Science fiction has proved attractive to many top-ranking literary authors, including, in recent years, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro and John Updike. Although veterans of the genre are occasionally resentful at this encroachment, the literary novel and SF complement each other in compelling ways. There's something appealing about the prospect of Jeanette Winterson using her formidable literary skills to explore mankind moving to a new planet in her new novel.
Winterson has always insisted on challenging boundaries, and has made great claims for her facility with the English language. At times these boasts have seemed vainglorious, and obscured the fact she has been most successful as a comic writer. Although she has always seemed certain her novels will survive, their ephemeral, lightweight nature (sentence quality aside) gives them much of their charm.
It would be pleasing to report that by taking on the end of the world, Winterson has written a novel that matches her still-astonishing debut Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, but The Stone Gods reveals her at her most uneven. It alternates brilliant ideas with foolish ones, predicting a future at times utterly convincing, at others about as considered as a 12-year-old's essay on what we'll all be doing in the year 2050.
SF fans have a particular pet hate: authors "info-dumping" to establish their new world. Winterson resorts to this throughout the early part of the novel, and it feels as if she is not just trying to explain the future to an early 21st-century reader, but to a maiden aunt. Describing a trend for filling a room with "celebrity holograms", she makes an analogy with how "people in the past used to stuff their lounges with china ornaments". Her TV spoof also seems curiously old-fashioned, suggesting she does not really have a sense of how that medium might develop.
Among the novel's more interesting ideas is Winterson's speculation about what might happen once people are able to fix their own DNA. Wives want to be frozen as schoolgirls in order to satisfy their husbands' latent paedophilia and celebrities augment their breasts and penises until they become grotesque. With everyone young and pretty, people get bored of sex and start frequenting pervert bars where they can sleep with giantesses, or women with mouths for nipples. Less interesting are her riffs on robot complaint departments and traffic wardens (her narrator, Billie Crusoe, ends up owing three million dollars in parking fines), which feel like contemporary complaints.
At times, Winterson enters Flesh Gordon territory. Billie Crusoe becomes enamoured of a sexy robot named Spike who used up three "silicone-lined" vaginas having sex with spacemen. When Billie is forced to undress in front of Spike, she falls in love with the robot and cannot resist her request to help her escape to Planet Blue. Planet Blue is populated by carnivorous monsters, but a space pirate named Captain Handsome is going there to use an asteroid to create a duststorm to kill the space dinosaurs.
It also emerges that the planet on which the action has taken place so far might not be Earth, but one its inhabitants escaped from before destroying this new planet in the same way. The environmental message is not subtle. Before it becomes completely ridiculous, the novel deliberately collapses, flashing back to 1774, and then someone finds the manuscript of the novel we are reading on a Tube.
When Winterson returns to her imagined future and Billie and Spike reappear (following a third world war), the fractured, surreal later sections, driven by sex and Socratic dialogue, resemble the work of Kathy Acker, an author Winterson admired. This part is both more sophisticated and less interesting than the straightforward SF, as though she has retreated defensively from the demands of her core narrative. Ultimately, The Stone Gods neither satisfies as science fiction nor as a literary novel that does anything new with genre. Nevertheless, it is the first Winterson novel to surprise in many years, and may yet win her deserved attention from new readers outside her committed circle of fans.
Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)
Hamish Hamilton £16.99 (207pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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