Sunday 21 January 2018

Love conquers all in a savage universe

Like all good science-fiction, this quirky futuristic tale has a resonant message for our own age, writes Sile McArdle

The Stone Gods

Jeanette Winterson

Hamish Hamilton, €25.82

IN the September column on her website, award-winning author Jeanette Winterson comments of her new book: "This is the first time in my working life as a writer that I have felt compelled to work directly with the material in front of me -- by that I mean the state of the world. I haven't made a polemic or a documentary, but The Stone Gods is a response to where we are now, and where this now might be taking us."

Indeed, it is obvious from the outset that this is a tale firmly rooted in human failings and human strengths in equal measure, no matter how far-out the backdrops for this psychedelic pinball-machine of a book that pings between time and planets, and no matter how freewheelingly bizarre Winterson allows her characters and their exploits to become.

Its particular focus, among the galaxies of ground which the author attempts to cover, is the boom-bust cycle of greed and war, followed by the lessons-not-learned approach to reconstruction from which, inevitably, underclasses emerge all over again, wounded, yes, but survival instincts intact.

Extract the dazzling science fiction from The Stone Gods and you are left with corrosive scientific facts that can be observed right now, albeit across continents rather than planets, and applied to decades rather than millennia; Winterson has hit her target head-on.

Thankfully the result is not a finger-wagging diatribe about the carbon footprint. Certainly, there is a clear environmental message from an articulate pacifist, but in delivering it, she has invoked some fantastically entertaining characters.

Like the lesbian It-Girl drop-outs, Alaska and Nebraska, who inhabit the later, post-nuclear-war part of the book and whose railway-carriage home is furnished purely with white leather looted from a World of Leather warehouse. Alaska and Nebraska are the least damaged of the outcasts who populate Wreck City (the official metropolis, Tech City, is controlled by an iron-fist-in-a-kid-glove global consortium called MORE); languid and innocent, they loll around quaffing vintage Champagne nicked from a cellar at the Bank of England... there are indeed some delightful detours in The Stone Gods.

The primary voyage, however, is the one undertaken by Billie Crusoe (the surname clearly chosen to suit one who will be mentally and physically shipwrecked time and time again), the human strand around whom the various complex scenarios are woven.

To start, Billie is a reluctant cog in the futuristic world of Orbus, the planet dying of pollution, or, as Billie's indoctrinated boss corrected her with, "evolving in a way that is hostile to human life". Non-conformist Billie is viewed as a threat by the governing Central Power. Faced with $3m in unfair parking fines or an exploratory trip to the selected new world of Planet Blue, she has little choice but lift-off -- and an unexpected gay relationship with Robo sapiens Spike, the robot on board, makes it palatable. Until Captain Handsome, the glory-seeking mission leader, wrecks Blue with an asteroid intended to wipe out the dinosaurs before the real settlers -- the Orbus elite -- arrive. Even worlds apart, an all-consuming boom has managed to generate an all-consuming bust.

Billie's next brief placement contains the statuary stone gods of the title, in the time of Captain James Cook. After Cook's landing at Easter Island in 1774, gopher Billie -- now male -- is marooned when the ship hastily sails after a bloody battle with the natives. But the boom-and-bust cycle continues: adapting to surroundings in which a savage hierarchy operates; falling in love with an unlikely friend (a Dutch castaway called Spikkers); agonising death at the hand of greed-driven human error.

After a flick at modern London to introduce her message in a bottle -- an intriguing unfinished manuscript called The Stone Gods found on the Tube -- Winterson sets Billie and Spike's final reincarnation in "Post-3War" (World War III) Tech City, where the former is happily conforming, programming Spike so that Robo sapiens can make informed but objective key decisions for what's left of nuclear mankind.

Billie's wayward streak won't be denied, though, and she and Spike (who has no body, this time) go exploring. They fetch up in smoking Wreck City, home to a motley crew, including the aforementioned Nebraska and Alaska, and are minded by man Friday, a former economist with the World Bank, now bouncer-bartender of the Lalique carriage of the Orient Express, which has been salvaged from the war zone and is the nucleus of Wreck City. Naturally the MORE forces are furious about their missing robot-head, brand the theft a dastardly terrorist plot, and, yes, send in their mindless troops to head-wreck Wreck City.

Given its remorseless theme of renaissance and ruin, The Stone Gods could so easily be a cynical, weary book. It is not. Jeanette Winterson has created a humorous, mischievous and often perverse work laden with energy, adventure and rebellion -- and, in particular, hope.

If there is a weakness to this powerful novel, it is the density and complexity of the writer's own frequent commentary and interjections -- this reviewer found the simpler form of character dialogue far easier to digest and understand as a medium for her messages and philosophy.

Apart from the "No to war", "No to pollution" significance of The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson creates resonance and reality for the reader by making Billie's overriding quest resemble our own: a search for a landing-place, a place to settle, somewhere to call "home".

She also hammers home the endearing belief that love can influence all outcomes: "A quantum universe -- neither random nor determined. A universe of potentialities, waiting for an intervention to affect the outcome. Love is an intervention. Why do we not choose it?"

Why, indeed?

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