You couldn’t quite call Jeanette Winterson’s 2007 novel The Stone Gods post-apocalyptic, but you couldn’t quite call it anything else. It is a book that manages to be both post- and pre-apocalyptic, for Borges-ian reasons that I would rather leave unspoiled, and it managed to annihilate every expectation I had before starting. Global warming is underway. Industrialized civilization has used up the planet, and technology will not be able to save it. Humans look to the solar system for answers. You couldn’t get much more classically dystopian or science fiction.
The first 78 pages of it are delicious: fast-paced, with Winterson’s unique touch (literary PA-ish sci fi, hip hip hurray). The first line drew me into the story in a single gasp. “This new world weighs a yatto-gram.” And yet, like much of what sounds good when written down, it is absolutely meaningless. What is a yatto-gram? A made-up word that Winterson uses to give herself a leg up into the science fiction world she then attempts to disassociate herself from (and never explains). But what a wonderful world it is, how buoyant in the feeling of life that comes at you from the page. There is no more factory farming (meat is created in labs), no more old age (people “fix” their age when they feel they’ve reached an ideal), and plastic surgery has made everyone gorgeous. Amendment: what a wonderfully written world that you wouldn’t want to inhabit yourself.
In between highlighting quippy lines, I seethed excitement that a talent like Winterson has dabbled in science fiction (I had no idea) and entertained thoughts of all of the people I would recommend this book to the minute I finished devouring it. That’s when she got out her wet dueling glove and slapped me in the face. Hard.
After a chunk of very enjoyable novel, a style and setting/story break so jarring occurs that I found the rest of the reading soured by the jolt. The writing remained solid. The story veered and wound and, as Ursula Le Guin notes in her own review of the book, draws “near Borges country.” It was artful. It was deep, and I am still not entirely certain that I have understood it. Though what follows that initial story is good, literary, well-done even, I mourned the loss of that first plot, a story I would have followed for as many pages as Winterson had cared to put down. I like to think that in an alternate universe, or perhaps in one eerily similar to ours but precedent, that book exists, and I am reading it.
if you need a good quote about the environmental destruction of our time, this is the book for you
On the “demise” of the planet as seen through non human-centric eyes:
“Orbus is not dying. Orbus is evolving in a way that is hostile to human life.”
On the hypocrisy of the first world’s call to environmental action and carbon saving:
“‘If those out-of-control lunatics in the rest of the world would just get the message—’
‘That when we destabilized the planet it was in the name of progress and economic growth. Now that they’re doing it, it’s selfish and it’s suicide.”
On how resistance is undermined by dependence:
“‘Humans have given away all of their power to a “they.” You aren’t able to fight the system because without the system none of you could survive.”
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed this book. Winterson is always writing about stories, their purpose and their soul, and I fall for that shit every time. Though I didn’t end up where I expected, maybe I was the better for it, able to appreciate the journey more, having tossed out the notion of a familiar destination. I’d recommend borrowing over buying.
Seven out of twelve yatto-grams.
Where I got it: Borrowed epub, read on my telephone