Posts Tagged ‘‘Frankenstein Unbound’’

Jeanette Winterson’s Cyberfeminist New Tale of Frankenstein, AI and Sex Robots

May 26, 2019

A week or so ago I put up several articles criticising Ian McEwan’s latest book as another example of mainstream, literary writers’ appropriation of Science Fictional subjects. As I said in these articles, what annoys me about this is the higher respect given to these works, even though genre authors have frequently tackled the subjects much better. Private Eye in its piece describing how the literary set were turning to robots and AI said that after McEwan’s book would come one by Jeanette Winterson. This is Frankissstein: A Love Story, which was reviewed in Friday’s issue of the I, for 24th May 2019 by Lucy Scholes, on page 44 of the paper.

I realise that it’s dangerous to comment on a book you’ve never read, and that reviews can be notoriously inaccurate guides to what a book or other work is actually like. I can remember the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin on the Late Review about two decades or more ago really attacking the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as a piece of Nazi cinema in precisely so many words. He had a point in that some groups had felt that the film was somehow racist and discriminatory, particularly in the portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Binks, it was held, was a caricature of Blacks, Hispanics or gays. But many others didn’t find anything racist or homophobic in the movie, and Paulin’s attack was itself a grotesque misrepresentation of the movie itself.

But Scholes’ brief description of the book and its themes raise issues that deserve comment and criticism.

The Plot

The book is split between two periods. The first is that night in 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva when Byron, his lover, Claire Clairmont, the Shelleys and their doctor, John Polidori, all met to write a ghost story, the evening which saw the birth of Mary Shelley’s tale of the monstrous creation of artificial, human life, Frankenstein. The second is a contemporary tale about a romance between a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who meets and falls in love with the charismatic Victor Stein at a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert. Stein is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence, who, according to the review, ‘envisions a bodyless utopia in which race, faith gender and sexuality no longer exist.’

Caught up in this tale is Ron Lord, a millionaire, who has made his fortune from advance sex robots, and his partner, the evangelical Claire, who has designed a version for Christians, and an investigating journalist, Polly D. Ron Lord’s empire of sex robots its misogynistic. His deluxe model offers three orifices and interesting conversation, in which they tell the user he’s very clever and asks him if he knows anything about Real Madrid. Looking at their names, it seems very clear to me that they’re supposed to be the modern counterparts of Byron’s party 200 years ago. But it’s a moot point how accurate this portrayal is about what they would be like if they lived now. As for Claire’s invention of the ‘Christian Companion’, this seems to be a gibe by Winterson at Christian hypocrisy. Winterson’s a lesbian, who had a miserable childhood growing up in an extreme Christian sect. This formed the basis for his book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was adapted as a TV drama by the Beeb. This seems to have established the 9.00 Sunday night slot as the venue for intense dramas about gay women. It was followed a few years later by Fingersmith, a lesbian drama set in the Victorian underworld. And now there’s Gentleman Jack, now playing on BBC 1, based on a real Victorian aristocratic lady, who married her gay lover. I’m very much aware that many Christians do hate gays, and that in response many gay men and women have turned away from Christianity and religion. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I know one woman, who was brought up by her mother and her lesbian partner, who grew up perfectly well adjusted. She was deeply religious herself, and went on to marry a vicar. She also loves her mother, and respects her for the excellent way she feels her mother brought her up.

Cyberspace as Disembodied Platonic Realm

Some of the ideas in Winterson’s book also seems strangely dated. Like the idea of AI as offering a utopia in which people are disembodied entities without race, gender, sexuality or religion. This sounds like it’s based on the views of some of the cyberfeminists back in the 1990s. They hailed the internet as forum in which women would be free to participate as individuals without gender. Now there is a real issue here with misogyny on the internet. There are some sites and forums which are very hostile to women, so much so that a few years ago there were comments that there no women on the internet, as those who were seemed few and far between. But the solution to that problem is to create a culture in which women are free to participate and interact without their gender being issue, rather than forced to disguise or deny it.

It’s also vulnerable to the opposite criticism from feminist academics like Margaret Wertheimer. In her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheimer criticised cyberspace for being too masculine. It was a disembodied, Platonic realm of mind like the heaven of religious belief. Women weren’t interested in such ideal states, and so were put off it. This idea was influential. One of the museums and art galleries held an exhibition of Virtual worlds created by artists experimenting with the medium. One of the women artists, whose work was featured, included as part of her world the sound of the viewer breathing as they entered her artificial reality. She had done so, she told New Scientist, because the absence of any kind of physical interaction in these Virtual worlds was the product of male scientists and engineers, who made the passage through them like that of a disembodied being. As a woman, she wanted to rectify this through the inclusion of details that made it appear that the viewer was physically there.

It’s over 20 years since these arguments were made, and much has changed since then. There are now very many women on the internet, with female sites like Mum’s Net and the feminist Jezebel. And some of the online games and worlds, like Second Life, do allow their users to interact as physical entities as the games’ characters or citizens.

Robot-Human Romance and Sex

As for her view of sex robots, it’s true that the creation of an artificial woman purely as a sex slave is misogynist. At the moment such machines aren’t really much more than sophisticate sex dolls, and some of those, who use them do seem to be very misogynist. One of the denizens of the Manosphere, the Happy Humble Hermit, who really does despise women and feminism, apparently has a link on his web page to a firm making them. But despite dire warning that these machines are a threat to women’s status and real, genuine, loving or respectful sexual relationship, the existing sex robots aren’t popular. A Spanish brothel which specialised in them has had to get rid of them because of lack of custom. Women don’t have to fear being replaced by compliant, subservient female robots, as in Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives, just yet.

But science fiction also shows that there is an interest, at least among some people, for genuine romantic relationships between robots, and humans and robots. One of the Star Wars spin-off books published in the 1980s was Hardware Honeymoon, whose cover showed C-3PIO holding hands with a female robot. The robot seems to have become the subject of some women’s fantasies. One of the independent comics from California was Wet Satin, whose female creator based her stories on women’s sexual fantasies. One of these was about a robot, which looked remarkably similar to the Star Wars robot. Rather less luridly, Tanith Lee wrote a book in the 1980s about a woman having a romance with a robot in The Silver Metal Lover. You could go on. There is a desire for sex with robots, but this seems in most cases to be within the framework of a romantic relationship with a genuinely sentient being, not a mechanical sex slave.

Stein’s Disembodied Utopia Horrific

As for Stein’s idea of a post-human utopia of disembodied minds, this is profoundly unattractive, as Scholes herself says in her review, saying ‘As with all brave new worlds, though, the reality is rarely perfect’. It seems to be based on the Transhumanists hope that in the near future technology will have advanced so far that that humans will be able to download their minds into computers, so that they can exist as pure disembodied entities in cyberspace, or move into robot bodies, like the hero at the end of the South African SF film, Chappie. But Winterson’s, or Stein’s cybernetic dream of posthuman, post-flesh utopia is horrifically sterile. Part of what makes diversity and multiculturalism such powerful ideologies is that people are naturally drawn, fascinated with and treasure difference. It’s why western tourists travel around the world, to Asia, Africa and South America, to enjoy the experience of different cultures and meeting people of different races and religions. There is friction and hostility between different peoples, all too often exploding into horrific violence. But the reduction of humanity to disembodied minds doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t genuinely promote tolerance, equality and the feeling of common humanity so much as negates the problem by destroying the physical and spiritual differences that form the basis of human identity. It’s certainly not an idea that’s popular in SF. In just about all the Science Fiction I’ve read, people retain their gender and other aspects of their identity even after they cross over into cyberspace. When they appear, either in cyberspace itself, or conjured up in computer displays for characters in the real world, they appear as they did in life, complete with their gender and race. And I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people would find that far more preferable to the strange disembodied existence Stein offers in Winterson’s book.

LGBTQ and Transgender Issues With Winterson’s/ Stein’s Utopia

Which also raises the question about its handling of LGBTQ issues. The inclusion of a transgender character seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the book very relevant to contemporary issues, now that transgender rights have overtaken gays as the issue of the moment. Some transgender people seem to look forward to a future without physical gender. I can remember reading an interview with the first, or one of the first, people to undergo the operation, April Ashley, in an interview in one of the Daily Mail’s Sunday supplements years ago. She looked forward to a time when humanity would have moved beyond gender, and pregnancy would become a matter of simply taking a pill. But I think such people are a very small minority. Back in the 1990s there was a demand from gay Science Fiction fans for Star Trek to tackle homosexuality and include gay characters or stories. This was several years before the new, revived Dr. Who did so, and so would have been extremely controversial. Star Trek – The Next Generation tried to make an effort in that direction with a story in which Lieutenant Riker formed a relationship with a member of an alien species, the J’Nai, who had evolved past gender. However, from time to time there were throwbacks, who were persecuted. They would be hunted down and then treated so that they were proper neuter members of their society. The alien with whom Riker has fallen in love is one such throwback, a female. She is caught by the authorities. Riker tries to free her, but it is too late. She is now neuter, and so has no interest in any sexual or romantic relationship with him. The story’s a metaphorical attempt to deal with the underlying issues around homosexuality, gender identity and forbidden sexuality, but was bitterly criticised by gay SF fans because it didn’t tackle the issue of homosexuality overtly. The Federation was, remember, an organisation in which humanity had moved beyond racial and cultural prejudice and sexism, and gay Trekkers and their supporters felt that the prejudice against homosexuality would also have no place in such a future. But they were also highly critical about how the story presented gays. They felt that it showed them unfairly as wanting to abolish gender. And Winterson’s book does seem to do the same with its depiction of a romance between the transgender character, Ry Shelley, and Stein, with his dream of an asexual disembodied world.

Conclusion

I may well be doing Winterson’s book a great disservice, but it does seem peculiarly dated for a book which is trying so desperately to be acutely relevant. And I do feel that readers would probably get a better idea of the issues about cyberspace and AI by going elsewhere. I think there’s probably a better fictional treatment of these subjects waiting to be written. And as for human-robot romance and sex, this has also been very extensively explored in genre SF. And some of this almost certainly represents what people really want from such relationships than simple sex robots.

As for the book’s inclusion of Mary Shelley, Byron, Claire Clairmont and Polidori, Brian Aldiss also did it, or something like it, in his 1970’s SF story Frankenstein Unbound. This was filmed by B-movie maven Roger Corman. It’s not supposed to be a good film, but even so, it seems far more to my taste than Winterson’s book.

 

 

 

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Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

April 17, 2019

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.