Jeanette Winterson has long been obsessed with the constraints of the physical. Her debut novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, explores the complexities of having a female body that’s attracted to other female bodies. Her new one, Frankissstein (a 21st-century version of Frankenstein) considers the possibility of life beyond bodies.
Hers is a weird and engaging and extremely funny take on Shelley’s classic. It bounces between past and present and imagines where our current obsession with identity – and its reconstruction – will end as technology opens up endless possibility.
There are two Marys narrating this story. The first is Mary Shelley, back in the 19th century, recounting how she came to create her own tale of Frankenstein and his monster; the second is Ry (short for Mary) Shelly, who stars in the modern version.
Ry is a transgender – or “hybrid” – doctor experimenting with the idea of what a human is. Half-male, half-female, “they” (preferred pronoun) describe themselves as “liminal, cusping, in between, emerging, undecided, transitional…” Ry is keen to explore what might come next.
Enter Victor Stein. The celebrated tech visionary and modern-day monster maker is working at the cutting edge of the discipline of “accelerated evolution”. He wants to create a superior species, which would be unaffected by distinctions such as race, gender and sexuality. “You aligned your physical reality with your mental impression of yourself,” Stein says to Ry. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all do that?”
Stein’s aim, though, is to go beyond Ry’s mere transgenderism. He’s more interested in transhumanism: the idea that human beings should be able to so thoroughly augment their bodies that they become superhuman. Gender identity is the leaping off point for Winterson’s book. It then poses the question: where should we stop? Once we have transcended gender, where next?
One step behind Stein is Ron, his dodgy business partner, who sees bodies as having an essential purpose: for sex. So he is building sex bots – they are all “girls”, with “top-grade silicone nipples” and “extra-wide splayed leg position”. They lack humanity but are “indistinguishable from the human form”.
He may be an unreconstructed sexist, but Ron has the funniest lines. He is determined to make the country of Wales the epicentre for sex bots, and argues that giving men access to silicone women will solve the problem of rape and sexual abuse.
The sexbots are totally compliant, in a way that should send shivers down the neck of any woman who has been the victim of domestic or sexual coercion. Ron says that the sexbots are a very good thing indeed because, horror-upon-horror, sometimes women say ‘no’ to sex.
When these bots are rolled out, human on human interaction will be unnecessary. But what happens when relationships are dehumanised? That, I think, is what Winterson is trying to decipher. And it’s this part of the book made me shudder. I’ve explored this myself, when writing about the effects of paying for sex. It’s dangerous.
The book hints at unhappy consequences if we replace human life as we know it. “The monster once made cannot be unmade. What will happen to the world has begun,” muses Frankissstein‘s Mary. It suggests to me that if we indulge that desire to change a body, and take it to its limits, then we are heading for monumental disaster.
Winterson clearly had fun writing this book – and parts of it are hilarious. But there are other parts that are dark and difficult. It is obvious to those of us who have been embroiled in debates surrounding the validity of constructed identity, that natal females will not be best served by the implementation of new technologies. Dr Stein’s dodgy experiments point to womb transplants one day becoming the norm for trans women; Ron’s sex bots may soon become the partner of choice for porn-weary men.
In the Frankissstein future, love may not exist at all. Flesh will be a thing of the past, and bodies will be built like machines. The book seeks to shift our perspective on humanity, I think, and the purpose of being. We are, it suggests, close to a future in which humans are no longer the smartest beings on the planet. It also implies we are the architects of our own evolutionary downfall. Technology today is allowing us to shape our notions of sex and gender; tomorrow, it will shape our end.
In a recent interview, Winterson admitted a certain ambivalence regarding gender: “I don’t really think of myself as female or male, I just think of myself as me. I’m not even sure I see myself as human. I don’t feel particularly human.”
I often say I don’t know what being a woman ‘feels like’, usually in response to those who argue about the notion of a gendered brain. I merely feel human, I say. Frankissstein, however, imagines a time when even feeling human will be a thing of the past – and that is monstrous indeed.