An author known for her explorations of gender, desire, and imagination takes us to the past to look into the future.
There is probably no novel written in English with a more well-known origin story than Frankenstein. The scene of that work’s conception—Lake Geneva, 1816—is where Winterson begins her reimagining of science fiction’s ur-text. Mary Shelley herself is the narrator. Keenly observant, sensitive without being fragile, and utterly unashamed of her own sexuality, Winterson’s (Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere, 2018, etc.) Shelley is a brilliant creation. The contemporary author, being well versed in the gothic tropes that her predecessor deployed, plays with doubles and doppelgängers throughout, and her second narrator, Ry Shelley, is an echo both of Mary Shelley and the monster who is the invention of Mary Shelley’s invention. Ry, given the name Mary at birth, identifies as trans and works for a company devoted to cryogenics—to restoring the dead to life. It’s in this capacity that he meets Victor Stein, the “high-functioning madman” who will become his lover. Victor is famous as an expert in artificial intelligence. But Ry discovers that Victor has other—messier—pursuits as well. As is perhaps apt, this is a novel of many parts, so there are also interludes set in Bedlam, where Victor Frankenstein becomes an inmate and Mary Shelley is his visitor. There are special pleasures here for readers familiar with the science and philosophy of the early 19th century, such as when a 20th-century evangelical Christian goes undercover at the cryogenics lab to investigate where the soul goes when we die and whether or not it returns if the body is reanimated. But no specialist knowledge is needed to appreciate this inquisitive novel, because the questions Winterson is asking are questions that have always been with us. What is love? What is life? What am I, and what do I desire to be? Of course Winterson has no answers; what she offers instead is a passionate plea that we keep asking these questions as we refashion ourselves and our world.
Beguiling, disturbing, and full of wonders.