“There is no Alternative!”

The Case for a Co(n)temporary English Fiction: Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein

  • Sandro Eich University of St Andrews
Keywords: alternative history, literary forms, temporality, experiment, science, reproduction, post-human, futurity


The future is the only form of temporal experience which requires us to use our speculative and imaginative capacities. However, due to the concurrent global challenges of the twenty-first century (COVID-19, populism and nationalism, climate crisis), imagining viable future scenarios for the human has become increasingly difficult. As a result, our Enlightenment conception of temporality as linear has become futile and requires an alternative approach. This article explores how two examples of contemporary English fiction, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, experiment with temporally marked forms to construct narratives in which the separation into past, present, and future becomes indistinguishable. The technological imagination of these narratives, in the shape of accelerated scientific progress in artificial intelligence and transcendent consciousness, produces alternative histories in the hopes of modeling a new sense of futurity. In doing so, McEwan’s and Winterson’s novels assimilate binaries such as antiquitas and modernitas, human and post-human, and ultimately past, present, and future to showcase the productive potential of speculative formalism (Eyers). I argue that such a modeling of ‘co-temporality’ (Ruffel) places the contemporary novel’s capacity for cultural inquiry on the same epistemological level as that for scientific inquiry, enabling a conception of futurity detached from temporal linearity and the logic of progress.