To infinity and beyond

<strong>The Stone Gods</strong>

Jeanette Winterson <em>Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, £16.99 </em>

Jeanette Winterson's recent novels have been attempts to reinvent the form for a modern age, strange and beautiful parables that dispense with straightforward narratives; cutting and pasting and following Christina Rosetti's injunction to "tell the truth, but tell it slant". (In Lighthousekeeping, her narrator lives in a sloping house, so that she literally "came at life at an angle".) Into these experiments with language and story she mixes what she calls "cover versions" - fragments of other books, other histories, setting up echoes between past, present and future.

The Stone Gods begins deceptively, as what looks like a comic-book futuristic dystopia - recognisably our world with its flaws writ large. All the tropes are present and correct: robots, hover-bikes, interactive wall screens, commonplace space travel, plastic surgery so ubiquitous that everyone looks like a film star (even the robots). On this futuristic planet, Orbus, are three major powers: the Central Power, whose president wields military and economic supremacy; the communist Sino-Moscow Pact; and the Eastern Caliphate, retarded by clinging to religion.

But Orbus is dying, its natural resources wasted, its atmosphere rapidly becoming hostile to life. Billie, a scientist, is sent on a pioneering mission with a highly advanced Robo sapiens, Spike (designed to look like a perfect woman, but incapable of emotion), to set up a base on a newly discovered world. Planet Blue is a pristine globe to which the wealthier citizens of Orbus plan to relocate (once they have eliminated the pesky dinosaurs by redirecting an asteroid into the planet's path).

Just as it becomes clear that Orbus is not our future but our past - the origin of a species condemned to repeat its mistakes - and you begin to think this is all an amusing but rather obvious satire, the narrative jack-knifes and begins again, with another Billie, one of Captain Cook's ship's hands stranded on the shore of Easter Island in the late 18th century. Here, a people stands on the brink of extinction because they have plundered their island's resources to build their monstrous idols, only to destroy them in tribal rivalries as the island withers. As a microcosm, it's perfect; in any setting, it seems, humans (read: men) are doomed to rape the planet and destroy one another.

And then we jolt back, to another Billie and another Spike, in another apparently futuristic world. Billie finds a manuscript on the Tube, entitled The Stone Gods (it later turns out she is its author). But this Billie's world really is our own, in the very near future, in the aftermath of the unthinkable - nuclear strikes on the cities of the west by the eastern powers we failed to contain. "Post-3 War", as the inevitable soundbite has it, London has been rebuilt as Tech City by a global corporation called MORE, which owns everything and employs everyone. Currency is obsolete; MORE pays its workers in light, food, shelter. Beyond the perimeter of MORE's domain is Wreck City, a lawless zone where freedom of thought still survives. Beyond this is the Dead Forest, home of all those crippled and mutated in the nuclear attacks, a colony of half-humans scratching an existence. Tech City pretends they do not exist. Food parcels are dropped by helicopter. "No one looked down and no one looked up." Capitalist society, counterculture and untouchables, neatly geographically segregated.

The Stone Gods is a Borgesian parable about history and repetition and a liberal's cri de coeur about what we have done and go on doing to ourselves. Towards the end, the carefully lacquered, drily mocking surface of the story breaks open and the passionate lament that drives the book erupts: "And my tears are for the planet because I love it and because we're killing it, and my tears are for these wars and all this loss, and for the children who have no childhood, and for my childhood . . ."

But it is more than this; it is also a parable about love. A recurring image is the signal sent out into the vast darkness by those lost or abandoned, forlorn but hopeful - believing in the possibility that someone similar enough to ourselves might hear and understand, and come through the universe to find us. The Billies fall in love with the Spikes, and a robot engineered to make decisions founded on available data, unclouded by emotion, develops the capacity to love in defiance of its programming. Both the female Billies remain frustratingly shadowy as characters, so that their reflections on love and longing seem generalised, as if they were quoting lines of poetry rather than speaking from the heart. But this is a small quibble. The Stone Gods is a dazzling feat of storytelling that travels from the personal to the political and on towards the infinite.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis