Why does humanity have to wreck everything?
In The Stone Gods, British author Jeanette Winterson wraps a chilling environmental cautionary tale in a plot that mixes elements of sci-fi, dystopian fiction, and the postmodern novel. She’s examining the history of human folly and our dire future prospects. The title refers to the Easter Island moai sculptures, huge statues that the natives created at the cost of the ecosystem of their island itself. Is there something deep in humanity that leads us inexorably toward disaster?
The first part of The Stone Gods is called “The Blue Planet.” We find ourselves on Orbus, a planet much like ours: ruined by pollution and war. Cosmetic technology is so advanced that humans, jaded by the ubiquity of perfect beauty, can no longer muster interest in sex. Nevertheless, humans have developed technology to harvest new people, and as a result the planet is threatened with overpopulation as well as environmental catastrophe. Government operative Billie Crusoe is assigned to fly to the newly discovered Blue Planet with a telepathic female-looking robot named Spike on a reconnaissance mission; the planet appears as amenable to human habitation as Orbus once was, except for the existence of dinosaurs that may impede colonization by humans. An ingenious attempt to eradicate the dinosaurs by steering an asteroid into the planet goes awry and the mission ends in failure.
On With the Story
Winterson’s fiction has always depended on folkloric elements: she tells stories within stories and has characters tell stories that echo throughout the narrative. Here, the stories are all recursive: people tell tales of second chances and squandered opportunities to make amends. Even DNA recombination is characterized as a sort of storytelling, the constant development and redevelopment of a text whose meaning changes with humanity itself. A spaceship captain talks about outer space in terms that sound more poetic than scientific:
‘There are valleys that lead to the bottom of the world, so it seems, but what world is that? The universe has no sides, no end, can’t be mapped. Enough to make a man talk about God, make a man superstitious and worship an idol. The science never gets as far as the strangeness. The more sophisticated my equipment, the stranger the worlds it detects. I sometimes think I’m sailing through a vast thought.’
Our simian heritage has given us a lot of ingroup-outgroup instincts, and a warlike mentality that civilization only intensified. Religion has led to tribalism and the concept of unquestionable authority. Technological progress has made conquest and domination more efficient for the people in control. Revolutions only replace one form of oppression for another. Is there any hope?
War To End All War Until the Next War
In the final parts of the novel, Billie is once again narrating the story. However, this time she’s on Earth, a British woman who’s in charge of programming a sentient robot named Spike to be a more objective and rational version of a human. She recalls growing up in London, playing in the craters left by WWII; as an adult, she survived the war that left society in the chrome plated grip of corporate technocrats. As our narrator wanders in the dangerous outskirts of Tech City with Spike’s head in a backpack, the narrative connections start to implode and we’re confronted with questions about these intricately interwoven storylines and their characters. Did Billie herself write “The Blue Planet” as a plea for a fresh start for humanity (she says she found it on the Circle Line, another reference to recursion)? Will she obey her overlords and program Robo sapiens to replace us?
The Stone Gods is brilliantly written, with empathy, wit and great literary imagination (a verse by Donne recurs throughout the novel, and Billie Crusoe’s surname evokes the pitfalls of progress and exploration). Lovers of speculative fiction, literature, and black humor will find a lot here to enjoy.