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October 23, 2019

YANDAVA | What Can Art Tell Us About Science?

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This weekend, as people flock in droves to Halloween parties, you’ll probably see your fair share of witches, devils, vampires, maybe some sexy mice á la Mean Girls and, if you’re lucky, that infamous nameless monster of Victor Frankenstein’s.

Perhaps no other literary monster has held a grip on the popular imagination quiet like Mary Shelley’s 1818 invention. The story has been influencing our culture for about two centuries now and shows no signs of slowing down. Recently, there’s been an uptick in interest in both the novel itself as well as its maker, with 2014’s horror-comedy web series Frankenstein, MD, 2015’s Victor Frankenstein starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe and 2017’s Mary Shelley, a biopic that depicts the now nearly mythical story of the Gothic classic’s origins.

This is where Jeanette Winterson picks up in her latest science fiction novel, Frankissstein, with Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Byron’s physician John William Polidori (who wrote the progenitor of Twilight) and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The novel begins when out of boredom, Byron set a challenge to each to write the best ghost story.

The novel then pivots, however, to the present day, where Mary becomes transgender doctor Ry Shelley, Lord Byron is Ron Lord, a predictably misogynistic sexbot inventor, Claire is his sexbot and Polidori is Poly D, a female reporter for Vanity Fair. Then there’s Victor Stein, mad scientist/professor/TED-Talker and Ry’s love interest, who has more than his fair share of problems.

Flipping back and forth between these two timeframes, Winterson manages to create an interesting parallel between the themes of Shelley’s novel and modern debates surrounding AI and robotics, bringing into the conversation such disparate voices as the Eagles, Google co-founder Larry Page and William Shakespeare with a good dose of humor that cuts nicely through a lot of the heavier topics. Near the end of the novel, a well-placed meeting between Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace shows off Winterson’s talent in reanimating historical figures and deftly relating them to the issues of today.

There are times, though, when the modern portion of the book feels rather contrived and preachy, as in sentences like, “If we are reaching the end of Project Human, don’t blame the geeks.” Or author’s notes (something, by the way, I think should stick to typo-riddled 2000s fanfiction) that attempt to break the fourth wall, like “THIS IS THE MOST PROFOUND THING CLAIRE HAS SAID IN HER LIFE.” It’s also difficult to imagine couples in real life having some of the conversations regarding AI and the human race the way Ry and Victor do — they seem more like snippets lifted out of philosophical articles than lover’s talk, with the characters functioning merely as instruments for theories that seem to lead nowhere and resolve nothing. Furthermore, if Ry is supposed to be the voice of reason in these discussions, he doesn’t do a particularly good job at it, questioning Victor’s need for human body parts only after he’s already been procuring them for some time.

Likewise, Ron Lord comes off as closer to caricature than character; his sexist and pessimistic views on women and relationships are too ridiculous to do battle with seriously. This is not to say, that Winterson doesn’t force us to confront the important questions about a future that appears nearer than ever. Do robots have gender, and should they? What are the stakes of isolating the mind from the body? Is there still something inherently human that robots will never have, or will we simply be phased out by what might be the next phase of our evolution? Will the social problems we face today still remain if we remove the human factor — in fact, would they be exacerbated, even?

More and more people are studying computer science or related fields here at Cornell. Many of these students then go on to work for big tech companies where the standard has long since been to invent first, think later. For those of us in the humanities, it can seem as though our work is irrelevant, impractical and part of a distant, outmoded past. Yet fiction is increasingly playing an important social role in forcing us to reconsider the direction we’re heading in and the cost of technological progress. Indeed, if we stop valuing the exercising (exorcising, even) of our collective imagination through fiction, we’ll be forced to confront its very real consequences soon enough.

 

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the college of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.