Some science fiction book lovers have a dark mythology in their heads about literary poaching: literary authors lift speculative ideas and themes, handle them clumsily, and then insult the genre they're pillaging. It's a paranoid fantasy, and mostly not true. But I have a feeling Jeanette Winterson's newest novel, The Stone Gods, will become something of a posterchild for that viewpoint. It's too bad, since once you get past Winterson's clumsiness around speculative themes, you find something stranger and more provocative than either SF or literature. Spoilers are in the offing.
The Stone Gods tells the story of two characters, three different times. The first time, Billie is a cynical human who gets roped into helping colonize a new planet, and Spike is the beautiful slutty android who falls in love with her. The second time, Billy is a cabin boy who gets marooned on Easter Island, and Spikker is the Dutch sailor, also marooned, who competes with natives to harvest a precious seagull egg. And then the third time around, Spike is a female android again, but she's under construction and is just a head so far. Billie is a software engineer helping to create Billie. And then there's a twist at the end of the book that brings the three narratives together. It's cute, even if you see it coming a long way off.
Winterson has dabbled in science fictional themes, so it's not surprising that her new novel The Stone Gods is full of androids, space colonization and post-apocalypses. Her second novel, Sexing The Cherry, had a sort of time-travel motif. But Stone Gods is probably Winterson's most scifi book so far.
Too bad she's so clueless about how to deal with speculative world-building. Chances are, most science fiction readers won't make it past the first 20 pages of Stone Gods before the urge to start tearing the pages gets too overwhelming. Winterson goes for the "massive info-dump" theory in establishing her future setting. And just in case you don't understand how brave and new her world is, she starts way too many paragraphs with a weird alphabet game. "F is for future." "R is for robot." Etc. etc. (No, I'm not kidding. She actually starts a paragraph "R is for robot.")
It's sad, because the dystopian futures she creates are actually extremely compelling — at the start of the book, we see a more dissolute version of our world, where everyone is genetically "fixed" to look young and beautiful, and pedophilia is becoming accepted. (Early on, we meet a woman who is trying to have herself genetically modified to become a 12-year-old "Lolita" for her husband, who visits a sex club featuring bestiality and pedophilia.) And then towards the end of the book, we encounter another future dystopia, where a nuclear war has left the world under the domination of the MORE corporation, which owns everything. (Humans can't own property, but they can rent things from MORE, in a weird sort of corporate communism.)
In all three of the linked stories, Winterson explores the idea that humans are destroying the planet through not just greed, but the pursuit of stupid status symbols. (Like the "stone gods" of the book's title, which are the Easter Island statues that the tribespeople ruin the island's ecosystem to create.) And just in case we miss the significance of her message, she includes some long rambling lectures towards the end.
I have a feeling Stone Gods could have been a great novel — and a great piece of speculative fiction — if Winterson had only been edited more heavily, or forced to do a total rewrite. It's full of great ideas, and every time I was about to give up on it completely, I hit on another fascinating scene, or another piece of beautiful lyrical writing. Winterson's major comfort zone is obviously writing "queer romance," so when the various permutations of Spike and Billie have a tender moment, the quality of the prose suddenly goes way up.
And Stone Gods has moments of genuine cleverness — like the sequence where the expedition to colonize a new human homeworld fucks up spectacularly. It reminded me of the wonderful turning point in The Sparrow where the humans mistakenly send their shuttle to pick up some of their crew — and then realize they don't have enough fuel to get off the planet any more. I like reading science fiction where people make disastrous mistakes, because this happens a lot in real life and not nearly as often in regular science fiction. It's interesting to me that both The Sparrow and The Stone Gods were sold as literature — I'm racking my brains to think of novels published as science fiction where human error by the good guys plays a major role.
But as it is, the Stone Gods doesn't just fail as science fiction. It fails as metafiction as well, and for much the same reason. Winterson uses a whole passel of postmodern tricks (most notably the three permutations of the same story, but also a host of stylistic tricks). But she's not engaged enough to use them all that well, and you can't escape the feeling that all of the cleverness (like the main character of the third segment finding a manuscript of the rest of the book) is a way of covering up a certain disengagement from the story and characters.
It's hard to care about these people, because you get the feeling Winterson doesn't quite care about them either. They're just a platform for Winterson's ideas. All three versions of Billie are sort of disaffected and unlikeable. And all three versions of Spike are sweet and naive, but a little superficial.
For another point of view on Winterson's novel, here's a thoughtful review by brilliant Ribofunk author Paul DiFilippo.