To infinity and beyond
The Stone Gods
Jeanette Winterson Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, £16.99
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.