The OF Blog: Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods

This new world weighs a yatto-gram.

But everything is trial-size; tread-on-me tiny or blurred-out-of-focus huge. There are leaves that have grown as big as cities, and there are birds that nest in cockleshells. On the white sand there are long-toed clawprints deep as nightmares, and there are rock pools in hand-hollows finned by invisible fish.

Trees like skyscrapers, and housing as many. Grass the height of hedges, nuts the swell of pumpkins. Sardines that would take two men to land them. Eggs, pale-blue-shelled, each the weight of a breaking universe.

And, underneath, mushrooms soft and small as a mouse ear. A crack like a nut, and inside a million million microbes wondering what to do next. Spores that wait for the wind and never look back.

Moss that is concentrating on being green. (p. 3)
Jeanette Winterson's latest book, The Stone Gods, begins with the discovery of something pristine, inviolate, and pure. It is a primeval pastoral scene, one that stands out in stark contrast to what most readers would see if they were to look out the nearest window. It is a scene of a world just discovered, existing some light-years away from the formerly blue planet Orbus, a place where humans have not wreaked havoc upon the ecosystem. But now that it known to be there, it is time to go and to (de)spoil it.

The Stone Gods begins as a satire of human greed and insecurity. In a place where people are genetically "fixed" to a predetermined age (more and more women choosing to be "fixed" around the age of 12 to please their young flesh-greedy husbands), where artificial intelligent life has emerged to co-exist with regular humans (robo sapiens, heavy on that italicized sapiens), surrounded by visible signs of material constructs standing in place of "true" human feeling, two characters stand in the midst of this maelstrom of cupidity and short-sightedness. Billie Crusoe, her name perhaps an intentional echo of De Foe's hero, and her robo sapien companion, Spike, are assigned to colonize this newly-discovered new planet. But when it is revealed that the mission involves a certain devastating event to occur to make it "habitable" for humans, Winterson's tale begins to take root and to grow beyond its satiric beginnings.

In reading this short 207 page book, I found myself considering Winterson's book from many different vantage points: as a social satire of our increasingly plastic beauty world, as a critique of our failings in regards to our environment, as a look at how we view gender and race in society, and as a devastating commentary about the consequences of our chronic short-sightedness. Winterson's book concentrates much more upon the relating of each of these themes via conversations between Billie and Spike than through any substantive action. The time and locale shifts rapidly during the course of this book, although never so fast as to preclude a full understanding of what is transpiring. Take for instance this one chilling scene aboard the ship about a quarter of the way into the novel. Billie is speaking with Pink McMurphy, another crewmate:

Pink McMurphy was staring at me with eyes the size of moons. 'Did you murder someone?'

'I was campaigning against Genetic Reversal.'

'But why?'

'Because it makes people fucked up and miserable.'

'Y'know, I'd be fucked up and miserable anyway - and if I'm going to be fucked up and miserable, I'd rather be young, fucked up and miserable. Who wants to be depressed and have skin that looks like fried onions?'

'Pink, I just visited you on a professional basis and you wanted to refix from age twenty-four to age twelve.'

'I have pressing personal circumstances.'

'You have a husband who is a paedophile.'

'He's just sentimental. When we go shopping, he always likes to visit the toy store. Men, y'know, they don't grow up - it makes sense that they like girls.'

'It doesn't make sense to me. We have a society where routine cosmetic surgery and genetic Fixing are considered normal -'

Pink interrupted me, patting my knee with a clear, unspotted, unaged and manicured hand. 'It is normal...What was no normal about getting old? It's great that we have Fixing and laser. I'm fifty-eight in old years, but I look and I feel fantastic.' Pink demonstrated her great feel-good fantasticness by bouncing her silicon tits a little higher out of her dress. 'Nobody has to look horrible any more - it's been a winner for confidence.'

'If you're so confident, why do you want to be twelve years old?'

'I told you a hundred times - I love my husband and I want his attention. I'll never get it aged twenty-four. I even had my vagina reduced. I'm tight as a screwtop bottle.' Fortunately there was no demonstration this time. I relaxed. (p. 58)
The majority of the novel consists of conversations such as this one, discussions where the most inane and pointless "developments" are shown to be so utterly ridiculous not by any outright condemnation (although on occasion Billie will step towards the "fourth wall" and seem to address the reader with her complaints), but rather by how others defend such tripe. Add to this a narrative that subtly loops time and place, and what one gets is a culminative effect that would be so damning if it weren't mitigated by what is transpiring within the Billie/Spike relationship dynamics. The Stone Gods as a whole rises above the sum of its (often very funny) parts and becomes a cautionary tale that never loses sight of the human element. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: September 2007 (UK); March 2008 (US), Hardcover.

Publishers: Hamish Hamilton (UK); Harcourt (US).

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