The Stone Gods.
Oooh, check it! One of the publicists at Harcourt sent me a book written by one of the big dogs! As you may have noticed, the books I'm usually sent are books by lesser known (although not necessarily less talented, she hastens to add) authors, sometimes by publicists and sometimes by the authors themselves, which is always nice. This means they're almost sure to read it, and if I offer any sort of criticism the author will zero in on it and either write me a note telling me how I got it all wrong, or, in the case of one particular writer, exact her revenge, which you will find out more about in an upcoming review.
Jeanette Winterson, however, is one of the U.K.'s more prominent writers, so she gets reviewed by the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Washington Post, etc. The downside is that nobody will pay attention to my pea-sized blog and what I have to say about this book. The upside, however, is that nobody will pay attention to my pea-sized blog and what I have to say about this book, so I can say whatever I want.
I sure wish I hated the book, then. This would have been a perfect opportunity to rip something to shreds, but not for nothing is Winterson a prize-winning writer.
I'm not going to go so far as to emulate some of the blurbs on the back of it, such as the one written by The Daily Telegraph that said, "...If she keeps on like this there may be a glimmer of hope for the future after all."
I want to have my own book published and get someone to blurb, "This book totally cured my cancer!"
I mean, that is an awesome blurb. I wanted to find the Telegraph review and read that quote in context, because it's possible the reviewer was referring to Winterson's personal career, considered by many to be somewhat erratic. However, I like the idea that Winterson has the ability to save the world through her fiction. Why didn't she write this book back in 2000 when Bush was busy stealing the election? Think of all the damage she could have prevented! Why would she have the ability to produce such life-saving miracles, yet mysteriously withhold them? We already have God for that; we don't need Winterson horning in on his gig.
But Winterson didn't write The Stone Gods to play God, even when she takes the opportunity to smite some very specific targets. Dipping back in to her commonly used theme of love and the search for a place to call home, her latest novel speculates on a future where humankind has reached the inevitable end of consumer culture. Orbus, the planet the human race evacuated to when Earth was finally used up and uninhabitable, has also been used up and is now uninhabitable. The world is run by a corporation, MORE, which monitors the activities of all citizens. The citizens, in the meantime, have put their brains and free will completely in MORE's hands. They are no longer literate, and spend their time spending their money. Plastic surgery has evolved to the point where men and women can "fix" their DNA, keeping them perpetually looking like hot 20-year-olds (which cramps the style of celebrities, who had previously used their money to look much better than the rest of us.) All actual work is done by robots, made by the MORE corporation, including a type of robot called Robo sapiens, that was created to govern the world.
The protagonist, a scientist named Billie Crusoe, is considered a trouble maker, because even though she works for the MORE corporation, she is a lone voice of sanity, begging her species to give a damn about the planet they are so carelessly destroying, through pollution, through war, through the wasteful use of resources. The more loudly she agitates, the more the corporation wants to get rid of her, and finally she is given a choice: be arrested or be on the next spaceship out of town, to colonize a newly discovered, pristine planet that the rich can evacuate to when Orbus is finally dead.
Billie travels to the planet with Spike, an impossibly beautiful and perfectly pleasant Robo sapiens, whose quest for humanity leads to what is either a inter-...species?...love affair between Billie and Spike, or the discovery of the best masturbation tool ever. (And in case all the ecological pleading doesn't persuade you to read the book, maybe some of the hot Robo lingus will.)
The Stone Gods is broken into four parts, initially seeming as dissimilar as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The second part features the Billie character as a teenage boy, Billy, stranded on the Easter Islands in 1774, abandoned by his shipmates and left to fend alone on an island where the inhabitants have utterly destroyed it in order to build useless stone gods. The second two books return to Spike and Billie, this time on planet Earth, right after Iran has launched a nuclear attack on the United States. As Billie and Spike wander through their world, from the cleaned-up suburbs where the MORE employees live, to Wreck City, a lawless land sort of like Blade Runner to Ground Zero, where the soil and air are utterly toxic.
Over and over again, Winterson's characters refuse to learn from their mistakes and continue their path of destruction. On the way to Planet Blue, the ship's captain tells a theme-encapsulating story, which he of course misses the point and continues in his quest to conquer and consume.
There was a young man with a hot temper. He was not all bad, but he was reckless, and he drank more than he should, and spent more than he could, and gave a ring to more women than one, and gambled himself into a corner so tight an ant couldn't turn round in it. Once night, in despair, and desperate with worry, he got into a fight outside a bar, and killed a man.
Mad with fear and remorse, for he was more hot-tempered than wicked, and stupid when he could have been wise, he locked himself into his filthy bare attic room and took the revolver that had killed his enemy, loaded it, cocked it and prepared to blast himself to pieces.
In the few moments before he pulled the trigger, he said, "If I had known that all that I have done would bring me to this, I would have led a very different life. If I could live my life again, I would not be here, with the trigger in my hand and the barrel at my head."
His good angel was sitting by him and, felling pity for the young, man, the angel flew to Heaven and interceded on his behalf.
The in all his six-winged glory, the angel appeared before the terrified boy, and granted him his wish. "In full knowledge of what you have become, go back and begin again."
And suddenly, the young man had another chance.
For a time, all went well. He was sober, upright, true, thrifty. Then one night he passed a bar, and it seemed familiar to him, and he went in and gambled all he had, and he met a woman and told her he had no wife, and he stole from his employer, and spent all he could.
And his debts mounted with his despair, and he decided to gamble everything on one last throw of the dice. This time, as the wheel spun and slowed, his chance would be on the black, not the red. This time, he would win.
The ball fell in the fateful place, as it must.
The young man had lost.
He ran outside, but the men followed him, and in a brawl with the bar owner, he shot him dead, and found himself alone and hunted in a filthy attic room.
He took out his revolver. He primed it. He said, "If I'd known that I could do such a thing again, I would never have risked it. I would have lived a different life. If I had known where my actions would lead me..."
And his angel came, and sat by him, and took pity on him once again, and interceded for him, and...
And years passed, and the young man was doing well until he came to a bar that seemed familiar to him...
Bullets, revolver, attic, angel, begin again. Bar, bullets, revolver, attic, angel, begin again...angel, bar, ball, bullets...
Like the lonesome (and deliberately named) Crusoe, Winterson issues an outsider's plaintive cry to love and to rescue our planet from ourselves before it is too late. On her website, Winterson writes, "I heard Stephen Hawking on the radio talking about how humans must colonise space to have any chance of survival, and I thought what a depressing prognosis of our condition that is. Maybe it’s a boy-thing, this infatuation with rocket ships and rocky worlds. I would prefer to stay here and honour the earth."
The Stone Gods
by Jeanette Winterson
April, 2008 by Harcourt