On The Stone Gods


I’ve just finished reading The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson. 

I became intrigued about this book after reading a delightfully waspish review of it by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Winterson had publicly stated that her novel – which features space travel and robots and takes place partly in the future – should emphatically not be regarded as ‘science fiction’.    This is a statement commonly made by literary novelists who write novels which are undeniably science fiction, but then decline to be associated with the hoi polloi SF writers who actually make a living in this genre. 

And so, clearly niggled at Winterson’s words, Le Guin performed a forensic dissection of the novel, analysing its story-telling flaws and its tendency to lapse into nakedly expository writing – with long chunks of what Le Guin refers to as ‘As you know, Captain’ dialogue, of the kind that seasoned SF writers try to avoid.

I’m a great fan of Le Guin; but also a great fan of Winterson. I haven’t read her complete works, but I love what I have read. My favourite of her novels is her magic realist masterpiece The Passion, which is full of images that haunt the mind.

So I decided to make my own mind up.  And, after reading the book, I came to an  interesting conclusion. Winterson is right; this is not science fiction at all.  It looks like SF, it has all the elements we commonly associate with SF but it’s really a different genre of book entirely.

To explain what I mean by that, I have to define SF – which is easier said than done.  I always get annoyed when commentators assume that SF has to be set in the future, or feature spaceships, or be obsessed with technology, or be devoid of satirical intent.  SF is in fact a broad church genre.  It ranges from space opera to personal drama, it can be set in the past or in an alternative present, it can be satirical and polemical, it can be character-based, it can be all manner of things.

But there are certain defining characteristics that make a novel SF.  One of them, I would argue, is ‘extrapolation’, an imagining ‘what if’ process which takes aspects of the present and projects them into a different world (future, alternative present, or alternative past), in an exaggerated form.  And in my afterword to Debatable Space I define SF as the genre in which extrapolation, speculation and imagination collide. 

But another defining characteristic, I’d suggest, is that all SF has to be inspired by science.  That doesn’t mean it has to be crammed full of scientific facts and figures.  It means that SF is fiction which absorbs and adores the scientific paradigm and zeitgeist.  It finds the drama in scientific theories like quantum physics and relativity; it imagines the human consequences of scientific developments like spaceflight; and it speculates about what would happen if impossibilities like time travel were to become scientifically possible. 

But it’s the spirit of science that it is at the heart of SF.  An SF novel can’t have magic, because magic is the antithesis of science.  And an SF narrative can’t be illogical (or at least, it shouldn’t be!) or self-contradictory.  Because science depends on consistency of theory; even bewildering theories like quantum physics which allow a particle to be in two places at the same time make sense.

Winterson’s novel, however, is a tale which makes no sense.  I’m not referring to occasional errors and inaccuracies – all writers make such mistakes, and the copy editors can’t hope to catch all of them. But at a fundamental, philosophical level, this novel doesn’t make sense; and it isn’t intended to make sense….That’s not the game Winterson is playing.

To explain what I mean, I have to talk about the details of the plot; so if you haven’t read it, BEWARE, PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The Stone Gods is a novel made up of very different sections (like David Mitchell’s excellent Cloud Atlas, which is partly science fiction, partly historical drama.)  The first section tells the story of Billie, a rebellious woman living on the planet of Orbus.  Almost all the inhabitants of Orbus are Fixed – they have fixed their genes so that they do not age. Billie, however, is defiantly unFixed, and hence mortal.

Orbus is in a state of terminal collapse because of global warming, and Billie joins an expedition to the new colony world of Planet Blue. She is accompanied by a Robo sapiens called Spike; and Billie and Spike fall in love. The Captain, Handsome, embarks upon a plan to rid Planet Blue of its dangerous land animals – dinosaurs – by crashing an asteroid into the planet. The plan goes wrong and the asteroid collision destablises the ecosystem to such a degree that all life is threatened.  Spike and Billie survive together for some time, with Billie detaching Spike’s limbs to prolong her existence; and finally Spike dies.

The second section is set in the past and tells the story of the Easter Islanders who rendered themselves extinct. 

The third and fourth sections tell the story of a young woman called Billie Crusoe on Earth after a third world war.  She is a robotics expert who is developing a robot called Spike. And on a whim, she takes Spike’s head for a walk into the forbidden territories, where she finds rebels and mutants and discovers the secret of her world after intercepting a radio message from the distant past. 

This secret unlocks the mystery of the novel.  The action in the first section is not – as most readers would assume – a tale about humans in the far future. It is a tale about humanoids in the distant past whose meddling led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and hence made the evolution of mankind on Earth aka Planet Blue possible.

This is a nice twist, though hardly unexpected; and in this respect, the story is a beautifully told and elegant example of an ‘uplift’ narrative in which we learn that mankind evolved because of aliens. 

But hold on a minute – how come the lead character in the first section has the same name as the lead character in the later sections?  ‘Billie’ in the far distant past has a robot companion called Spike; ‘Billie’ in the near future has a robot companion called Spike also. 

And to compound the confusion, Earth Billie is reading a novel called The Stone Gods which she describes as ‘science fiction’.  But if the Orbus story is true, no one on Earth can know about it.  It all happened 65 million years ago!

This makes no sense; and I believe it quite deliberately makes no sense, in the way that abstract art and certain kinds of modernist poetry make no sense.  It is non-sense, but not nonsense.

As I mentioned, Earth Billie is reading a book called The Stone Gods.  And the Orbus Billie, in parallel fashion, is reading the journals of James Cook; again, an impossibility since Cook was born 65 million years after Orbus Billie.  And Earth Billie – whose surname is Crusoe – meets a guide called Friday. What are the odds on that, then,  eh? 

This is not, I would strongly maintain, bad writing. It’s skilful and very good writing of the avant-garde variety. At a very basic level, Winterson is confuting and mocking the underlying principle of science and hence science fiction – that ultimately, everything has a rational explanation.  Seemingly impossible events may happen in SF, but they will always be explicable by the laws of physics – even if these are not the laws of physics as we know them.  But Winterson’s laws are the laws of poetry; she connects by simile and metaphor and mirroring and impossible coincidences.  The most beautiful connection of all concerns Spike the robot. In the Orbus story, Spike is a whole robot who is dismantled a limb at a time until all that remains is her head. It’s a deeply evocative sequence which for me echoes the experience of a person seeing a lover die slowly of old age – as limbs and organs fail and all that is left is the shining, shimmering personality of the lover in her husk-like dying carcass. 

In the Earth story, Spike hasn’t yet been built so Earth Billie carries her around as a head.  Thus, Spike-Head in one story becomes Spike-Head in the later story; and that mirroring is somehow rather wonderful. 

The Easter Island interlude is easy enough to interpret – it’s not causally connection, it’s just a variation on the theme (of human beings destroying their own habitat.)  But the other sections are written in non-rational logic; and that is why I say they are not science fiction. It’s a fine book, a beautiful book, and a clever book; but SF it ain’t.   

And this, I now believe, is why Winterson has said her novel isn’t SF. It doesn’t mean she hates SF (Earth Billie says she hates SF – but that’s clearly a writer’s gag!) It also doesn’t mean that Winterson has failed to understand the essence of SF. In fact, the book shows a sophisticated grasp of world-building and scientific extrapolation which suggests to me Winterson has read a fair bit of science and SF and is fascinated by both.  But her intentions, on this occasion, are Other.

That leads to the question; what genre is this book? It’s not magic realism, in my view – because even magic realism has rules and consistencies.  One impossible thing is allowed before breakfast  – like the village where no one grows old, in Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude.  But characters and events always feel real, and consistent; and actions always have consequences.

So this book is, in my view, a particular form of literary construct – a prose-poem, not a realist novel.  It reminds me strongly of Italo Calvino’s Invisble Cities, in which explorer Marco Polo gives accounts of the cities he has visited to Kublai Khan.  Some argue (as I do in my radio play Marco Polo) that Marco Polo was a fantasist who never visited any of the cities he describes. And, playing with this idea,  Calvino’s book is an evocation of imaginary places, rather than a realistic travelogue. Here is Marco writing about the city of Leandra:

Gods of two species protect the city of Leandra. Both are  too tiny to be seen and too numerous to be counted. One species stands at the doors of houses, inside, next to the coat rack and the umbrella stand; in moves, they follow the families and install themselves in the new home at the consignement of the keys. The others stay in the kitchen…they belong to the house, and when the family that has lived there goes away, they remain with the new tenants.

Or there’s the spiderweb city of Octavia, in which the entire city is hung from hempen strands.  Or another city where the citizens are constantly engaged in dialogue; the same dialogue will continue for centuries, because as each speaker dies a new citizen steps up to continue the dialogue.

At one point, Kublai Khan complains to Marco: ‘Your cities do not exist.  Perhaps they have never existed.’   But there’s no doubt that  these imaginary cities exert a powerful hold over the reader;  and this slim volume by Calvino has had a remarkable influence over many writers.  I kept it by my side when I wrote Marco Polo; and now I come to look at it again, I realise how much I’ve been subconsciously influenced by Calvino in writing about the cities of Ketos. 

And I have a strong hunch that Winterson knows this book, probably far far better than I do, and is consciously or unconsciously using it as the springboard for her imaginary worlds in The Stone Gods.  Take this passage, where the crew swap stories about planets they have seen or heard about:

There’s a planet they call Medusa. It’s made of rock all right, but the rock has sharded and split so many times there’s nothing solid – just strands of rock, splintered out from the surface like thick strands of hair…

There’s a planet called Echo.  It doesn’t exist. It’s like those ghost-ships at sea, the sails worn through and the deck empty…

We found a planet, and it was white like a shroud.  The planet was wrapped in its own death. We lowered ourselves through mists like mountains, cragged, formed, shaped, but not solid. Put your hand out and you put it through a ghost. Every solid thing had turned to thick vapour.

Later, we’re told that the white planet is the original home of the Orbans; and that it shares a sun with the blue planet. This implies that the Orbans originally come from Venus, then travelled to a far planet somewhere else, before returning to Earth.  Except…that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So it’s easier by far, in my view, to regard all these tales as being Winterson’s own Invisible Planets – far fetched fables of wonder and delight.

It’s clear I would hope from the passages quoted above why I  adore the playful imagination of Jeanette Winterson’s book. And much of the prose (especially in this first section) is rich in verbal beauty, with cadences that stir the soul, and a command of style that reveal Winterson to be one of the finest writers of our age.

Overall, though, I have to say that the book disappoints.  It overeggs its pudding – I love the story told by Captain Handsome which explains how history is destined to repeat itself.  But to hammer that point home by showing history repeating itself on Earth, complete with two characters with the same name, seems to me to be talking down to the reader somewhat.  It’s a wonderful idea – we get it! – now move on, and tell us more about these magical two characters, Orbus Billie and Spike, and their fantastic ‘lesbian’ (is that the right word for sex between a woman and a female robot?)  love affair.  That’s the bit where the book really takes fire; it’s written with passion and pain and honesty, and then it stops, and clever satirical stuff takes over.  Much of this clever satirical stuff is very good; but it never feels true in quite the same way.

Also, by switching narrative horses so radically, Winterson lumbers herself with a major practical problem; having created one vivid world, on Orbus, she now has to create a second and radically different post World War 3 world, on Earth. That’s possible; but to do justice to her Post-3 War world she needs more time, more pages, more words. Instead, she pours the exposition on like gravy on turkey.  And the subtle delicacy of her style is lost entirely.

It’s still a very good book though, and I hope to give it a second read. As a final note, I should just say that the designer of the cover is an artist in her or his own right; it’s beautiful and, if you look closely, it is also a superbly apt commentary on the novel’s content.

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