Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerfulMary Shelley, Frankenstein
A book that combines so many things in it and yet manages to drive a coherent message, or rather a question. Jumping through time and space, through the whole range of emotions, it takes us on a wild imaginary trip. Imaginary as the trip is, the main question is not ‘what if?’ it is ‘what when it happens?’. It makes us face the things we’d sometimes rather not think about, but it manages to do that in a fascinating and entertaining way. For there is a lot of sense of humor here too.
The book jumps between two main storylines. One starts in Geneva in 1816, where Mary Shelley spent a summer with her husband, stepsister, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori. It could have been just another rainy painful summer if it wasn’t for the idea to entertain themselves that the group came up with. Each was tasked with writing a ghost story, and the rest is history, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.
The second storyline is pretty much contemporary, we follow the steps of Ry, a young transgender doctor. Ry works as a medical doctor but is also fascinated by advances in robotics and AI. Just as Mary Shelley is set against the background of her relationships with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, and Polidori, so is Ry’s. His counterparts are Ron Lord, a controversial robotics entrepreneur, Victor Stein, a scientist forever testing limits of what’s possible, and Polly D, a journalist hell-bent on digging dirt on Victor.
As the stories develop we get to know the depth of Mary’s feeling for Shelley, her love endless. Yet she manages to keep her own individuality, not becoming a woman that melts into the relationship to support her loved one. Their union is one of the partners. Throughout her stay in Geneva we can also see how Byron’s attitude to women is really winding her up, he has no time or patience for such antiquated ideas. But really the most interesting conversations are those on the nature of life, on the function of the machines, and how humans can or cannot effectively exist with them. They are mulling over the possibility of an intelligent life not born from a woman, and what that would mean to humanity.
Jump forward to Ry and the discussion not only continues but becomes more relevant than ever. We are now on the cusp of creating a life, consciousness, that will have nothing to do with a physical body. Something that will surpass us, will start self-evolving and perfecting itself. What would that mean for humanity? At the same time, Ry burns with love for Victor. And again we have here this idea of deep love not really meaning dissolution in one another, but respecting each other in the individual forms. Ry and Victor are very different and yet they yearn for each other. Even when their life dreams are very different, their ambitions are pretty much contradictory.
You will quickly notice the parallels, Ry and Mary, Shelley and Victor, Lord Byron and Ron Lord, Polidori and Polly D. They are not deeply hidden, and that’s not really the point. What matters is that some conversations continue for decades, some questions need to be answered over and over. Things have to be examined and questioned yet again, as the circumstances change.
As I mentioned there is also a lot of humor in this book. For me, by far the most outrageous but also entertaining were the exchanges between Ron Lord and Ry. Ron Lord is a sexist throwback, producing sexbots at that, so his clashes with transgender Ry could not be sharper. This is where Winterson deploys her sharp wit and dry humor. In contrast, the other parts of the book feel very soft around the edges, almost tender in the face of the enormity of the questions she’s inviting us to consider.
I’ve had mixed experiences with Jeanette Winterson’s writing. My adventure started with Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? that I adore to this day. Then a lovely, and timely, Christmas Days. So I only arrived at Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as my third read, and as much as I liked I didn’t love it the way I did the previous ones (in the order of my reading, of course). Art Objects. Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery was next and a bit of a challenge again, not necessarily in a bad way, but I somehow lacked the flow. Only to crash with Art & Lies that I really didn’t like. And now thankfully I am convinced again, for Frankissstein achieves a perfect balance of all ingredients, the seriousness, the challenging, the good storytelling, and the wry humor, an intellectual challenge and good entertainment wrapped in one. Books like this do not happen often.
Here you can find selected quotes from Frankissstein
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska