Love is the intervention in Jeanette Winterson's new novel The Stone Gods.
Imagine a future in which people can “fix” their bodies genetically so that they never age and can alter every last limb and appendage to achieve total physical perfection. Everyone is eternally fit, healthy and (presumably) in their twenties. That future becomes the present in Jeanette Winterson’s new novel, The Stone Gods (Harcourt, $24). But it comes with a price: “Making everyone young and beautiful also made us bored to death with sex,” Winterson writes. “All men are hung like whales. All women are tight as clams below and inflated like lifebuoys above. Jaws are square, skin is tanned, muscles are toned, and no one gets turned on. It’s a global crisis.”
And it’s just one of many on the dying planet of Orbus, an Earthlike world where robots steadily replace human beings in the workforce, law enforcement maintains a ubiquitous presence and brains are shrinking out of disuse. These are the everyday realities of life inside the Central Power, a shamelessly technocentric and consumerist USA-like empire that has all but used up the planet’s natural resources—that is, until it discovers an inhabitable new one called Planet Blue. Blue resembles Orbus as it was 65 million years ago, and the Central Power wants it. So it sends a team of explorers—including the book’s heroine, Billie Crusoe (a social rebel who lives on a farm and refuses to genetically fix), and her love interest, a sexy fembot named Spike—to tame it.
In many ways, The Stone Gods is Winterson’s most urgent work. The 48-year-old British scribe, best known for her semi-autobiographical, evangelical lesbian love story Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the gender-twisting, time-shifting fairy tale Sexing the Cherry, here addresses our current planetary woes and our willingness to let science offer up Band-Aid solutions for them. “We are so busy looking for the technological fixes and for science to find a way out of everything that we’re handing over all of humanity to the people in the white coats,” Winterson said during our phone conversation. “I think that’s crazy, and that is the central message of the book.”
But it’s also about what we would do if we had the opportunity to begin again. If mankind discovers another inhabitable planet, how long would it take before we screwed it up? Is history destined to repeat itself? Winterson answers these questions by shifting the narrative into two additional story lines. The first is set in the 18th century; here, an explorer named Billy is left behind by his shipmates on Easter Island, where rival tribes have stripped the island of its trees to build stone gods. In the final part, we return to the near future, this time a post–World War III setting in which a supposedly benevolent corporation has taken charge of a postapocalyptic Earth.
Winterson uses the three stories to draw parallels: In the same way the people of Orbus, for example, rampantly consume, so the worship of false gods on Easter Island leads to societal ruin. Yet in each scenario, love intervenes—including same-sex relationships (treated as incidental) in both the first and second parts.
“[Love is] the maverick, it’s the miracle,” Winterson says. “Love just seems to be the only reliable intervention we can ever make—both in our tiny ways in the microcosm of our personal lives and in a larger sense where we find a love really for people very different to ourselves and for this planet that we are on. It seems to me to be the only possibility of change for us.”
Even though this page-turner is steeped in (admittedly beautiful) doomsday prose, Winterson remains hopeful. “I don’t despair of the planet or of our human capacity to change things. At the moment, the trajectory just seems to be toward an impossible situation. Everyone knows that—well, maybe George Bush doesn’t know that—but on the whole, I think people know we’re in a mess.”
The Stone Gods is out now.