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In On Literature Umberto Eco, considering recipes for writers, writes:
There is no set of rules, or, rather, there are many, varied and flexible rules; and there is no hot magma of inspiration. But it is true that there is a sort of initial idea and that there are very precise phases in a process that develops only gradually.
Winterson's novel grows naturally out of that non-recipe. She presents and develops an idea that radiates through all of the phases of the book. Even as her protagonist becomes unstuck in time, reminiscent of that great American moralist, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., ("So it Goes"), the idea is foremost, the profundity and humor manifest on every page. Eco, Vonnegut, and other writers come to mind when reading The Stone Gods. For example, Jared Diamond's book Collapse strikes me as a scientific source for the story. Diamond writes of the collapse of Easter Island, "The sad story of European impacts on Easter Islanders may be quickly summarized. After Captain Cook's brief sojourn in 1774, there was a steady trickle of European visitors. ... They must be assumed to have introduced European diseases and thereby to have killed many previously unexposed islanders…" (111, 112) Collapse is a central idea in The Stone Gods.
One additional description of the art of writing that pertains to Winterson's novel is from the famous preface to Joseph Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus:
The sincere endeavour to accomplish that creative task, to go as far on that road as his strength will carry him, to go undeterred by faltering, weariness, or reproach, is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who, in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed, must run thus: My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see. That - and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to you deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm - all you demand - and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
Conrad's pronouns may be sexist but his insight is universal. The Stone Gods certainly provides encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, and a glimpse of truth. What is the nature of the container that carries this truth? Is it fantasy? Science fiction? Here's Winterson's take, "People say to me, 'so is the Stone Gods science fiction?' Well, it is fiction, and it has science in it, and it is set (mostly) in the future, but the labels are meaningless. I can't see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That's all." (Source)
"What's it about?" asks one of the characters. "A repeating world." As we are destroying the atmosphere, the lakes and rivers that sustain us, the oceans from whence we came, we seem unable to face those facts of collapse and continue to pollute the waters and spew waste into the air. What if we found another planet rich with mammal sustaining oxygen, clear skies, and clean water? Could we travel there by advanced space travel? If so, would we mistreat it in the same way? Would we find that we were in a repeating world?
The novel is fascinating in its answers to all of those questions. Peopled with characters both human and robotic it moves freely in time and space to deliver on the promise of what might save us from disaster. Billie is unstuck in time like Vonnegut's character in Slaughterhouse-Five and the ride through time and space is well worth the price of a ticket. Billie learns this:
A quantum universe – neither random nor determined. A universe of potentialities, waiting for an intervention to affect the outcome.
Love is an intervention.
Why do we not choose it? (203)
Winterson is at the top of her game in this novel. She continues to grow as an author who writes with compassion and skill. Her writing is creative and fresh; her language sharp and incisive.
Let Winterson herself have the last word: "People have asked me, 'is this a political book? Is it a statement?' I have said many times that I believe our time to be unique in the history of the world. Either we face our environmental challenges now, or many of us will perish, and much of what we cherish in civilization will be destroyed. I am sorry to sound apocalyptic, but this is what I believe.
Stone Gods isn't a pamphlet or a docudrama or even a call to arms, it is first and foremost a work of fiction, but I am sure that change of any kind starts in the self, not in the State, and I am sure that when we challenge ourselves imaginatively, we then use that challenge in our lives. I want the Stone Gods to be a prompt, but most of all, a place of possibility." (Source)
© 2009 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.