I don’t pretend any impartiality when reading a new book by Jeanette Winterson: I’ve been a fan for fifteen years or more. But I’ve only been a fan because the books were so good. I say were because for every work of dazzling brilliance in her early career, such as Sexing the Cherry or Written on the Body, there’s been a mid-period borderline clunker like Gut Symmetries or The Powerbook. Winterson attracts extreme reactions, which is probably down to which of her books you read first. But her last novel Lighthousekeeping was a real return to form, so my heart is in my mouth on the edge of my seat over her new book The Stone Gods.
The Stone Gods is Winterson’s most fun to read book probably since 1989’s Sexing the Cherry. It’s a satire, a dystopian vision, and an historical reimagining. All her novels since 1992’s Written on the Body have celebrated love as humankind’s greatest achievement; The Stone Gods goes further, celebrating it as robotkind’s greatest achievement too.
We open with the news, sometime in the future, that a new world has been discovered – Planet Blue – which is ideal for humans to occupy: “But everything is trial-size … Sardines that would take two men to land them … mushrooms soft and small as a mouse ear. A crack like a cut, 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.” People, who have not been concentrating on being green, have used up Earth (or Orbus as it’s known in the book) and Planet Blue is an ideal opportunity for a fresh start.
And boy does this world need a fresh start. Winterson assembles an over-the-top hyperbolic version of reality, full of strongly drawn archetypes in a world obsessed with celebrity, youthful sex and law enforcement. The western world, run by corporations, is known as the Central Power, a thinly disguised USA, and everyone can be ‘Fixed’ to look how they want and to prevent ageing:
Making everyone young and beautiful also made us all bored to death with sex. All men are hung like whales. All women are tight as clams below and inflated like lifebuoys above. Jaws are square, skin is tanned, muscles are toned, and no one gets turned on. It’s a global crisis. At least, it’s a crisis among the cities of the Central Power. The Eastern Caliphate has banned genetic fixing, and the SinoMosco Pact does not make it available to all its citizens, only to members of the ruling party and their favourites. That way the leaders look like star gods and the rest look like shit-shovellers. They never claimed to be a democracy.
The Central Power is a democracy. We look alike, except for rich people and celebrities, who look better. That’s what you’d expect in a democracy.
There is full-blooded and passion-driven broad satire on everything from sexualisation of youth (“Now that everyone is young and beautiful, a lot of men are chasing girls who are just kids. They want something different when everything has become the same”) to charity (“I make a voluntary donation to this month’s charity, which is Apes in the Wild. ‘There isn’t any Wild,’ I say. ‘Exactly so,’ says Tasha. ‘The money is to create a strip of Wild, and then put Apes in it'”).
The narrator is Billie Crusoe, who works in Enhancement (“It’s my job in Enhancement to explain to people that they really do want to live their lives in a way that is good for them and good for the Community. Enforcement steps in when it doesn’t quite work out”) but her heart isn’t quite in it. She’s about to fall in love with a living robot called Spike, and some of her thoughts about the proposed colonization of Planet Blue are not very on-message:
She needs us like a bed needs bedbugs. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say to the planet that can’t hear me. And I wish she could sail through space, unfurling her white clouds to solar winds, and find a new orbit, empty of direction, where we cannot go, and where we can never find her, and where the sea, clean as a beginning, will wash away any trace of humankind.
After a breakneck first half, where the jokes turn to high drama, the book suddenly switches to another mode, goes all Cloud Atlas on us, and just as we’re settling in to that, we go back into what seems to be Billie and Spike’s past, which is only a little way into our future. Winterson fits so much into 200 pages that I kept checking back to ensure the book was numbered properly. Even when she’s hectoring us, providing too-neat allegories, or devolving at the end into a drawn-out eulogy on love (familiar to readers of any of her last four or five books), her lyrical gift, always her greatest strength (“hostile atmospheres, captured in jars and swirling like genies”), is so immense that I found it impossible not to drum my heels in merriment more or less throughout.
In the later sections of the book, Winterson also reinvents her childhood and adoption, most famously visited by her before in her debut Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, and shows that the love she writes most effectively about is not from lover to beloved, but from parent to child:
My mother came home from the mill and made a detour round the gasworks to the Adoption Society. She found a foothold in the back wall and hauled herself up, goat-style, to stand on top of the coping slabs and look in through the window. There were several cots, high-sided and severe.
She stood like a lighthouse, like a pulsar, and I was a radio telescope that caught the signal. There she is, a star the size of a city, pulsing through the universe with burned-out energy. I know you’re there, I know where you are, I can track you because we are the same stuff.
The Stone Gods achieved early notice in the news when the manuscript was left on a train platform earlier this year. Winterson shows there are no hard feelings by seeming to make neat references to this in the book. She also preempts criticisms of the ending by having a character say, “The book isn’t finished, but this is as far as I could go.” I didn’t mind. I just wanted to turn to the beginning and start again.