[22 May 2008]
Jeanette Winterson’s signature themes of love, free will, and compassion permeate her latest work of fiction, but they’ve been granted a new planet to colonize—and quickly destroy. Or is the seemingly “new planet” one we already know?
Exploration of expectations, gambling on unknown possibilities, and repetition of actions and feelings spiral out of control alongside the human race in this bleak look at how the future and past are intertwined; history operates in a repetitive spiral, but love exists even as humans constantly work at self-destruction in The Stone Gods.
History repeats itself as several incarnations of central characters Billie/Billy Crusoe and Spike/Spikkers tell their stories in the four sections of the book; the reader must question the order of these parts of the whole because they are not chronological, nor organized in any other easily distinguishable way. Winterson experiments with the components of a story and comes out with a tale that is greater than the sum of its parts, even as it is as confusing as it is thought provoking.
As is her wont, Winterson plays with notions of choice and circumstance, mixing in a healthy dose of futuristic science here; given the opportunity to change our appearance at will and select the ideal age to genetically ‘fix’ ourselves, what do most people want? To be beautiful and young, unsurprisingly. To remain ‘unfixed’, to not improve one’s natural physical attributes with cosmetic surgery, this is viewed as abnormal. But what happens when everyone is youthful, well endowed, and gorgeous? At what point is the core of what it means to be human lost?
The first section of the book seems to take place far in the future. Robots are available to perform every menial task. Reading and learning are discouraged; participation in the consumer society is the highest good. Political tensions have escalated between governments that bear a rough resemblance to those we are familiar with today; the planet is dying and space exploration seems the only hope. A new planet is found to colonize, and no single government plans to share it with any other.
Billie works for the so-called democratic government, in a department whose purpose seems to be seeking out unhappy individuals or those who plan to augment their lives or bodies in some unorthodox way (one client seeks to reverse her age to 12 years old in order to keep her husband interested; he, along with many other men who are constantly surrounded by youthful looking women, is attracted to prepubescent girls).
A billion dollar robot has been built, Spike, who is considered to be a new species: Robo sapiens. Glamorous, gorgeous, and freakishly intelligent, Spike has been on a mission to the new planet and ascertained that it is inhabitable, with a few adjustments. Billie, who has maintained an unorthodox lifestyle, living along on a working farm that exists in a ‘biodome’-like state, is blackmailed into becoming part of the first colonization mission because she is perceived as a threat to the status quo. Having carved out a spot for herself outside the fast paced, bright city, Billie is loathe to leave, but recognizes that she does not fit into the system as it has evolved. She muses,
Here is a moment in time, and my choices have been no stranger than millions before me, displaced by war or conscience, leaving the known for the unknown, hesitating, fearing, then finding themselves already on the journey, footprint and memory each imprinting the trail: what you had, what you lost, what you found, no matter how difficult or impossible, the moment when time became a bridge and you crossed it.
Spike and Billie, both misfits in their own way, fall in love on the journey to Planet Blue. Always interested in exploring the theme of voyage, Winterson outfits the spacecraft something like a pirate ship, with casks of wine and storytelling to quicken the journey. The captain has a small library aboard—an uncommon sight in the digital world they’ve left behind. One woman, a bimbo who has won the chance to travel to Planet Blue in a contest, is momentarily interested: “‘Are these things books?’ asked Pink, picking a crumbling volume off the shelf. ‘That’s cute. I’ve never seen one of these.’”
When a plan to render the planet more hospitable to humans (there are some disturbingly large creatures) goes horribly wrong (so much for science and controlling the environment, so much for learning from past mistakes) Billie and Spike fight to survive:
I had no idea what her plan was or what was going to happen to us. We were surviving, and while we were alive, there was always a chance that we could stay alive. / And so we walked, and we walked, and we walked through a world dark-coloured now in purple and red, livid, raw, exposed, like a gutted thing, and always around us, high cries of rage and fear.
Rather than continue the story with an elaboration on Billie and Spike’s struggle to survive, Winterson abandons them to their fate and moves on to a segment of another story. In the second section of The Stone Gods, young Billy is marooned on Easter Island and finds himself throwing in his lot with another European, Spikkers, in a microcosm where two indigenous tribes fight over their stone idols and a bizarre ceremony to determine leadership. Love is found and lost on a desolate island and the story quickly moves back to Billie and Spike in parts three and four of the book. This rapid plot movement and inconsistency in character are both part of what mark Winterson’s playfulness with narrative, as well as make the book feel incomplete in some way, unfinished.
In similar chronological confusion, back on a planet that seems to be our own, and after a third World War, Billie is now involved in the development of Robo sapiens and Spike is no more than a robotic head. The intent is to give her all available data and then use her to provide unemotional, unadulterated advice on political strategy. With no loyalties, and no emotion, a robot is deemed the ideal way to make rational decisions about how to solve major political and environmental problems. Billie’s job is to teach Spike what it means to be human. And as Spike learns about art, poetry and culture, she is no longer sure she wants to serve mankind in the way her creators intended.
In the final portion of The Stone Gods, Billie takes Spike to Wreck City. Here, those unable to recover from the ravages of war subsist: outcasts, mutants, rebels. A black market thrives, and Billie discovers the last remnants of true humanity in the society that has emerged, like a fungus, from damp and radioactive earth, to share what little they have with each other and to find joy in protecting each other and forming their own family of outsiders. As the end approaches, Billie is thoroughly disturbed by the state in which some of these people live, physically torn apart by war and the destructive power of science, yet clinging to life tenaciously. She laments:
And my tears are for the planet because I love it and because we’re killing it, and my tears are for these wars and all this loss, and for the children who have no childhood, and for my childhood, which has somehow turned up again, like an orphan on my doorstep asking to be let in. But I don’t want to open the door.
It is easier to shut the door against our conscience, to ignore the suffering of others. In Wreck City, the door bangs open and refuses to close again.
This is a harsh critique of the Western materialistic culture many people engage in today. In The Stone Gods, Democracy is an illusion, and the disturbing perpetration of mass illiteracy by the government keeps the hoi polloi in their place, caught up in a society of narcissism and sexual perversion. To an individual who has kept herself outside this system, choosing to educate herself and live off the land, even while forced to work a day job for the government, it is exhausting and yet impossible to let go of the remaining essence of her own humanity.
Though scattered and at times confusing, The Stone Gods is disturbing and thought-provoking, and Winterson’s beautiful ability with narrative and language is always fascinating.