OTI Online Summer 2009 How Media Portrayals Affect Women Seeking Abortions by Heather MacGibbon
In our Summer '09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists discuss gender norms and differing perspectives of gender identity in Our Genders, Our Rights

On a Dying Planet, A Human Finds Robot Love
by Cameron Kelsall

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson (Mariner Books, 2009)

Few living writers have reached the canonical level that Jeanette Winterson (1959- ) has achieved. From her instant-classic debut, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985) to Written on the Body (1992), her landmark attempt to reshape narrative conventions regarding gender, love and intersexuality, Winterson's works have consistently landed on the scene amidst a flurry of fascination and discussion.

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
Available on Amazon.com

Winterson has been a pioneering figure in both the subgenres of gender studies and gay and lesbian literature for over twenty years. Winterson has long rejected strict categorization, claiming that her work should speak for itself and transcend the easy labels applied to many queer authors: "I've never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers," according to Wintersonís reflections on the book on her website.

Early Work Explored Sexuality and Ungendered Narratives

Her debut novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, describes the sexual awakening of a young woman named Jeanette, who must reconcile her budding attraction to women with her role as a member of a devoutly religious community. With frank detail and self-effacement, Winterson effectively communicates the struggles-- including ostracism, abandonment, and even attempted exorcism--that sixteen-year-old Jeanette faces as she attempts to live her true identity. The novel was awarded the Whitbread Prize for Best First Fiction.

Winterson continued to stretch the limits of traditional roles for gender and sexuality in The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. However, it is for her 1992 novel Written on the Body that she is most widely known. Here she tells the story of an unhappily married woman who becomes the object of desire for a narrator who is neither named nor gendered. She gives readers no clue as to whether this is a homosexual or a heterosexual relationship, or whether the narrator is male, female, or neither. Readers struggle with their baffled and frustrated expectations that gender is expected, transparent--and, in doing so, they realize the extent to which they want that gender certainty.

The importance of Jeanette Winterson on the landscape of contemporary world fiction lies not only in the brilliance of her prose style, but the skill with which she constructs characters. She writes of women--straight, gay, and somewhere in between--with reverence and honesty. She is a writer able to document as of yet untraveled territories in women's experiences of gender and sexuality.

Winterson's Plunge into Science Fiction

Surprisingly, given the usual brilliance of her characters and plots, Winterson's latest novel, The Stone Gods is a rather muddled and confusing stab at science fiction. The central character, Billie Crusoe, has all the makings of a blazing anti-heroine. Unfortunately, the author's decision to dive headfirst into the murky waters of genre fiction curtails the construction of Billie as a compelling female iconoclast who inhabits a future so battered and bruised that it fulfills contemporary readers' most dismal predictions.

She is able to document untraveled territories in women’s experiences of gender and sexuality

In a dystopian world where the home planet is dying and plastic surgery is practically required by law, Billie steadfastly clings to simple pleasures: the company of animals, a desire to live off the land, and a belief in naturally aging. Her homestead, Cast Out Farm, is one of the last legal farms in the world.

To subsidize her luddite existence, Billie works as a claims investigator for the government’s Enhancement Services, where her main responsibility is to confirm that the population of Planet Orbus are partaking in various cosmetic surgeries--such as age-freezing or becoming "fixed," as the population terms it--for all the right reasons.

Winterson wrings this angle of the plot for all of its comic possibilities; one of the novel's few genuinely funny (and terrifying) moments comes when Billie examines a simpleton named Pink, who wishes to make herself, via surgery, a carbon copy of a twelve-year-old pop princess known as Little Senorita in order to appease her pedophilic husband. Pink wants to become "one childish, knowing, pre-teen turn on."

Billie can hardly hide her disdain. Winterson seems to have had in mind a character similar to the strong-willed Ellen Ripley (of Ridley Scott's Alien) when crafting Billie. Instead, Billie registers as a futuristic malcontent who, although reasonably judgmental of her surroundings, is insufficiently self-reflective in her distress over the fact that no one else shares her vision.

Robot-Human Love Match

One of the perks of working for the government is that Billie is privy to information regarding the colonization of Planet Blue, the spotless promised land in which the people of Orbus will build their new world. Everything there is seemingly perfect--the water clean, the forests protected--with the exception of a race of dinosaur-esque monsters who may have a taste for human flesh. In order to investigate the threat these creatures might pose to humans, the government has created a breed of super-strength Robo sapiens, whose sole mission is to report on any conditions that might threaten human life. Once the Robo sapiens task is completed, they are drained of their data, in effect killing them.

The premier Robo sapiens is Spike, a gorgeous, brilliant creature who, unbeknownst to all but Billie, has become sentient. And while "inter-species sex is punishable by death," Billie instantly falls head over heels.

The love match sets off a chain of events that includes kidnapping, intergalactic love triangles, and John Donne poetry--Winterson is particularly fond of the famous lines from "The Sun Rising": 'She is all states, and all princes I / Nothing else is'. Unfortunately, overall, there is very little intrigue.

The lack of intrigue can be attributed to Winterson's overly choreographed plot. By the middle of the brief novel, the reader begins to guess characters' next moves and even the most outlandish twists long before they are revealed.

Add to this the fact that neither Spike--who registers with all the predictability of a Star Trek character--nor Billie--who is turned into a wet rag by sexual desire--seem to know what to do with themselves when felled by love. Readers are left with one of the most unconvincing portraits of sex and longing in recent memory. These two strong female characters embroiled in a passionate relationship should register with burning intensity; Billie and Spike, however, are as hot as day-old soup.

Science-Fiction's Promises and Limits

One reason I suspect that Winterson turned to science-fiction is that the genre has a long and admirable history of weaving escapism and metaphor with pressing social consciousness. Sadly, she often finds herself weighed down by overpowering didacticism.

The government has created a breed of super-strength Robo sapiens

There are numerous points in the novel when the reader longs to throw up his or her arms and exclaim, "We get it! The human race has faltered! It's come so far that we need to start looking for new planets on which to live, since we've screwed this one up so badly!"

A particularly insidious bit of heavy-handedness comes courtesy of a toxified forest in which "the children," diseased and derided, reside; no one can save them. Yes, the children of the world are beyond repair. They have been left holding the bag for our mistakes.

About a hundred pages into the novel, Winterson gives us a beautiful aside set on 18th-century Easter Island, from whose famed statues the book takes its title. It lasts only fifteen pages and recounts the homosexual desire a young sailor feels towards his valiant captain. The writing in this section is so exquisite that, for a brief moment, I was reminded of the talent which has made so many of her novels instant classics. Unfortunately, the section ends quickly and has no clear relationship with any part of what comes before or after in the story. We are simply left to flagellate ourselves for the damage we've caused, and to remember fondly the beauty that once existed in the world--and the beauty in prose style and plot innovation that has been the hallmark of Winterson's complex, gorgeous, insightful explorations of gender, sexuality and narrative style.

Cameron Kelsall is a freelance writer, critic and poet, based in Astoria, NY. He has written for New Theater Corps, a blog affiliated with New York Cityís Channel 13 program, "Theatre Talk" and ShowShowdown, which has been profiled in The New York Times.

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson (Mariner Books, 2009).

Also see The Poet’s Eye in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Whose Utopia" by Mahin Hassibi in the Winter 2009 edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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