Sunday, 7 March 2010

Book Review: The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson

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"On the airwaves, all the talk is of the new blue planet – pristine and habitable, like our own 65 million years ago, before we took it to the edge of destruction. And off the air, Billie and Spike are falling in love.

"What will happen when their story combines with the world's story, as they whirl towards Planet Blue, into the future? Will they – and we – ever find a safe landing place?"


Renowned for her comic narratives, and perhaps concealed by them, Jeanette Winterson’s last novel but one is a poetic lament, sung for a world in what the author supposes to be its last throes. Unquestionably passionate and at times dazzling in its invention, The Stone Gods is another of those science-fiction novels originated by the throng of unlikely writers who mean to transcend the boundaries of mere genre into high art.

Excusing for a moment the insulting presumption begged by such a trend, the net result has been an influx of predictably high-minded chaff, but from amongst the multitude several noteworthy new voices have sounded. From Margaret Atwood’s recent speculative dalliances through to The Road, the naturalistic grounding that has suffused sci-fi of late has imparted upon it a gratifying sense of literary importance, and considered readers will be glad to add Winterson to the ranks of writers drawn out of their comfort zones to grace a genre held very dear indeed.

The Stone Gods is a tale of three Billies: two women – one on the run in the far-flung future with which the book begins, and another escapee, an orphan from the not-too-distant, to close out the spitfire narrative – and, at the axis around which the novel revolves, a young explorer. He is an abandoned on Easter Island after the errant gunfire of Captain Cook’s landing party forces his companions to beat a quick retreat, and here at the heart of the story, amongst the natives and the titular stone statues that stagger to this day, the significance of Billy’s masculinity hardly needs the emphasis of the phallogocentric societies from which the women run.

But gender inequalities are not the great threat of Winterson’s novel; the menace of The Stone Gods is, inescapably, humanity itself. The great carvings that tower around Easter Island are a remarkable expression of our capabilities as a people – they are an awesome feat indeed, created from little but tireless endeavour and dedication, but what desolation the tribes that crafted them have wrought in their creation. In the end, the island is made barren; its resources are exhausted, taken for all they had and all they could have had. Centuries ago and in the vacuum of isolation that Easter Island represents, Winterson posits, humanity created Gods, and in so doing destroyed a world. And in a future slightly advanced from our own, Orbus – a planet not unlike Earth – is on the verge of a similar sort of ruin.

The two tales that bookend The Stone Gods do much to finesse the motif that emerges so figuratively from the tale of Easter Island. These Billies are much alike, in spirit and in situation. They each hearken back to simpler, more natural times – one makes her home on Orbus’ last remaining farm and the other lives for a mother she can never know – and both their worlds are dominated by MORE, a family of corporations whose business is without borders. MORE is the law, the doctor and the robotic home-help; MORE can deliver the present and assure the future. Each of the Billies is complicit in the excess that MORE symbolises. Cynical and miserable, their parallel lives are enlivened by opportunity as fate splinters them from the faceless industry. The cycle that repeats throughout The Stone Gods is broken at last: the seemingly inescapable momentum that Winterson builds with her fragmentary narrative is stopped – or slowed, at the least. There is a chance, then. For the Billies and, perhaps, for us as well.

However plausible the self-inflicted end of humankind might be, it does not prove so easy to suspend disbelief for all of The Stone Gods. Some of the tropes Winterson makes use of are outmoded already, and a few are startlingly unimaginative – a capital sci-fi crime indeed. Amongst such a wealth of more convincingly drawn concepts, however, only the bloody-minded are likely to focus on any single misstep for long. Relayed in addictive, bite-size instalments, the respective journeys of the three Billies whip along at light-speed. More jarring are Winterson’s frequent lapses into self-indulgence; her overlong lectures on future history stop an otherwise pacey narrative dead in its tracks. But surely the greatest flaw of The Stone Gods is its very nature: expect subtlety and nuance to take seats in the back of a whole other room when the prospect to make a polemic of the novel arises. The cover blurb even boasts of as much.

Certainly, then, The Stone Gods is imperfect. A little refinement – a clearer sense of its purpose, for a start – would have elevated its already considerable reach still higher. But Winterson is a wordsmith with few peers, and her first incursion into genre territory proves a resounding success otherwise. Funny and matter-of-fact, playful as it takes on the end of the world and beyond, The Stone Gods is an empowering tale for our times. Compulsive reading, if not quite compulsory.


The Stone Gods
by Jeanette Winterson
July 2008, Penguin Books

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I would say The Stone Gods drawn out of their comfort zone or that this her first incursion into genre territory. I've not read much Winterson but I have read Weight, her contribution to the Canongate Myths series, and it was really interesting to see the similarities and shared concerns between the two. I get the impression that Winterson is a writer who comes back time and again to the same issues (such as biography and the nature of fiction) regardless of setting.

    I'm glad you liked The Stone Gods, I liked it too. And its got a spaceship in it! Your Atwoods and your McCarthys tend to stick to the polite areas of SF: dsytopias and post-apocalypse. Winterson is the only mainstream writer I can think of who has actually used this core genre trope. Her work for children - Tanglewreck and The Battle Of Sun - looks like it is SF too.