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.

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