I came at Frankissstein with some trepidation and approached it only because of its Booker longlisting. I have always imagined Jeanette Winterson to be an agenda led writer who would not be writing for readers like me.
So I was quite surprised to find two (three?) lively and playful narrative streams interweaving with one another. One was the writing of Frankenstein - a story I already knew but it seemed to be written in an approachable way. The second narrative set in the present day/near future had the manufacturer of artificially intelligent sex dolls sharing his plans for creating true AI with Ry, a transgender journalist. The possible third narrative was a metafictional strand where Mary Shelley encounters Frankenstein in the real world.
On the surface level, this is all jolly japes, perhaps indicating that Frankenstein became bigger than Mary Shelley herself and developed a life of its own. The novel seemed to have a number of great and fizzy ideas that unfortunately never quite came together.
But there is also a major reservation I have. I know that a number of feminist writers have an issue with transgender - they only admit fellowship to those born biologically female. In Frankissstein, there seems little need to make Ry transsexual unless it is to make some oblique parallel between creating an artificial person (Frankenstein’s monster) and creating a woman. And as such, I will acknowledge that it is a viewpoint, but not one I would care to pay to read. If this is the real point of the novel (and I fear that it is), then it undermines some entertaining prose; is anachronistic; and is also a wee bit cowardly in doing it through innuendo and thereby requiring counter-arguments to first articulate the proposition that Winterson would presumably deny she is making.
Three stars for the writing, but this left a nasty aftertaste.
"The Stone Gods" is Jeanette Winterson's first foray into science fiction. Set on Planet Orbus, our narrator is Billie Crusoe (yes, the name is significant) a resident of the Central Power and a low level official in Enhancement. Billie is having a tough time, since she owes $3 million in parking fines but is unable to find a human being to speak to about them. Orbus is portrayed as a decadent society of mindless entertainment where reading is virtually a dead art, plastic surgery is the norm and people get themselves genetically fixed at a certain age. Consequently, since everyone is young and beautiful, only sex of the most deviant kind retains any appeal.
Orbus's environment is catastrophically polluted, so when Planet Blue is discovered it seems to be the solution to the population's future survival. The only problem is the dinosaurs that populate it. The first robo sapiens, known as Spike, is constructed to travel to the planet on a fact finding mission. Billie meets her as she is downloading her findings prior to being decommissioned. They form a relationship, with the two of them eventually escaping to an isolated farmhouse. Now a suspected terrorist, Billie is sent to Planet Blue which is initially being used as a penal colony.
Suddenly, the novel swerves into 1774 onboard Thomas Cook's ship when it lands on Easter Island. Billy, a cabin boy, tells us of an island where the efforts to construct the stone heads have exhausted the island's resources and consequently its inhabitants are starving.
Next stop, near future Earth. The manuscript of a novel called "The Stone Gods" is found on the Underground. It depicts the "post-3 war" world in which Billie Crusoe is a resident. In this version of the future, Billie is programming Spike, now just a head, with information about humanity and the world. A field trip takes them from Tech City to Wreck City to see the devastation mankind has wrought.
I hope the above gives you some idea what a wildly uneven novel "The Stone Gods" is. There's an uneasy mixture of satire, love story, hectoring environmental polemic and post-modern experimentation. That's a lot to cram into a novel covering only 6 discs on audiobook (that's roughly equivalent to 200 pages of text) and a lot of it doesn't work or is very heavy handed. The satire is too slapstick, which might work in the hands of a master pulp writer like Philip K. Dick, but not when one has Winterson's literary pretensions. The experimentation is a distraction and the Easter Island interlude feels tacked on; it doesn't move the story forward and Winterson's lecturing is exhausting.
Really, this kind of stuff should be left to Margaret Atwood, who has a greater imagination and a much lighter, subtler touch.
I looked forward to reading Winterson's first novel that made the author quite famous but somehow I was disappointed.
It wouldn't have helped that I remember the BBC dramatisation of the 90s and Geraldine McEwan's memorable performance of the narrator's mother with her religious excess and obsession. I kept seeing this in my mind's eye instead of focusing more on the prose I was reading.
I got irritated by the intermittent storytelling sequences of princes and princesses etc, the products of the young narrator's imagination which just made me want to skip pages and I did.
The intermittent humour was good and so were the hypocrisies as they emerged but on the whole I was glad the novel was quite short.