meets AI-assisted immortality meets a sex bot named Claire in Winterson’s Frankissstein (Grove, Oct.; reviewed on p. 36), her hilarious, brilliant retelling of Frankenstein.
Why does Frankenstein still capture the imagination 200 years after it was written?
When Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, it was the beginning of the modern period we recognize. The big question was: whence proceeds the principle of life? Shelley attended a lecture on this subject, where the doctor argued for a thoroughly modern position, that there is no such thing as the “soul.”
At the same time, electricity was being discovered—and, of course, all the Frankenstein films use crazy lightning rods and giant conductors to make the monster’s heart start to beat. Humans have always wondered whether we are “just” biology—because even the least religious of us can’t take in the absurdity of death—and we often have a sneaking feeling that there is more to us than what we appear.
The time is now for Frankenstein. Think of it as a message in a bottle to the 21st century. We can learn from Shelley’s vision. Frankenstein doesn’t bother to educate his monster. Machine learning will have to be more than data processing. Machines will have to learn what it is to be human.
Was it difficult to recreate these historical and literary figures in a modern context?
My novel is set mostly in the present, but it does re-create eight years of Shelley’s life. I stuck to the facts, but the rest I could invent. The most important thing is to get the voice right—and this means creating a language that is not ventriloquism but that is not quite modern usage, either. There was no difficulty interesting the modern reader in the concerns of the early 1800s—we are still there now: Decent wages for decent work. Democratic representation. The role of technology in our lives. The role of art in our lives. The position of women in the world. How to face death. How to create a more equal society. Is there an afterlife? And if so, where is it? What is the point of morality and good behavior? What is education for?
Ry is trans and sexually fluid. Victor Stein is interested in a world post-bodies. Ron creates crude but technologically advanced sex dolls. If this is our present, what does our future look like?
Climate breakdown may mean that there is no future. We are on the verge of an artificial intelligence breakthrough—and maybe we have time to get there, and maybe that will help us think differently and behave differently. Or it may concentrate power. And women are not going into machine learning, or learning to code, or doing degrees in computer science, and so the future could be a new exclusion zone for women. My advice is: if you have daughters, teach them to code.