18th century writers, sex-bots, the extension of life through AI… Jeanette Winterson explores all this and more in her 2019 novel Frankissstein: A Love Story. The novel is a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which weaves together multiple universes to create a riveting story that is equal parts science fiction, historical fiction, and, as promised, love story.
If that sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. In fact, in the hands of a less skilled writer, the novel would probably feel more like a mish-mash of disparate ideas than a thought-provoking exploration of humanity. Winterson navigates the parallel universes she has created with ease, leading the reader across time and space.
One major thread of the novel explores the relationship between Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor, and Victor Stein, a professor exploring transhumanism, the idea that the next phase of human evolution is based on technological enhancement. Ry and Victor’s turbulent relationship is the lens through which Winterson explores humanity.
Victor, in his work, seeks to leave the human body behind, instead of preserving the mind and consciousness via technology. Meanwhile, Ry, by transitioning, has changed the body he was born in to align with his gender identity. The root word trans– means “across” or “through,” and it is this prefix that seems to guide Winterson’s novel. Frankissstein traverses the boundaries of genre, gender, technology, and time.
Simultaneously to Ry and Victor’s storyline, we are introduced to Mary Shelley herself, in the process of writing Frankenstein, as well as her companions Peter Shelley and Lord Byron. Winterson is able to seamlessly transition between the high-tech world of Ry and Victor and the Gothic setting of Frankenstein’s creation, with the parallels between the two becoming clearer as the book progresses.
Despite the seemingly wildly different storylines weaving throughout the novel, the central question is clear: What does it mean to be human? With new artificial intelligence and technology that can enhance the human body, the themes of Frankissstein are strikingly relevant to modern-day society. Science continues to explore where consciousness comes from and the relationship between body and mind, uncovering just parts of the vast expanse of the human experience.
Frankissstein is a literary exploration of that experience, and anyone looking to investigate these questions, or just enjoy a modern-day spin on a classic story, should add it to their to-read list.