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October 25, 2019

How many times have we read about the the summer on Lake Geneva when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, in the company of her husband, her half-sister Claire, Lord Byron, and Doctor Polidori? Just this summer I saw the house and the lawns, going down to the lake, so I was ready for Jeanette Winterson’s new novel FranKissStein, which begins with that summer in 1816 and takes the question of what it means to try to restore a human life all the way up to the present and maybe even a little ways into our future.

As most doctors would, Polidori responds to Percy Shelley’s fanciful pronouncement that “some people can speak to the dead” by saying “the dead are gone. If we have souls, they do not return. The cadaver on the slab has no hope of resurrection—in this world, or the next.” The Shelleys, however, persist in speculating about resurrection. When Mary asks “do you believe in ghosts?” Percy replies “I do…for how can it be that the body is master of the spirit? Our courage, our heroism, yes, even our hatreds, all that we do that shapes the world—is that the body or the spirit? It is the spirit.” When Mary then asks “if a human being ever succeeded in reanimating a body…would the spirit return?” Percy thinks not, saying “the body fails and falls. But the body is not the truth of what we are. The spirit will not return to a ruined house.”

In what seems to be the present, a person named Ry Shelley has landed in Memphis, Tennessee for a “global Tec-X-Po on Robotics, where they meet a young Christian woman named Claire and tell her that Frankenstein was a vision of how…non-human intelligence…might be created. Tech. AI. Artificial Intelligence.” They meet a reporter named Polly D, a sexbot designer named Ron Lord, and an AI designer named Victor Stein. Of Stein, Ry says that he “isn’t really interested in robotics—he wants pure intelligence. But he sees robots as an intermediate species that will help humanity adjust to its coming role.”

Ry, we learn, is short for Mary. Ry is invited to tour a cryogenics facility in which Victor Stein has an interest because, as they explain:
“I am part of a small group of transgender medical professionals. Some of us are transhuman enthusiasts too. That isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that any-body is the wrong body.
Transhuman means different things to different people; smart implants, genetic modification, prosthetic enhancement, even the chance to live forever as a brain emulation.
So, out of ordinary semantic confusion—the kind that humans live with every day—came the invitation to be a White Knight of Life. The Black Knight is Death. Here I am, charging to the rescue. There isn’t much time after the heart stops to halt the disintegration of the cells, systems, tissues of the body.”

Stein says that what he would like to do is “to upload myself, that is, upload my consciousness, to a substrate not made of meat. At present, though, that is not an effective way to prolong life because the operation to scan and copy the contents of my brain will kill me.” But Ry asks him “isn’t content also context?” and goes on to say: “Your experiences, your circumstances, the time you live in? Consciousness isn’t free-floating; it’s enmeshed.”
“That is true, he says, but you know, I believe that the modern diaspora—that so many of us find ourselves somewhere else, migrants of some kind—global, multicultural, less rooted, less dependent on our immediate history of family or country to shape ourselves—all of that is preparing us for a looser and freer understanding of ourselves as content whose context can change.
Nationalism is on the rise, I say.
He nods. That is a throwback. A fear. A refusal of the future. But the future cannot be refused.”

So of course, Mary writes her novel about bringing a body back to life while grieving for her dead babies, and Ry Shelley and Victor Stein begin a love affair while Victor pursues his increasingly esoteric obsessions. What makes this version of the story so interesting is the comparison of the 19th-century interest in the possibility of life after death with the 21st-century interest in the possibility of continued brain activity after death. What gives the story its heart (if you will) is the love of Mary for Percy and their children, and the love of Ry for Victor.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley says, has “had some success. It may live on.” Metaphors become literal in this novel. The Biblical pronouncements of Claire are comic until Ry realizes that her assertion that “the evangelical church of Christ will embrace long life” might mean “millions of Bible-belt hellfirers and homophobes living to be 969! Our only hope has always been that the hate-filled old white guys die off and young people are more progressive.”

It’s all very comic as the women get the last word. Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, thinks that computers are the answer to the desire to live forever: “your Victor Frankenstein would not have to build a body out of bits from the catacombs. Instead he could conceive a mind….What need of a body at all?”

How many times must we humans go over the same tired ground, trying to find a way to bring the dead back to life? As always, at least once more. And this is a very good re-hashing with new and wonderfully re-mixed ideas.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2019 3:44 pm

    All I see when too many ties are loosened is a vast loneliness with few human connections. Imagine being stuck in a computer, as so many science fiction writers have written about.

    Yes, you’re alive. But what for? Love is what drives humans.

    • October 26, 2019 8:40 am

      Yes, the ending of this novel actually drives that point home (as does the ending of Shelley’s original, if you think about it–the monster, alone on the ice).

  2. magpiemusing permalink
    October 25, 2019 3:49 pm

    i’m looking forward to this!

    • October 26, 2019 8:41 am

      It’s fun. There are lots of good little political digs that I didn’t mention because they’re more fun to come upon than to comment on.

  3. October 29, 2019 2:55 pm

    I am so very much looking forward to reading this. My husband is currently in the middle of it and enjoying it very much. I hope to get my turn not long after he is done 🙂

    • October 29, 2019 3:01 pm

      I think you will very much like the political digs.


  1. #Winding Up the Week #93 – Book Jotter

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