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A Novel That Riffs on Sex Dolls, Mary Shelley and Brexit

[ “To me, a proper dictionary is a book of spells,” Winterson said in her recent By the Book interview. ]

Ry is also falling for a version of Mary’s creation: Dr. Victor Stein, a TED-talking tech disrupter with a God complex and a keen fashion sense. Thanks to cryonics, in which Ry once dabbled, the grisly horror of reanimating a body is now entirely feasible, but Stein wants to go further — into the realms of transhumanism and beyond: “The world I imagine, the world A.I. will make possible, will not be a world of labels — and that includes binaries like male and female, black and white, rich and poor.” It sounds like a utopia, but anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with “Westworld,HAL 9000 and Philip K. Dick will know that this is dangerous territory. Ry has serious concerns about these visionary goals, even while empathizing with them: “I am part of a small group of transgender medical professionals. Some of us are transhuman enthusiasts too. That isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that anybody is the wrong body.”

This understanding aside, at times, it’s difficult to figure out why self-aware Ry falls so hard for Stein (although, admittedly, they have great sex). For someone whose eventual goal is to be free of the “meat” that makes up the body, he has an initial, almost prurient fascination with Ry’s choice to identify as hybrid, and is repeatedly at pains to assure Ry he’s “not gay” (another sly nod to the contemporary discourse around gender and sexual identity). Occasionally, he comes across as little more than a TED Talk himself, spouting chunks of research and philosophical meanderings that, while fascinating, stall the novel. It’s as if Winterson is at pains to remind us that issues around gender, notions of the self and fears of automatons supplanting human agency are not new concerns — they’re as old as Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” But these forays into didacticism are balanced with gleeful, highly imaginative set pieces rich with black humor: Dr. Stein’s lab lurks, “Young Frankenstein”-style, in decommissioned tunnels under Manchester, complete with its own pub. Severed, reanimated hands skitter, “Addams Family”-like, through the bowels of the lab, where Ron has been invited to create a “Christian Companion” sex doll for the evangelical market.

[ Peek inside Winterson’s writing studio. ]

Weaving through all of this is the heart of the novel — the primary love story promised on the cover, an uneasy, love-hate relationship between the author and her creation. As the “Inventor of Dreams,” Mary Shelley looses her novel into the world and mourns the loss of her lover and her children, we’re invited to consider what happens when a creation outlives and surpasses its creator (“Yet, suppose my story has a life of its own?”). The original novel has achieved immortality, and Winterson’s Mary can never shake off the specter of her creation and the inventions it inspires. In parallel, and against their better judgment, Ry provides Stein with body parts snaffled from the hospital, laying them at his feet like a cat. They include a cryogenically frozen head in a flask that Polly D. hilariously dubs the “iHead” and that Stein hopes will be his key to the Singularity — “the moment A.I. changes the way we live, forever.” Ry’s gifts will possibly give birth to another form of immortality — the queasy notion of the consciousness living forever, disembodied, in the cloud — and who knows where that will lead the human race?

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