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Jeanette Winterson: The Stone Gods

Literary authors who venture into science fiction, can, sadly, slip up. Doris Lessing is a case in point. Unfortunately, while Winterson’s effort, like Lessing’s, is interesting, I do not think that it really works. It tells of a planet called Orbus, which is, in many respects, remarkably similar to Earth or, at least, to Earth how it might appear in the not too distant future. The planet seems to be divided into three main groups. The focus is on the Central Power, which seems to correspond to the Western democracies. The other two main powers are the Eastern Caliphate, i.e. the Muslim world, and the SinoMosco Pact. Because of overexploitation of resources, the planet is dying and seems to only have fifty years to live. The conventional wisdom, at least in the Central Power, is that the planet can adapt, if only the Caliphate and SinoMosco Pact would clean up their acts but they are not going to. Apart from this particular problem, the main problem seems to be lack of parking! Various changes have taken place including, in particular, genetic fixing, which allows you to fix your biological age at a certain age and stay there indefinitely. Women tend to fix theirs in their twenties while many men go for the debonair forties look. However, as this novel starts, some women want to go back to pubescence as their men, tired with all these nubile twenty somethings are now getting interested in pedophilia. Genetic fixing of this kind is illegal, though still practised.

Our heroine is the wittily named Billie Crusoe, though there seem to be several variants of Billie. She works for a government body called Enhancement Services whose job is to explain to people that they really do want to live their lives in a way that is good for them and good for the Community. Apart from the job, a not very good one, Billie has two problems. Firstly, there is the parking. She is meant to have special parking permission but the system keeps getting her, and that means her windscreen is coloured so that she cannot drive till she has paid the fine. The second problem is her boss, Manfred, a man who toes the government line but is also ambitious. Billie’s independent streak clashes with Manfred. Her job at the start of the novel is to deal with a woman who wants to be genetically fixed at age twelve, as her husband is only interested in underage girls, and plans to take her case to the Court of Human Rights.

Two key things happen to her. Firstly, she meets Spike, a Robo sapiens, a robot who looks like a very attractive woman and who is highly intelligent and highly knowledgeable. Spike was built for a recent space mission – part of her job was to provide sexual services to the male crew – but, now that the mission is over, she is to be decommissioned. It is Billie’s job to give her her last interview. The space mission was to Planet Blue, a planet which seems suitable for habitation by humans and, given that the life span of Orbus seems to be about fifty years, there is already a plan to transport humans to the planet to set up facilities for human life. The second key thing that happens to Billie is that she is, for complicated reasons, sent on the initial colonisation mission to Planet Blue, along with Pink, the woman who wanted to be genetically fixed at twelve years of age, Spike, who has escaped her decommissioning and the Captain, Captain Handsome. As the Planet is inhabited by dinosaur-like animals, there is a plan to steer an asteroid into the planet to kill them all, making the place suitable for human habitation. Of course, it all goes terribly wrong and we are made aware that this is what happened seventy million years ago to Planet Red (i.e. Orbus, i.e. Earth) and probably to Planet White, another planet now dead.

Billie becomes a sort of Robinson Crusoe but Winterson then gives us the story of another Robinson Crusoe, a man (called Billy, of course) who was on the Roggeveen Expedition and was left on Easter Island, where amongst other things, he learns why the Easter island civilisation collapsed. Someone (called Billie, of course) finds the manuscript of this story on the London tube, post-World War III, and from her we learn how the world got to the situation it is in at the beginning of the novel – World War III, a global company called MORE running the country, instead of the government and more dystopian nightmares. It is an interesting if complex story but we have seen it before in novels like Brave New World, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Jennifer Government and many other science fiction books and films. Winterson makes her point about the way the world is going (very badly, in her view) but others have done it better.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Hamish Hamilton