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02Aug

12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson review – engaging history of technological progress

Whether examining sex dolls or transhumanism, the novelist brings her skill as a storyteller to these ambitious, hugely entertaining essays

Jeanette Winterson is not usually considered a science-fiction writer, yet her novels have always been concerned with alternative realities, and for more than two decades she has drawn on the imaginative possibilities offered by technological and digital advances. Her 2000 novel, The Powerbook, was an early exploration of the fluid identities and connections offered by virtual personae; The Stone Gods (2007) combined history with interplanetary dystopias and featured a relationship between a robot and a human. Her most recent fiction, Frankisstein, reworked Mary Shelley’s story of an artificially created intelligence into a modern novel of ideas about the present and future limits of AI and the implications for art, love, sex and biology.

Now, in 12 Bytes, her first collection of essays since 1996’s Art Objects, Winterson examines all these preoccupations without the mediation of fiction, though the narrative style is as conversational and erudite as you’d expect from her, peppered with irreverent asides and mischievous flashes of wit (“Dry as dust I don’t do,” she has said of the previous collection). The 12 essays here are grouped into four “zones”, loosely covering the past, the imagination, relationships and the future, and together offer an eclectic odyssey through the history of technological progress – a history that for too long sidelined some of its most influential figures because they were inconveniently women or gay, and has only recently begun to restore their reputations. Winterson pays tribute here to the contributions of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, along with women such as Stephanie Shirley, the founder of all-female company Freelance Programmers, and the forgotten teams of female programmers during the second world war, their work unacknowledged for decades because it didn’t suit a narrative of male expertise.

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