A premature book review: Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods

It's hard to describe just how disappointed I am in Jeanette Winterson's novel-length stab at science fiction, The Stone Gods. Winterson's contemporary and historical fiction has a poetic sensibility that is beautiful beyond measure, a deftness of metaphor and exposition that will at times leave me breathless, unable to read another paragraph without pause to recover:

This is my day. This is Rome. I need to be as true as an animal and as wise as a saint. I shall need the luck of the devil if I am to hold it all in my hands.

'Ciao Bella!' My grocer throws me an apple - a model of the world in little, original sin, and the spinning globe, and just an apple.

This day. Don't drop it. It will be gone soon enough.

(from Winterson's A Roman Short Story, first published in Weekend Magazine, Jan 2004)

About the only writer I can compare her to, in my recent experience, is SF writer Justina Robson, who often acheive similar lyrical and metaphorical miracles with her own work. I especially like the following because, having been introduced as a work of SF, Robson's names of things are so damned evocative:

Seraphs brought the news to General Machen first. They confirmed a sighting of Isol as she stole their wing space in the stratosphere and brushed sensor fields with the Heavy Angels surrounding Idlewild Base. They signalled him in official encrypted code.

(from Joanna Robson's Natural History.)

I suppose, when it comes to metaphor, Mark Helprin might come in ahead of Robson, but he's sorta out of favor now that he'd like to see the Odyssey and Illiad be returned to copyright and profits from their sale somehow channeled to Homer's children.

I'm about 50 pages into The Stone Gods. The story is set about 150 years from "now"; mankind has achieved FTL and interstellar flight, but it's a risky proposition and is basically being treated like the Apollo, only longer. The world has divided into three Orwellian states: The Caliphate, the MoscoSino Axis, and the Central Authority. The CA, where our story opens, is basically a humungous shopping mall, a kind of 1984-meets-Brave-New-World mashup. It's still economically powerful enough that it's the only state fielding interstellar missions, developing immortality regimens, and building a robot-based economy.

But the population is full of Shiny Happy People, all medically "frozen" to some attractive age-- 18 to 24 for most women, 30 to 40 for most men. If you're not Shiny and Happy, the state will send out Enhancement personnel, which will do what they can to help you find your shiny happiness. If you prove troublesome, they send out Enforcement.

The heroine is a troublemaking misfit who works for Enhancement and owns the Last Organic Farm on the planet.

In those first 50 pages, here's what Winterson has laid out for us as propositions:

  • Since everyone is a beautiful person at the height of their sexual attractiveness, everyone will become jaded. Those who wants to "compete" sexually will become absurdly hypersexualized: penises like pillars, balloon breasts and towering legs, eyes widened and bodies stretched beyond even anime superheroic proportions.
  • When that's not enough, almost all men will resort to pedophilia, young kids being about the only thing "exotic" left in the world. The kids are bought from The Caliphate, which naturally sells them; since they're not citizens of the Central Authority, nobody really cares what happens to them.
  • It's against the law for women to compete against these children by having their own genecodes fixed below the age of 14. No reason is given for this.
  • There are robots everywhere. Most of them are drudgery alleviation machines that do all the work. But there is a super-high-end robot that looks and acts for all the world like a human being, although it's not and fellow citizens wink and nod and say how remarkable it is that simple silicon can act so human-like and still not be conscious.
  • Despite being able to manufacture absolutely "drop dead gorgeous" robots that are outright chattel and perfectly loyal, humans and robots don't boink. The narrator tells us without blinking an eye that "The penalty for inter-species sex is death."
  • Apparently, US CA law does not hold true on CA starships. None of the astronauts we meet ever face a penalty for boinking their on-board observer robot, one of those super-sexy human models, so often that despite her described better than human self-repairing capability, she "wore out three silicone vaginas."
  • We're told time and again that robots don't have feelings, but the robots we do meet frequently describe themselves as having "wants" and "desires" which are, uh, feelings.

There is, in science-fiction writing, a term we use to describe what happens when non-SF writers slum around in our genre: Used Furniture. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, the writers just goes to the Warehouse Of Old SF and picks out a bunch of tropes with which to decorate her college-apartment plot. It doesn't really matter, she won't be there long.

The Stone Gods is such a viciously bad example that, for every one of those points I highlighted above, I had to restrain myself from throwing the book across the room with great force. (It's a library book.)

The reason I'm mostly so worked up with this is that Winterson is exploring the same space in which I work: immortality, human/robot relationships, interspecies sex. And she's doing so, so very badly. She's said in an interview that she likes to write "at the frontiers of common sense," but good gods, have some common sense about the background. The economics don't make sense: you can't have everyone sated into that classic dystopian unproductive consumerist happy stupidity that has been done badly by lots of SF writers (most recently by Jon Armstrong in his book Grey) and have a viable research field producing robots, immortals, and starships. You can't make me believe that we would degenerate to child-abuse sexual slavery wrapped in nationalist politics, but would somehow come as a nation to impose the death penalty for boinking the toaster.

Even Winterson's usual voice is missing, that beauty and lyricism somehow replaced with a heart-not-in-it world-weary narrator.

I thought, for a while, that Winterson might be trying to achieve a parable, but the encounter in the brothel scene convinced me otherwise. The Heroine has been dispatched to try and make HappyShiny a woman who wants the legal right to be turned into a 12-year-old so her husband will boink her again; the Heroine goes to the pedophile's brothel-- the most popular place in the city, we're told-- to find him and ask how he feels about her court battle. A panoramic tapestry of how All Men Can And Will Abuse The Powerless and Innocent is on full display. Winterson has an Axe To Grind-- about men, about progress, about beauty, I can't tell, but there is an Axe, and in this scene it is Ground until there are angry sparks flying from the writer's pen.

Look, I write this stuff to: human/robot relationships (even, gasp lesbian human/robot relationships, like Winterson's). I struggle with a vision for how the human species will survive a post-Transcendence technology, and to do so I limit my vision to showing how humans and near-humans and quasi-humans live in such a place; doing so, I must also struggle with racism and sexism (sometimes, okay, I revel in it too). But I aim my ground axes at stupidity, mostly, and not at stereotypes.

And while I may have started out with Used Furniture, I eventually went out and built my own set with my own two hands. I make no excuses for the results.

Earlier: This years Literary Bad Sex awards are out!

Later: Why I'm mad about it...