The Stone Gods

In May 1969, science fiction titan Isaac Asimov published an essay entitled “The Power of Progression.” A fervent believer in population control as a necessary first step to solving mankind’s many problems, Asimov — in what seems a moment of icy-eyed and angry despair — decided to use his mathematical skills and prodigious imagination to highlight the dangerous arrogance of our species when it came to outstripping our environment. Assuming the historical rate of population growth and adding in the magical ability to transform all of creation into sustenance and thus exponentially replicate ourselves across the entire cosmos without hindrance, Asimov asked, “How long would it take for the entire mass of the known universe to be turned into flesh and blood?” The answer: a shockingly short 6,700 years.

Something of Asimov’s sense of outrage, futility, urgency, and incredulity at humanity’s perverse, self-destructive blindness to its own best interests inheres in Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods. But whereas Asimov’s essay — and all his fiction — hewed to scientific logic and speculative rigor, and sought to use the tropes and tools of science fiction in the most modern manner available, Winterson takes a cavalier, freestyle, impressionistic and somewhat disdainful approach to her foray into the genre.

The result is the kind of defiantly non-kowtowing SF novel by a literary writer that threatens to make the heads of SF fans explode. (Paul Theroux’s 1986 novel O-Zone is a good prior example.) That’s all fine and dandy — there’s no particular virtue in honoring shibboleths for their own sake — but I suspect that even Winterson’s natural audience is bound to find this tale a bit unsatisfying in its lack of depth, its misanthropic malaise and general absence of real novelty.

Winterson’s book presents a fractured mosaic narrative about a ravaged planet — perhaps our own Earth, although at times the home world is called Orbus — inhabited by the survivors of a global war and general ecological collapse. Living under the aegis of a benevolently autocratic corporation named MORE, the survivors are on the verge of destroying another world in addition to their own — much as Asimov pictured humanity spreading as a cosmic plague, the all-engorging Blob that bears our own selfish DNA.

The first half of this novel, “Planet Blue,” introduces us to Billie Crusoe, a woman working reluctantly as a kind of government spin-control flack or PR expert. Billie’s current assignment revolves around the discovery of a virginal new planet that the government is intent on exploiting. Conducting an interview with the humanoid female robot named Spike who was part of the first expedition to Planet Blue, Billie ends up learning more than is safe for her to know. She and Spike end up as lovers exiled to Planet Blue, where their fate is terminal.
A major thread in this portion of the novel is broadly satirical, in the classic manner of Stanislaw Lem and Robert Sheckley. Silly lesser robots hand out traffic violations and mis-perform domestic duties. Catch-22 governmental decrees abound. Unfortunately, Winterson’s gift for this strain of writing is less than inspirational, and her comic riffs fall short of, say, the always on-target and au courant wit of Matt Groening’s Futurama. And when the plot veers into tragedy, the satiric tone is shattered.

A small historical interlude follows. “Easter Island,” which seems to draw on Jared Diamond’s theories in his Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, finds an avatar of Billie cast away in the 1700s, as part of the famous James Cook voyage. Here the meaning and symbolism of Winterson’s title becomes manifest. The “stone gods” are the literal giant statues of Easter Island. Metaphorically, they represent any blind pursuit of arbitrary status and technological supremacy that results in bankruptcy of spirit and resources.

The final two sections of the novel, “Post-3 War” and “Wreck City,” are of a piece, one picking up directly from the other. In this alternate scenario, Billie is a robotics expert helping to educate the nascent Spike, who has yet to acquire a body and is only a self-contained head. On an innocent educational field trip, Billie and Spike accidentally stray into an anarchic outlaw interzone and a vengeful MORE believes them to be defectors, pursuit ensuing. At this point, metatextual references to a book Billie finds called The Stone Gods begin to predominate, and a kind of Eternal Recurrence plot circularity — slightly hopeful and yet dismally fatalistic — obtains to close out the novel.

The motive force propelling Winterson through all these multiversal shenanigans is a justifiable disgust with “the ugliness of what we had built, the ugliness of how we had destroyed it, the brutal, stupid, money-soaked, drunken binge of twenty-first-century world.” Indeed, Billie finds it hard to imagine “a human society that wasn’t just disgust.” But while such a personal emotional stance is completely comprehensible and perhaps even justifiable in light of current events, it winds up serving as an insufficient narrative engine for a novel. It may not be necessary to be an “up with people” cheerleader, but as authors such as Will Self have demonstrated, a blackness of affect and tone does not preclude solid, engrossing storytelling.

Give Winterson full credit, though, for the universality of her barbs. Groups you might expect to get a bye come in for their share of disdain. I had to chuckle at the “Lesbian Vegans” who are “dinosaur-friendly” and wish to make an apologetic pilgrimage to the Mexican site of the asteroid crater that memorializes the impact that wiped out our saurian cousins. And yet at times the author inexplicably pulls her punches, as when she castigates fast-food merchants under the fake names of “MacDuck’s” and “Burger Princess.”

The Stone Gods is never concerned with giving us realistic futurist scenarios of the doom that awaits us, and that’s its privilege. But its lightweight and sour parodic punch, its hectoring Cassandra rants, fail to compensate for its lack of vigorous speculations.