Culture Trips

What is the Frankenstein’s monster of the 21st Century?

Central to these stories is not only the relationship of the artificial human to their creator but also the purpose of their creation. Victor Frankenstein made his creature out of the noble spirit of scientific inquiry. (We never find out how Frankenstein made his monster, ostensibly because he doesn’t want anyone to emulate his mistake, though it handily absolved Mary Shelley from having to dream up the mechanics.) In The Actuality, on the other hand, the driving forces behind Evie’s creation are less honourable. No spoilers but “it all comes down to what motivates mankind”, says Braddon, “which could be reduced in the simplest sense to money, power and sex”. Can a woman be made by men? Can she consent to sex? Like all of us, Evie is constrained by the circumstances of her birth.

Sex, indeed, is something no human – or artificial human – story would be complete without, and Jeanette Winterson’s 2019 novel Frankissstein makes the most of it, with her typical boldness and wit. Winterson’s story splices the origins of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein with an alternative present where artificial humans are being built as sexbots.

Winterson, whose prescience means she was writing about artificial sex (“teledildonics”) as long ago as her 1992 novel Written on the Body, is not surprised to see humanity barrelling down the path she predicted. “Because we are profoundly stupid,” she has said, “we are going to share the planet with a self-created non-biological lifeform smarter than we are. Well done, human race!” But Frankissstein, perhaps uniquely among the AI novels featured here, is very funny. “The world is so dire at the moment, it’s important to make people laugh. It isn’t an escapist response, it’s a way of managing it.”

A more compliant non-human appeared on the bookshelves this month, as Kazuo Ishiguro published Klara and the Sun, his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. Klara is an Artificial Friend, a quasi-human device created to prevent teenagers from becoming lonely. As with Evie’s story, Klara’s is written from the non-human viewpoint.

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