MAKING OUR MONSTER
Jeanette Winterson invokes Mary Shelley to make sense of her past, while predicting a scary future
In the two stories that run parallel through Jeanette Winterson’s new novel Frankissstein, the older one is strangely more gripping, even though we know how it ends. Mary Shelley, suffering a rainy week in a mansion with her husband and Lord Byron, among others, thinks up the scariest story of her time—the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a ‘modern Prometheus’ who envisions a better human being but ends up creating a monster. The later story is also about a scientist, Victor Stein, who develops artificial intelligence that goes on to learn by itself, to a point where even its inventors cannot control it or predict how it will evolve.
Winterson does not simply enter Shelley’s mind, she wears Shelley’s skin. In Shelley’s voice she creates the palpable unease as well as the breathtaking imagination of the precocious writer gestating her novel. Winterson’s Mary Shelley goes on to bear, and bury, four children with Percy Shelley, an uncommon mind trapped in crinolines. One day she visits Bedlam to meet a man who insists she has
created him. Victor lives more vividly for Mary, and for us, than does the fading Percy.
In the present-day thread, it is the doctor and transgender Ry Shelley (once Mary) who records the work of Victor Stein. Ry supplies Victor with body parts for his experiments with prosthetics and the spark between them soon flowers into love. Bang in the middle of the book, he asks Ry for a head. Specifically, he wants Ry to retrieve the cryogenically preserved head of Jack Good, who foresaw the last human invention—a machine so intelligent that it would see to all future inventions.
The man who is capable of carrying out the incremental steps that realise these visions must himself become monstrous, as both these Victors do.
It’s a novel you want to read all at once. It has its bores, especially Lord Byron and his avatar, the sexbotobsessed Ron Lord. But bots have swayed elections and chimphuman chimeras have been bred, so this could be the scariest story of our time. ■
FRANKISSSTEIN A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson JONATHAN CAPE VINTAGE `599; 352 pages