What I’m Reading: Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein”

I’m not quite a “Bookerhead”—I won’t read all the titles on the longlist this year—but I find the list fascinating.

And I do have a copy of one of the novels, Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a strange, brilliant retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As always, Winterson writes gracefully, and in this novel she philosophically and scientifically explores the future of AI. 

It begins like a historical novel.  In the opening chapter, during inclement weather, Mary, with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, their friend Lord Byron, her stepsister, and an obnoxious horny doctor,  John Polidori, compete to  see who can write the best ghost /horror story. Shelley’s Frankenstein is the winning result.

Winterson interweaves  the story of Mary Shelley with an intellectual present-day first-person narrative by Ry Shelley, an English transgender man. In the present, Ry (short for Mary, not Ryan), a doctor and journalist, is interested in the ethical issues of AI.  He has a relationship with Victor Frankisstein, a charming but ruthless AI enthusiast who gives TED talks and hopes to upload his brain into some AI form.  (Neal Stephenson also writes about this issue in his new novel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell.)

But Ry’s interest in AI goes beyond  science.  He is also curious about the quotidian future of AI.  At a conference as a journalist, he interviews Ron Lord, a working-class manufacturer of sexbots:  Ron even hopes to make a deal with a rental car service, which will provide bots in the passenger seat.   His  pride in his dolls is comical but horrifying.

Women see these issues very differently from men.  They express concerns at one of Victor’s AI promotional lectures  that the future of AI may lower the status of women.  It doesn’t help that Ron Lord is now one of Victor’s investors. A female Vanity Fair writer is is very indignant.  Here is an excerpt from her conversation with Ry, whom she trusts because he is transgender, though she is surprise he won’t let her profile him for the magazine.

I don’t trust the way AI is being sold to us. People aren’t in the conversation, let alone the decisions. We’re going to wake up one morning and the world won’t be the same.

That morning could be any morning, I say. It could be climate breakdown. It could be nuclear. It could be Trump or Bolsonaro. It could be The Handmaid’s Tale.

That’s just what I mean, she says. We think change is gradual, incremental, that we’ll get used to it, adapt. But this feels different. And I hate the fuckin’ sexbots!

Though not a fan of Alexa and Siri,  I had never considered the effect of AI on the future of women.  The award-winning Winterson combines lyricism with geek talk in this genre-bending literary-philosophical-SF novel.

Favorites vs. Long Shots: The Booker Prize Longlist

l  love the Booker Prize longlist, but I’m already behind the true “Bookerheads.”  These passionate bloggers and vloggers responded last week and doubtless have finished their reading.

Yet the Booker is my favorite prize.  And, to me, this is the most interesting list in four or five years, because the famous writers are back.  And it’s not American-dominated.

Under new sponsorship, the prize rules have changed to expand the geographic eligibility of nominees, if I understand correctly. All the books had to be written in English and published in the UK and Ireland this year.  And that means one Turkish and two Nigerian writers made the list.

I am happy to say I am familiar with six of the authors:  I have enjoyed books in the past by Margaret Atwood, Lucy Ellmann, Salman Rushdie Rushdie, Elif Shafak, John Lanchester, and Jeanette Winterson.

An award list should be as much fun as going to the races:  we might want to bet on a favorite, or we might prefer a long shot. And even if we can’t read the Racing Form, we can certainly decipher the Booker Form again–if we can only find the books.

My husband usually reads the whole list, but not all are available in the U.S. yet.  The Atwood, Ellman, Rushdie, and Winterson (and probably some of the others) won’t be published till fall.  I do have a review copy of one, which makes me feel like an insider, though it’s a coincidence.  I usually read the dead, but I’m perusing this book tonight…

Here’s the list:

Margaret Atwood (Canada) The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

Kevin Barry (Ireland) Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)

Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria) My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)

Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK) Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)

Bernardine Evaristo (UK) Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)

John Lanchester (UK) The Wall (Faber & Faber)

Deborah Levy (UK) The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)

Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy) Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)

Max Porter (UK) Lanny (Faber & Faber)

Salman Rushdie (UK/India) Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)

Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey) 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)

Jeanette Winterson (UK) Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

Let me know if you have any interest in these or have read them.

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