Transhumanist twist on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Frankissstein by British author Jeanette Winterson (left) made the longlist of the prestigious Booker Prize last week.
Frankissstein by British author Jeanette Winterson (above) made the longlist of the prestigious Booker Prize last week.PHOTO: SAM CHURCHILL



By Jeanette Winterson

Jonathan Cape/Paperback/344 pages/$27.95/Major bookstores

3.5 Stars

Fresh takes on Frankenstein abounded last year as Mary Shelley's seminal 1818 Gothic horror novel marked its bicentenary.

These ranged from the English translation of Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi's grisly war satire Frankenstein In Baghdad to Kiersten White's The Dark Descent Of Elizabeth Frankenstein, told from the perspective of Dr Frankenstein's love interest.

Frankissstein by acclaimed British author Jeanette Winterson, whose landmark novels on gender and sexuality include Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) and Written On The Body (1992), comes out a year late to more hype than last year's lot put together. Last week, it made the longlist of the prestigious Booker Prize.

The novel puts a transhumanist twist on the Frankenstein story, bending genre and gender alike. Unfortunately half of it is markedly better than the other. Its strength is its fidelity to the original's ideas; its weakness lies in the upgrade.

The novel's better half follows 18-year-old Mary Shelley in that now-legendary Lake Geneva getaway with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and friends including the poet Lord Byron. Challenged to write a horror story, she produces the novel that will become Frankenstein.

In the present day, Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor who identifies as a non-binary gender "hybrid", is in love with visionary scientist Victor Stein, who is pushing the boundaries on human reanimation using the body parts Ry supplies him.

Frankissstein by British author Jeanette Winterson made the longlist of the prestigious Booker Prize last week. PHOTO: SAM CHURCHILL

Where Mary inhabits a dark, stultifying world where the damp creeps into her thoughts as it does her underclothes, Ry's world is lurid and pulsating, practically neon, with the dizzying promises of the future, from cryogenic freezing to sexbots.

Time across the book is "neither so crammed nor so scarce" that anything might happen. Mary Shelley quotes Shakespeare but also T. S. Eliot and Wilfred Owen, who both came after her, and meets a madman, who claims to be her creation Victor Frankenstein.

Winterson's writing is at its finest when she is breathing life into long-dead Mary, a teenager underestimated by her male peers and doomed to a lifetime of tragic motherhood, who nevertheless produced one of science fiction's foundational texts that continues today to help us question the human body and how we transcend its bounds.

The present storyline, however, is overstuffed with exposition and philosophising - Stein is especially prone to this, which makes one wonder what Ry sees in him - though this is tempered by a hilarious parody of Byron, reincarnated here as Ron Lord, a sleazy sexbot purveyor.

For all its clumsy stitches, there are parts of Frankissstein that are wondrous. In a marvellous coda, an older Mary Shelley meets Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, the mathematician who wrote what some consider to be the first computer programme.

The women, both pioneers in their own fields, discuss a vision of artificial intelligence, a machine as vast as a city in which humans might live. "Where would the machine end and we begin?" asks Mary. "It would not be necessary to know," replies Ada, "for there would be no distinction."

Winterson reminds us that we are on the brink of that moment of no distinction - if not already past it - and still grappling with what to do about it. For all the science in our grasp, we are still monsters looking for love.

If you liked this, read: Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson (Eastgate Systems, 1995, $34.22,, a hypertext novel which in non-linear fashion draws on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Patchwork Girl Of Oz by L. Frank Baum. In this version, Mary Shelley creates a female monster who falls in love with her.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2019, with the headline 'Transhumanist twist on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein'. Subscribe