Thursday, 20 June 2013

Summer Reading Challenge: The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson

Let's all form a circle and feel ashamed about how long it has taken me to write this review. FAR. TOO. LONG. I swear, I finished this book on Sunday or Monday, and here I am days later and no review! I am a disgrace to the blog. However, I do promise that now everything is calming down again slightly I will become more regular again. Now the apologies are over, I shall commence with the review!

I'm a really big fan of Jeanette Winterson's work. She's one of those authors who I always know I'm going to enjoy reading. I try to space her books out a bit in my reading because it would be a shame to blitz though them all too quickly. I've always loved the way books like The Passion and Sexing The Cherry take historical moments and then incorporate elements of fairytales/magic/unexplainable things. With all the books on this challenge, I am trying to go in with as little foreknowledge as possible. I have read the blurb at some point, hence why I bought the book, but by this point in time I very rarely remember what it said! So it was with some joy and surprise that as soon as this started I realised it was more science fiction-ey than her other works. Immediate reaction- this is very exciting! I'm a big science fiction fan so was definitely interested to see how Winterson would engage with that genre. 

WARNING: You are about to enter spoiler territory. If you haven't read the book, turn back now!

Right, if you're still with me I shall assume spoilers are fine! 
So the book is split into four parts: Planet Blue, Easter Island, Post-3 War, and Wreck City. Planet Blue is set on what seems to be our future, but as is revealed later turns out to actually be in the past on planet Orbus. It becomes apparent as soon as you move from the first section to the second that whilst each section focuses on a different time, there is some form of connection between them all. To begin with, certain characters have repeatedly intertwined narratives, such as Billie (the human whose point of view is always focused on) and Spike (a robo sapian, a form of robot that can evolve). Also, lots of references to texts repeat throughout all the narratives. For instance, in Planet Blue snippets of a captain's diary are quoted, then in the Easter Island section Billy is a crew member on that captain's ship. I found that this technique really effective and interesting. There's a point in Wreck City where someone (I think Billie) uses the phrase "a repeating world" which sort of sums the concept up a bit. Planet Blue is discovered by the people on Orbus which is great for them because they've pretty much used most of the planet up and need a new one. Things don't entirely go to plan (I'm trying not to give too much away!) but the other three chapters are set on Planet Blue, which turns out to essentially be Earth. All of the various repeating aspects create this situation which questions whether the cycle of destruction will ever end. I'll talk about this in a bit more detail slightly later. I found this book reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, except I liked it more. I felt like Cloud Atlas tried to create this epic and intelligent story based around repeating souls, but it never really delivered. When it ended I found I still had loads of questions and didn't really feel like it had been executed as well as I had hoped. I think because of the slimmer focus of The Stone Gods and the bigger use of repeating aspects I liked it better. Whilst there are still aspects which I don't necessarily fully understand, I feel like I'm supposed to not get them, rather than in Cloud Atlas where I felt like the author just didn't entirely know what to do.

The society portrayed in Planet Blue is quite an interesting study of what our consumerist society could become. People are able to genetically 'fix' their ageing at a certain point, resulting in increasingly young looking women in opposition to older men. Bearing in mind we currently live in a society where there is great pressure on women, especially female celebrities, to keep looking youthful, this doesn't seem like too strange an idea. Men are chasing younger and younger women, treading disturbingly into paedophilia, and I couldn't help but be reminded of the way women were infantalised during periods such as the Victorian era. Another interesting element was the role of robo sapians. Humanity as a whole seems to have rendered itself slightly obsolete. They would be unable to survive on the new planet without the assistance of robots due to the general attitude that natural things are wrong. All food is artificially created, noone reads or writes any more  and robots do all construction/building work etc. Robo sapians are able to evolve which raises interesting ideas of what it means to be human. Spike describes how poetry caused her to be able to feel emotion and the characters debate about ideas of the difference between her and humanity. 

Winterson always plays with ideas of stories in her work and this book was no exception.In this case it tied in with earlier ideas of repeating worlds. Planets are stories and mistakes are repeating endlessly just like stories, constantly beginning again and again and again. My favourite little passage from the book was when Captain Handsome is describing planets his crew have encountered before, such as Echo and Medusa. I really feel like Winterson's writing shines in moments like this and they were such brilliant concepts. 

I found the Easter Island section enjoyable but it was probably my least favourite segment, but then it was much shorter than the others. Post-3 War was very interesting. It documents the descent of society from World War II into a very closely monitored community. The government distracts the population by building a 24-hour casino, with legal prostitution, they lower the age of consent and prioritise politicians and the powerful over ordinary people. I found this segment really reminded me of Brave New World. Rather than doing things like banning books and doing things that could cause protests and rebellions, they instead just make it so the population just isn't interested in those things. There's no need to ban books as people just aren't interested in reading them. Similarly, they distract the population with shiny new casinos so then they don't protest or rebel against the other changes they are making. They manage to create a society where people just don't question the situation. (Although this does only apply to those living within that society. As Wreck City shows, not everyone is satisfied and unquestioning) This society is one based on ideas of renting. Rather than being paid money you get paid credits that can be used to rent anything you want; cars, accommodation, clothes, travel, etc. In this society, art seems to lose its core life and soul. You can hire art works that are made in factories, so can rent the whole of Western culture for as long or little as you like, but it is inherently lacking. 

I found Wreck City really interesting, but I don't really know how much of the end I can actually talk about, so I will just cover some of my other thoughts instead! This section carries on from Post-3 War. Billie has been involved in building the first Robo sapian (Spike again) and talks to her about various things in an attempt to teach her. The idea is that Robo sapians will be able to impartially make the big decisions for the planet, unimpeded by emotion etc. Billie is supposed to be taking her on a walk in a garden, but ends up heading over to Wreck City. An element of this section that I found interesting was the reference to Robinson Crusoe. Billie befriends a barkeeper/Alternative member called Friday, and gives her last name as Crusoe. Now, I studied J.M. Coetzee's Foe last year, which is writing back against Robinson Crusoe, so I found that moment interesting. I've been thinking about it quite a bit, wondering if any of the characters in the previous section could be seen as Friday figures, or how Spike plays into that situation etc. I haven't really got anywhere with it yet though. I won't talk about the ending too much, as I'm still not entirely sure I understand everything yet! It does tie everything together, but it doesn't give any definitive closure really (not that I was actually expecting it to really). It just solidifies the idea of a repeating world; as one character (Spike?) observes, only the present is differentiated by the brain. So whilst I don't entirely understand all of the ending, I did really enjoy this book. It was science fiction-ey enough whilst still retaining all the elements I love about Winterson's work. I feel like she really grasps that element of sci-fi that I love, the part that makes you think about humanity and raises questions about our future and our society. I would heartily recommend this to anyone as I thoroughly enjoyed it all!

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