Monday, November 26, 2007

The Maybe Islands

The Stone Gods
by Jeanette Winterson
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007
(to be published in the US by Houghton on April Fools Day 2008)

I first encountered Jeanette Winterson through her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a fairly naturalistic account of growing up lesbian in a working-class Pentecostal family in northern England. After that I read her novels more or less as they appeared in the US. (So far I haven’t gotten to Boating For Beginners, her retelling of the story of Noah’s ark, which Winterson dismisses as a potboiler, and one or two others.) After Written on the Body, which dazzled me, I began to notice what seemed to me a loss of energy in her writing. This was confirmed for me by her collection of stories, The World and Other Places. The stories were arranged in order of writing, and the earlier ones gave me as much pleasure as I’d remembered her earlier fiction doing; like her later novels, the later stories became more distanced and abstracted. Her writing was as skillful as ever, but something was missing.

Then a comment on Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For blog linked to Ursula K. LeGuin’s review of Winterson’s new novel, The Stone Gods. As the commenter said, LeGuin was “critically enthusiastic” about the novel, though I can’t recall the novel’s “characters … repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction.” (Looking over the text, I found one such announcement, but I’m not sure it should be taken literally. If you read the book, you’ll see why.) LeGuin also complained that “to me, both the love stories in the book are distressingly sentimental”, though she conceded that sentimentality “is very much a matter of the reader's sensibility.” I disagree about the love stories in The Stone Gods, which I enjoyed, especially since similar criticisms could be (and have been) raised about the love stories in LeGuin’s fiction, as in science fiction generally. Ditto for the novel’s didacticism; SF has always had a didactic streak, as LeGuin knows, but I never found Winterson’s commentary intrusive. She’s sharp and witty, and her ideas are interesting. One word that never occurs in LeGuin’s review is satire, and like so much SF The Stone Gods is satire, the love child of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Female Man. The question about satire is not whether it’s subtle, or whether it’s didactic, or even whether it’s sentimental, but whether it hits its mark.

The Stone Gods
begins with the announcement of the discovery of Planet Blue, which except for a few dinosaurs is pristine and hospitable to human life. Since it is universally agreed that human beings have ruined the planet we have, Planet Blue looks like a great place to start over, learning from our mistakes and doing it right this time. (Are you done laughing? One reason I love Winterson is her disdain for this evergreen daydream.) Billie Crusoe, the narrator, works for Enhancement Services of the Central Power, one of three major power blocs on her planet of Orbus. "Enhancement" refers to the appearance modification that is practiced universally in the Central Power:
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 [19].
Somehow Billie is assigned to interview a Robo sapiens named Spike, a cosmetically female robot that has just returned from a survey mission to Planet Blue, and then is forced onto a spaceship taking the first human colonists to the new world.

Of course, Spike and Billie fall in love, and things go drastically wrong. There’s a brief interlude about Billy, a young English sailor left behind on Easter Island by Captain Cook’s expedition in 1774. He falls in love with Spikkers, a half-Dutch, half-Islander, “a man of forty years, yet wonderfully preserved, lean and strong, and with a cheerful, inquisitive face that reminded me of a good dog that never had a bad master” (105). Then we’re back with Billie, only on Earth this time, in a near-future Tech City after World War III. Spike is here too, “the world’s first Robo sapiens. She looks amazing – clear skin, green eyes, dark hair. She has no body because she won’t need one. She is a perfect head on a titanium plate” (132). Billie is her tutor, assigned to “teach a robot what it means to be human” (135); she smuggles Spike to Wreck City, the “No Zone” beyond the end of the tramlines, basically like the slums that circle today’s great cities except with residual radiation from the nuclear weapons that flattened the West in the war. In Wreck City they encounter a man Friday and a motley batch of post-punk dykes, mutants, and subversives, and things again get strange.

More than that I won’t say, because you should read it for yourself. The Stone Gods is more fun than any book of Winterson’s I can remember. Admittedly she’s not for all tastes – at her wildest she’s a bit dry – but she seems to have let loose here. If she hasn’t quite regained the energy of her earlier work, she’s acquired a new verve that is very encouraging to see. The satire is sharp and, I think, hits the mark. And oddly, The Stone Gods was published at about the same time as Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book, Making Money, which is also satirical and also features a female (though heterosexual) love interest named Spike.