We already replace knees and lenses and hips with superior mechanical parts. We can implant devices to augment our abilities, from delivering insulin to stimulating the heart to beat. What happens when we can replace the whole body? Such is the question at the heart—or maybe CPU—of Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein.
The mechanics of the story are a bit convoluted to sum up in the space allotted, but try to follow along. In alternating chapters, four stories run parallel, one of them in the distant past (the summer of 1816, to be precise) and three in the present. The first tale is a (more or less) straight recounting of the circumstances surrounding Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The other three take place in contemporary society and concern a cryogenics facility in Arizona, a young transgender doctor who is mesmerized by an artificial intelligence specialist named—get this—Victor Stein and a recently divorced boor who has perfected a robotic sex doll.
In many ways, though, the story is just a pretext for extended meditations on the meaning of love, the meaning of life and the coming “singularity,” in which consciousness can be uploaded like so many data points to be retransferred to a previously frozen human body or to a “more human than human” replicant à la Blade Runner.
Surprisingly, it’s the sexbot engineer who poses some of the most cogent practical questions surrounding the possibility of cryogenic revival, including this one on inheritance: “Actually I was about to say, you can’t take it with you, but maybe you should! You drop dead. All your relatives spend the money, then bingo! You’re back! Then what?”
Of course there are deeper concerns as well: What happens to the soul in the interregnum between death and reanimation? How do you love someone “forever” when forever is, quite literally, forever? What does gender mean in a replicant body . . . or no body at all?
Much like its spiritual predecessor, B.F. Skinner’s 1948 novel, Walden Two, Winterson’s book occasionally sets up straw men to knock down, but also like Skinner, she may turn out to be more prophetic than she, or we, imagined.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, just down the road from SpaceX. The closest he’s gotten to robotics was assembling a Mr. Machine toy in 1966.