An important figure in Anglo-Saxon literature, Jeanette Winterson has more than twenty books to her credit. In his most recent opus, Frankissstein, whose French translation has just been published in Quebec, the novelist takes us into a fascinating game of mirrors between the XIXe romantic-Gothic century of novelist Mary Shelley and a contemporary post-Brexit England. Press joined her in her home, not far from Oxford, to discuss artificial intelligence, Frankenstein, sex robots, transhumanity and religion… among others!
She is often presented as a leading figure in literature queer in Great Britain. Published in 1985, his very first novel, Oranges are not the only fruit, has been very successful. The author tells about her childhood in a Pentecostal family, an evangelical Christian movement, and her first homosexual relationships.
Known for her biting humor and her sometimes surrealist tone, the novelist explores in her work questions that torment her: gender, sexual identity, but also the relationship between humans and technology, particularly artificial intelligence, a omnipresent subject in Frankissstein, his most recent novel which has been a resounding success since its original publication in 2019, notably appearing on the long list of the Booker Prize.
“For me, AI is the most pressing and important issue of our time… No, in fact it’s the climate crisis! Because if we do not stabilize the planet’s climate, we will certainly not succeed in further developing AI or creating a viable future for it.Homo sapiens. For me, it’s clear: either we evolve, or we disappear, ”explains the one who will publish a new essay this summer on artificial intelligence (AI).
The beginning of the future
It’s the 200e anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein who pushed Mme Winterson to re-read this classic of Gothic literature; what struck her was the contemporaneity of the novel. “Mary Shelley envisioned a time when man would create a non-human entity, a new form of life. She could only conceive of it made up of different parts of the human body and moved by electricity, which was very innovative for that time, the beginning of the industrial revolution. And today, all AI is electric! For me, it’s the beginning of the future, and it was imagined by a woman. “
In this ambitious and surprising novel, the writer transforms into a kaleidoscope the motifs that have crossed her work for several years: love, technology, human destiny, the links between the past and the present. The story thus unfolds over two periods: the beginning of the XIXe century and contemporary post-Brexit Britain.
I love history because it gives us a perspective that allows us to better understand, instead of drifting down the river of the present and repeating the same mistakes over and over again. For me, ignorance is death.
At the beginning of the novel, we follow Mary Shelley to Geneva in 1816, where the young woman imagined the premises of Frankenstein. A plethora of historical figures surround her: her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and also Lord Byron, a brilliant but misogynistic poet. Then appears in the next chapter Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor who finds himself drawn into the quest of Victor Stein, a charming and disturbing scientist, ready to do anything to push the biological limits of humans thanks to artificial intelligence, with whom the young doctor maintains a passionate and secret romance.
Despite the 200 years that separate them, the concerns of the characters are echoed: what is the spirit, or the soul, and are they inexorably linked to our carnal envelope? What is death, and can it be thwarted?
The idea of making the story travel between two eras was central for the author: “I wanted to try to show where it all began. I took these characters that we meet in the first pages of the novel and I took them through a magic mirror projecting them into our time, in order to observe them again. “
So, Mary becomes Ry; the protagonist of Frankenstein, Doctor Victor Frankenstein, Victor Stein; Lord Byron, Rod Lord, a rude businessman, but almost endearing in his naivety, who embarked on the commercialization of female sex robots, convinced that he is thereby rendering a real “public service” to men and women. society in general.
“These sex dolls are not a possible future, but a future that is already happening. So the possibility exists, and it’s quite frightening, that women will be replaced by sex robots who never get old, still want sex, and even listen to your boring sports stories! », Launches the novelist.
From transidentity to transhumanism
The fact that the Mary Shelly of XXIe century becoming a hybrid is far from an innocent choice. “I wondered who she would be today; for me, she was neither male nor female. That’s why Ry Shelley is trans; he experienced both genders, which today is, in a way, the limit of human experience. “
One day we may be able to download our consciousness into an eagle or the green plant behind you, we will have multiple biological possibilities. But for now, the only things we have is being a woman or a man.
While trans people are often stigmatized, Ry Shelley kind of symbolizes in Frankissstein the start of a new era, the tipping point towards transhumanism, and that’s what makes it so attractive to Victor Stein, by the way.
But, Stein also argues, gender will soon be irrelevant when our consciousnesses can be downloaded out of our bodies. In this, the hopes that some put in the advance of artificial intelligence are not unlike the quest that all the world’s religions have in common, underlines Mr.me Winterson, this “human dream” according to which the body is not our final form.
Let’s leave the last word to Victor Stein: “What’s happening now?” […] with AI is like coming home. What we dreamed of is actually reality. We are not tied to our body. We can live forever. “