Jeanette Winterson is a timeless writer. It’s not that her work transcends the ages—though it easily could—but rather that her novels are rarely bound by setting. Written on the Body feels fairly modern, but, aside from its queer themes and learned discussion of cancer, is a love story that could have happened in any time. The Passion is set during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, but it also largely takes place in Venice, a city that always feels a thousand years old no matter how many people pull out iPhones in Piazza San Marco. Her more autobiographical works (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) take place during the mid-20th century of Winterson’s youth, but the themes of ostracization from one’s family are universal. Her ideas are ageless, even when her stories are not.
Nowhere is Winterson’s temporal fluidity more evident than in Frankissstein. Written as a fictionalized twist on Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, her latest novel time-jumps from the early 1800s—when Shelley was writing her book on a trip with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as the poet Lord Byron, physician John William Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire—to a near-future where artificial intelligence and sexbots threaten to make Frankenstein‘s vision of invented life almost real. (If that Shelley story sounds familiar, it might be because it was the topic of a recent Manual Cinema production.) It straddles both worlds, and a few in between, and in so doing illustrates how human ideas of existence, identity, and emotional intelligence have changed radically—and not at all.
In Winterson’s world, the spirit of reanimation Shelley infused into her novel after losing a child gets reimagined in the person of Victor Stein (creative, no?), a 21st-century TED talker on the subject of artificial intelligence who is obsessed with re-creating the brain of I. J. “Jack” Good, the British mathematician who worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park. Stein’s occasional muse is Ry Shelley, a transgender transhumanist who also serves as the voice of reason. (Ry’s deadname is Mary—creative, no?) Their Claire is also named Claire (you get the point), but she’s now an Evangelical Christian slowly coming around to the idea that building AIs and sexbots isn’t somehow playing god. Ron is the maker of said sexbots (and probably the avatar of Byron) and Polidori is Polly D, an ambitious writer for Vanity Fair with some questionable journalistic practices. (I feel the need, here, to defend my Condé Nast floormates. They’re all very nice to me at the coffee machine and I’m pretty sure none of them would use the phrase “trans is hot right now.”)
To avoid giving away too much—Frankissstein is, at its heart, a good read, and one best enjoyed cold—I’ll refrain from dissecting the plot further. But, as with so much of Winterson’s work, the most brilliant parts are in the connective tissue, the joints between themes and characters. Some of the ideas—if AI learns from us, it could end up as sexist as society itself—are ripped straight from the headlines. Others, like artificially intelligent sexbots, have been explored everywhere from Her to Lars and the Real Girl. But there is beauty in the way Winterson ties those concepts to notions of gender and identity and emotional intelligence. Byron treated women, and their thoughts, as inferior; his daughter, Ada Lovelace, preceded Turing in his work by decades. If the day comes when whole minds are uploaded into the cloud, what becomes of the identities we present in our corporeal forms? Reading, it’s difficult not to be reminded that the modern Victor Frankensteins—the AI geniuses, the Singularity evangelists—are often men, even though the creator of Frankenstein himself was a woman, and one who struggled for recognition in her time.