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What were the inhabitants of Easter Island thinking when they cut down the last tree to make their stone gods–and augured their own extinction?
That question has been posed time and again by scientists, anthropologists and writers. In her latest novel, Jeanette Winterson posits that humans are hardwired in their DNA for self-destruction and so the Easter Island phenomenon is bound to be repeated, time and again. It’s a difficult argument to counter, given the state of the world, but science fiction usually proposes a more cautionary exposition-not a fatalistic one.
The Stone Gods is set in three time zones–the near future, several hundred years in the future and the 1700s on Easter Island. Throughout the novel, humans continue to make the same mistakes again and again. It’s a dark and disjunctive narrative, set mostly–maybe–on our own planet or on one quite similar to our own with consonant problems to ours.
Winterson’s protagonist is Billie Crusoe, who like Robinson Crusoe before her, is an adventurer and a survivor. She’s also a seeker, but whether she’s on Easter Island with Captain Cook or in a parallel universe with Spike the artificial intelligence, she’s not quite able to connect with her place in time.
Humans like starting over, preferably with a clean slate. The Stone Gods is not so much about starting over as it is about how things end. On the planet where Billie Crusoe runs one of the last organic farms with no reconstituted DNA or other Frankenfood components, life is all about revision. Women reconstitute their own DNA to keep their men in check–why be a cougar when you can be a kitten? It’s an unpleasantly pseudo-totalitarian culture in which nothing much matters except surface.
Billie’s planet is a mess. The inhabitants are survivors of a world war to end all world wars. Ecological disaster isn’t just at hand, it’s in full-bloom. Globalism has taken root in all the ways our own conspiracy theorists fear it will–the world and all its inhabitants are controlled by a corporation. When she’s not running her farm, Billie is running PR for the corporation.
The corporation wants to colonize a new planet–Planet Blue–where all is still pristine and livable. Unlike so many of her compatriots, Billie retains her curiosity. While interviewing Spike, the female robot who was part of the first space expedition to Planet Blue, Billie extracts too much information. Her days are numbered and so are Spike’s. Off they are sent to Planet Blue on an expedition from which they are never supposed to return. And where they fall in love.
That’s the novel’s first section. In the next section, Billie heads to Easter Island in a virtual reality sequence that explicates that situation as the predicate for Winterson’s take on humanity.
The last two sections also involve Billie and Spike–also falling in love–in another alternative view of the world, this time with Billie as the robotics Henry Higgins and Spike as her Liza. The thing about genre fiction is that most people-readers as well as some writers–take the tack that it is somehow less than so-called literary fiction. But as Pulitzer Prize-winning genre writer Michael Chabon has so eloquently stated recently, genre fiction has a fundamental value to the literary landscape. Writers have options within those genres to explore literary constructs in new and vibrant ways.
Winterson may or may not hold that perspective, but regardless, The Stone Gods is by far her flimsiest work. Winterson has often toyed with form–Written on the Body being a typical example. But the author of the ravishing Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry is not at her literary best in The Stone Gods.
The best science and speculative fiction situate real people in real circumstances and use the genre to explore issues related to our own world and time and postulate what our future might be. When we consider the major classics of the genre–1984, Brave New World, On the Beach–science fiction is not just prescient but cautionary.
The Stone Gods should be portentious, yet isn’t. Certainly the issues Winterson raises are declarative. Globalization, reconstituted DNA, ecological destruction, artificial intelligence–these are things we must take seriously because they pose threats to us in the here and now, not just the future.
But Winterson doesn’t take her subject(s) seriously enough. References to MacDuck’s and Burger Princess just read as silly. And while the repetitive query about Easter Island is intriguing, it’s been posed and addressed far more compellingly and intelligently than Winterson does here.
The most tantalizing aspect of Winterson’s book is the idea of cross-species love: human and robot. Where the novel comes alive is in the sections devoted solely to Billie and Spike.
Like the worlds it depicts, The Stone Gods is a bit of a mess. Winterson seems to have thought it might be fun to write a sci-fi novel, but Ursula LeGuin or Joanna Russ she’s not. At best, The Stone Gods is a rant, at worst it’s simply not well-written. Billie’s own words describe the book succinctly: “The thing about life that drives me mad, is that it doesn’t make sense. We make plans. We try to control, but the whole thing is random.”
Winterson should stick to the genre she knows best and captures so incisively–the landscape of interpersonal relationships–and leave the world of sci-fi to those who take it seriously.
THE STONE GODS
By Jeanette Winterson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, $24, 224p