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How to Wreck a Planet

By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

The Stone Gods

by Jeanette Winterson
Harcourt, 2008

My town is too small for a big-chain bookstore. Instead, we have Bay Book and Tobacco. Yes, tobacco. Wedged between audio book displays and across from nonfiction bestsellers is a glass-enclosed room smaller than most McMansion bathrooms, and inside it are shelves lined with pipes, cigars, and jars and pouches of tobacco. Thanks to an outdated air-filtering system, the sweet yet pungent scent of tobacco permeates the store, evoking images of winged-back reading chairs, smoking jackets, and shelves of leather bound classics. Books and tobacco – a throwback to a wireless age. Surprisingly, Bay Book and Tobacco happens to be a stripmall mecca for readers of sci-fi and fantasy novels because there, in the back corner, not far from the tobacco room, is a sci-fi and fantasy collection that rivals that of much larger bookstores. Sci-fi and tobacco? Blade Runner meets Robinson Crusoe. Now we’re in the right place to discuss Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel.

Winterson is not one of those writers who have settled their readers into a predictable literary niche. Entering a Winterson novel is like entering a small cave, then flashing your light onto what you think is the far wall and instead discovering a room of cathedral proportions. And what lurks in its alcoves? Could be anything. Napoleon. A girl with a tulip penis. A starving man eating his wife’s buttocks for dinner. A woman with a diamond buried in her hip. An orphan girl adopted by a blind lighthouse-keeper. A French soldier with his feet frozen to the insides of a dead horse. Winterson’s artistic terrain is vast – often discomforting. She dares readers to follow her and they do. Why? Is it for the romance and the sex? Is it for the crawl-beneath-your-skin intimacy she achieves with nearly every character she puts on the page? Is it for her compact, dead-on smithing of words? All strong possibilities. Is it for the epiphanies? Doubtful. Unfortunately, it is epiphanies (and worse yet, those of Winterson, not her character’s) that seem to be the point of her latest offering, The Stone Gods.

After nine novels, The Stone Gods arrives with a hitherto unexplored portion of Winterson’s literary cave – the future. Gone is the past – Sappho’s Greece in Art and Lies, the Napoleonic era in The Passion, a 19th century Bristol lighthouse in Lighthousekeeping, and 17th century Turkish tulip smugglers in The Powerbook. What could we possibly fear from following Winterson into the future? If we read her interview in New Scientist from last August where she declared, “I hate science fiction,” then there is much to fear. Winterson may claim that she hasn’t abandoned the past; afterall her futuristic allegory in the opening section of The Stone Gods is revealed to be the story of human’s habitation of Mars in the deep past. My reply to her claim would be that plenty of Star Trek episodes dressed Spock, Kirk, Picard, and Data in 19th century garb and sent them back in time, but the stories remained science fiction; they remained stories that speculate on mankind’s place in the universe even while set in an alternate reality.

At the start of The Stone Gods, Planet Orbus is dying – its resources have been used and abused beyond the point of possible renewal. It’s time for humans to move on to Planet Blue, a newly discovered planet with all the resources they could ever want. There’s one problem – dinosaurs. Dinosaurs? Planet Orbus has mysterious red dust but its inhabitants have never seen the likes of a dinosaur before. Need to get rid of those things. Orbus’ Captain Handsome sends an asteroid into a sulfur-rich region of Planet Blue and causes a contained catastrophe to wipe out these dinosaurs so humans can settle on this new planet free of predators. Slight miscalculation – wrong impact zone. Now the humans must wait until the Ice Age ends before they can re-populate. The stranded colony of Orbus breeders will have to suffer through the Ice Age without help from the mother planet. Ahhh … now we get it. Humans trash their homes and move on, never learning to stop and treasure what they’ve been given. Winterson’s epiphany delivered with a bludgeon. Here are three bludgeoning examples from the first forty pages:

We are running out of planet and we have found a new one. Through all the bright-formed rocks that jewel the sky, we searched until we found the one we will call home. We’re moving that’s all. Everyone has to do that sometime or other, sooner or later, it’s only natural.

The doomsters and the environmentalists kept telling us we were as good as dead and, hey presto, not only do we find a new planet, but it is perfect for new life. This time, we’ll be more careful. This time we will learn from our mistakes.

I can’t believe that we have reached the end of everything. The red dust is frightening. The carbon dioxide is real. Water is expensive. Bio-tech has created as many problems as it has fixed, but, but, we’re here, we’re alive, we’re the human race, we have survived wars and terrorism and scarcity and global famine, and we have made it back from the brink, not once but many times. History is not a suicide note – it is a record of our survival.

In “A Work of My Own,” an essay from her 1996 collection, Art Objects, Winterson writes, “In my own fiction I try to drive together lyric intensity and breadth of ideas.” Indeed, in her previous novels, Winterson’s lyricism slips the reader into the very skin of her characters until we feel almost smothered by their voice, their thoughts, their fears, their sex. Here’s an example from Written on the Body, the words spoken by a narrator who is serial-lover of undetermined gender:

We lay on our bed in the rented room and I fed you plums the colour of bruises. Nature is fecund but fickle. One year she leaves you to starve, the next year she kills you with love. That year the branches were torn beneath the weight, this year they sing in the wind. There are no ripe plums in August. Have I got it wrong, this hesitant chronology? Perhaps I should call it Emma Bovary’s eyes or Jane Eyre’s dress. I don’t know. I’m in another rented room now trying to find the place to go back to where things went wrong. Where I went wrong. You were driving but I was lost in my navigation.

In the opening “Planet Blue” section of The Stone Gods, there’s such a lack of lyric intensity and such a preponderance of immature, two-dimensional characters that it makes one wonder if it is part of Winterson’s artistic vision that no amount of pretty words or flawed beautiful humans can save this planet. We seem left to suffer the burden of overwhelming technical details of this alternate past in order to prove that trashing planets is a very bad thing to do. A woman named Billy Crusoe, the novel’s main character, uses Sesame Street poetics that match her immaturity to enlighten the reader on the finer points of living on Planet Orbus:

S is for Solo – a single-seater solar-powered transport vehicle. L is for Limo, a multi-seater hybrid. S is for short-distance. L is for long-distance. Single-letter recognition is taught in school.

Is Winterson taking a swipe at Ray Bradbury (R is for Rocket and S is for Space)? I hope not. This device seems to be another bludgeon used to deliver an addendum to Winterson’s message – the characters might look like adults but when it comes to taking responsibility for their actions and anticipating consequences, they are children. The reader with an SUV in his garage and air-conditioning at full-blast is meant to squirm under the accusation.

Billy’s love object, the female Robo sapien Spike (don’t ask, don’t tell – interspecies sex is against Orbus law), is dying in a cave at the start of Planet Blue’s Ice Age. In a rare honest and tender moment, Billy holds Spike’s head in her lap. She reads an excerpt from the journal of James Cook about his visit to Easter Island in 1774 and then:

Her [Spike’s] head is light, so light it weighs nothing. This new world that I found and lost weighs nothing at all. Is this the universe, lying across the knees of one who mourns? Things dying…then new-born.

This is the love story held up for the reader to contemplate – a human and a robot? Man and technology? But isn’t that the love story that Winterson has told us brought Planet Orbus to the brink of environmental disaster and started an Ice Age on Planet Blue? Humans have relied on technology to cheat their way into the future – burn coal, make and install filters to clean it up a bit, no harm done, keep burning coal. Can’t find love among the dumb humans? Take this made-to-order robot instead, and be sure to keep her solar batteries charged and the conversation stimulating. Reading the story of Billy and Spike’s love affair made me feel like the inmates broke out of prison for just long enough to leave a gaping hole in Winterson’s message.

The “Blue Planet” section then concludes: “Close your eyes and dream. This is one story. There will be another.” And, as quick as the click of ruby slippers, we’ve landed on Easter Island in 1774. With a gentle nod to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, we find ourselves with another character named Billy, a male this time, and another Spike, or rather Spikkers – half Dutch, half Islander – also changed to a male. The voice switches to one approximating that of Robinson Crusoe: “I cannot say the sight was aught but dismal as the Valley of the Shadow of Death is dismal to them that must cross it.” This switch is a welcome relief; finally a mature voice, the promise of a complex character. Though there’s a message about environmental disaster in this section as well – the islanders destroy every tree on the island in order to worship their Stone Gods – this message is transmitted through stories, glorious stories, about the cutting down of the island’s last tree, about the feud between the Bird Man and the White Man, and about the battle for leadership over a barren and barely-populated island. And Winterson unleashes even more of her rhapsodic prose as she allows Billy to sit in a cave on this island and ponder a mercifully subtle subtext of the novel: what does it mean to be human?

I do not know if Man has a Soul, but if he does, then it follows in the wake of his Ship, like an albatross or frigate-bird. I do not believe that he carries it within him like a shadowy shape of himself inside himself, and that is the reason his Soul is nowhere to be found at death, for it does not keep its residence in a man’s body, but in his purpose. As I go forward my Soul comes after me to see what it is that I do, for there is a curiosity there, like that of a seabird, that ploughs the wake of a Ship and then flies away no man knows where.

Reading this passage made me more keenly aware that the first section of this novel was too much message and too little lyricism. Alas, all too soon, it’s time for Billy to watch Spikkers die – “a white Bird opens its wings” – and we’re on our way to the “Post-3War” section of the novel. Oh no, back to the future….

But wait. We turn the page and, can it be? Was all that we just read a dream? No, it was a novel!

I was traveling home on the Tube tonight and I noticed that someone had left a pile of paper on the seat opposite… The Stone Gods, said the title. OK, must be anthropology. Some thesis, some PhD. What’s that place with the statues? Easter Island?
I flicked through it. No point starting at the beginning – nobody ever does. Reading at random is better: maybe hit the sex scenes straight away… a love story, that’s what it is – maybe about aliens. I hate science fiction.

Oh dear. Yes, another Billy has appeared, female again, and another Spike, a female robot head (her body is still being assembled). Like a Star Trek episode, time has warped on us; somewhere along the line, what we’ve been reading has become a book to be read within a book. Stories that loop round each other, shift, repeat. Where is Steven Hawking to explain the theories of time? Can I now dismiss the flat characters and uninteresting language of the first section of the novel because they were supposed to be the abandoned attempt of a first novel? No such luck. A looping satellite message bounced off the moon, a message sent by Spike before she dies on Planet Blue, is received at the end of the novel and reduces the possibility that the first section can be written-off as Winterson simply spoofing science fiction to make her point. She raises thought-provoking themes concerning the struggle to discern fact from fabrication, and the exploration of this conflict seems to have dire consequences when it comes to predicting humans’ ability to protect the future by learning from the past. Unfortunately, like the nature of what it means to be human, this all-important thread is left dangling from the novel’s tapestry. We must, after all, return to The Message and for that we need to return to Billy.

There exists some promise in the start of this final Billy story that we’ll be given the best of Winterson’s prose, the best of her storytelling, that this Billy will show some maturity, some depth of humor.

My grandmother cut the cord with her teeth. Her teeth were false and the greasy, bloody umbilical cord caught in her top plate and pulled it out. She went to soak it in Steradent and left my mother to her first milking.
Joy. I wanted to be born. I wanted to be here. Fear. She didn’t know what to do next. She was young, seventeen. My grandmother was not yet forty. But it was a different world then because the world is always remaking itself, and after the war there was a lot of remaking to be done. I was born in the ashes of the fire, and I learned how to burn.

But too soon we leave such moments that speak to the human condition and go back on-message:

In America a different kind of religious extremism, committed to Armageddon, liked the idea of the Antichrist appearing as a planet-saving Democrat, and spent as much time and money as they could wasting as much time and money as they could in the name of conservation.

Human beings are the most aggressive species on the planet. They will readily kill each other for territory and resources, but they will also kill each other for worshipping the wrong sky-god, or for failing to worship any god at all.

Okay, enough already. Here’s a quick summation. In this new timeline, Iran launches a nuclear attack on the USA and Europe gets caught in the fray. A corporation called MORE-Futures steps in to save the day for Tech City (London), but leaves Wreck City on its outskirts for the mutants and discontents. Billy, who’s indoctrinating Spike the female robot so she can become MORE-Futures’ presidential mouthpiece, decides to take Spike’s head for a fieldtrip to Wreck City. Chaos ensues. Billy Crusoe meets her Friday (a barman with lots of answers), Japanese tourists are killed, Spike is abducted by women who eat nothing but canned sardines and get her to perform cunnilingus on them with her vibrating tongue, mutant children — victims of the nuclear holocaust – emerge from the dark woods for scraps of food, and Billy discovers a satellite dish with a secret message and weeps over the hopelessness of it all. And just as I’m about to give up on the whole shebang because it’s too much like a bad Japanese horror movie, I receive my last revelation and get sent on my way:

A quantum universe – neither random nor determine. A universe of potentialities, waiting for an intervention to affect the outcome.
Love is an intervention.
Why do we not choose it?

Love will save us if we stop acting like children and change our evil ways. Wow, like, cool man! What an epiphany! Too bad I’m too busy searching for complex characters and their story on Planet Message to do a love intervention.

Upon finishing this book, most readers, especially Winterson fans, will probably feel betrayed. While Winterson fans expect the unexpected when it comes to characters, their stories, and their settings, what we don’t expect is a novel lacking in Winterson’s usual lyricism and complexity. Further on in her essay “A Work of My Own,” Winterson says that, “Huge pieces of work are particularly difficult to sustain and it seems inevitable that the lighter measures within them sometimes become so light that they evaporate, or so weighed down with their author’s sweat that they weigh us down with them.” The lyrical chords that were struck in The Stone Gods sounded beautiful, but like the piccolo in a symphony, were soon drowned out by the booming timpani of Winterson’s ideas.

In The Stone Gods, Winterson’s sweat from molding an alternate reality setting to fit her artistic vision weighs down the brilliance that peaks from the folds of this. The love story between Billy and Spike is at the heart of each of the novel’s sections but can never give form to Winterson’s revelation that love provides the power to transform our world; moreover, their love is set in motion in an alternate reality described in a contemptuous voice, full of pointed and damning messages and lacking in lyricism and complexity. This battle between Winterson’s message of love and the hate she feels for the science fiction setting she creates is fatal to The Stone Gods. Hopefully, now that Winterson has skewered science fiction and the humans in it, she can return to her cave, undergo a love intervention, and bring us a real story.

Karen Vanuska’s short fiction has appeared in Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She is at work on a novel entitled Window to the West and lives in Half Moon Bay, CA. Her literary blog is found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/