17th September, 2019

Review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage)

In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with Mum again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere.

Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.

But the scene is set in 1816, when nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writes a story about creating a non-biological life-form. ‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.'

What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet?

To cut a long story short: I was disappointed in Winterson's latest novel. I had expected so much, wanted to like this book so badly, but what I got just didn't do for me. Bummer!

But let me explain. I feel that Frankissstein is an example of how fiction can be exploited for didactic reasons, and this is exactly what we have here: a book that is supposed to instruct its reader. Which is an okay thing to do if it doesn't become too obvious. While to a certain degree all fiction has educational aspects, some books do this more skilfully than others ... and unfortunately Frankissstein isn't one of them. Winterson's message seemed very much "in-your-face" throughout and therefore became too inane.

Frankissstein is narrated in two parallel plot strands: one follows young author Mary Shelley in the early 19th century thinking up the story that would eventually become her novel Frankenstein, the other follows trans doctor Ry Shelley in a not-too-distant-future, where they are involved with AI research. Both strands show distinct similarities with characters being mirrored in both timelines, etc.

What I really enjoyed and loved in Winterson's book was the historical narrative strand which seemed like an homage to Gothic literature and Romantic traditions. I tremendously enjoyed reading this fictional account of the famous rainy summer by Lake Geneva and the story telling competition that was supposed to while away the bored travellers' time. Ry's story, on the other hand, can unfortunately only be described as a hot mess. For me, it was too repetitive in its focus on in-betweenness and the benefits/dangers of artifical intelligence. I basically had the same problem with this plot strand that I had with McEwan's most recent novel Machines Like Me: both books are trying too hard to drive their message home and, in the process, become too ineffectual for me. We are supposed to philosophise about topics such as AI, transhumanism, sex bots, etc. but the characters addressing these issues almost seem like soulless robots themselves. I don't know, maybe that was the desired effect on Winterson's part but for me it was too much and I found myself drifting off in these passages. Also Ry simply didn't work as a character for me. While I appreciate the author having a non-binary protagonist in her story, their narrative was too stereotypical in many ways (the dutifully included bathroom attack just being one example).

I am very sorry for giving this book such a bad rating, because I ususally love Winterson's writing but in this case I have the impression that she was in over her head, ambitiously stuffing too much into a text that consequently veers all over the place without any anchor points.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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