The Stone Gods

by Jeanette Winterson

Hardcover, 206 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 | purchase

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The Stone Gods
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Jeanette Winterson

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Book Summary

After rendering the planet unlivable, humankind begins to colonize a new blue planet, and heroine Billie Crusoe embarks on a personal odyssey into the future, in an adventure that explores humankind's relationship to the environment, power, and technology.

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Excerpt: The Stone Gods

The Stone Gods


HARCOURT, INC.

Copyright © 2007Jeanette Winterson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-15-101491-0

Chapter One

Planet Blue

This new world weighs a yatto-gram.

But everything is trial-size; tread-on-me tiny or blurred-out-of-focus huge. There are leaves that have grown as big as cities, and there are birds that nest in cockleshells. On the white sand there are long-toed clawprints deep as nightmares, and there are rock pools in hand-hollows finned by invisible fish.

Trees like skyscrapers, and housing as many. Grass the height of hedges, nuts the swell of pumpkins. Sardines that would take two men to land them. Eggs, pale-blue-shelled, each the weight of a breaking universe.

And, underneath, mushrooms soft and small as a mouse ear. A crack like a cut, and inside a million million microbes wondering what to do next. Spores that wait for the wind and never look back.

Moss that is concentrating on being green.

A man pushes forward with a microphone-'And is there oxygen?' Yes, there is. 'And fresh water?' Abundant. 'And no pollution?' None. Are there minerals? Is there gold? What's the weather like? Does it rain a lot? Has anyone tried the fish? Are there any humans? No, there are not any humans. Any intelligent life at all?

Depends what you mean by intelligent. There is something there, yes, and it's very big and very good at its job.

A picture of a scaly-coated monster with metal-plated jaws appears on the overhead screen. The crowd shrieks and swoons. No! Yes! No! Yes!

The most efficient killing machine ever invented before gun-powder. Not bad for a thing with a body the size of a stadium and a brain the size of a jam-jar.

I am here today to answer questions: 'The lady in pink-'

'Are these monsters we can see vegetarian?'

'Ma'am, would you be vegetarian with teeth like that?'

It's the wrong answer. I am here to reassure. A scientist steps forward. That's better. Scientists are automatically reassuring.

This is a very exciting, and very reassuring, day.

We are here today to witness the chance of a lifetime. The chance of many lifetimes. The best chance we have had since life began. We are running out of planet and we have found a new one. Through all the bright-formed rocks that jewel the sky, we searched until we found the one we will call home. We're moving on, that's all. Everyone has to do that some time or other, sooner or later, it's only natural.

My name is Billie Crusoe.

'Excuse me, is your name Billie Crusoe?'

'That's me.'

'From Enhancement Services?'

'Yes, Every Day a New Day.' (As we say in Enhancement.)

'Can you tell viewers how the new planet will affect their lives?'

'Yes, I can. The new planet offers us the opportunity to do things differently. We've had a lot of brilliant successes here on Orbus - well, we are the success story of the universe, aren't we? I mean to say, no other planet hosts human life.'

The interviewer nods and smiles vigorously.

'But we have taken a few wrong turnings. Made a few mistakes. We have limited natural resources at our disposal, and a rising population that is by no means in agreement as to how our world as a whole should share out these remaining resources. Conflict is likely. A new planet means that we can begin to redistribute ourselves. It will mean a better quality of life for everyone - the ones who leave, and the ones who stay.'

'So a win-win situation?'

'That's right, winning numbers all the way.'

Through the golden arches that are the city gates, the President of the Central Power is arriving. The arches stand like angels, their wings folded back against the lesser lights or the skyline.

The laser-gates, which look so solid, appear and disappear, like the wall that rings the city, a visible and invisible sign of progress and power.

Look in the light - the slight shimmer is their long energy. They are the aura of the city: emblem and warning, its halo and shield.

The President's cavalcade has reached the Circle. Flags, carpets, flowers, flunkeys, hitmen, pressmen, frontmen, back-up, support, medics, techies, crew, rig, lights, sound, real-time, archive, relay, vox-pop, popcorn, polish, makeup, dust-down, ready, green - GO.

The President is making a speech. The Central Power has funded the space mission for hundreds of years, and it is understood that any discoveries belong to us. He compares us to the men who found the Indies, the Americas, the Arctic Circle; he becomes emotional, he reaches for a line of poetry. For a moment, there it is, in handwriting that nobody can read, slanting under the images of Planet Blue - She is all States, all Princes I ...

The President is making a speech.

Unique moment for mankind ... unrivalled opportunity ... war averted ... summit planned between the Central Power, Eastern Caliphate, and our friends in the SinoMosco Pact. Peaceful compromise promised. New planets for old. Full pictures and information across the twenty-two geo-cities of the Central Power by tomorrow morning. New colonizing mission being made ready. Monsters will be humanely destroyed, with the possible exception of scientific capture of one or two types for the Zooeum.

Into the Circle come the spacemen themselves, in shiny titanium pressure suits, oversize helmets under their arms. These are men glamorous as comets, trailing fame in fire-tails.

There's a robot with them - well, a Robo sapiens, incredibly sexy, with that look of regret they all have before they are dismantled. It's policy; all information-sensitive robots are dismantled after mission, so that their data cannot be accessed by hostile forces. She's been across the universe, and now she's going to the recycling unit. The great thing about robots, even these Robo sapiens, is that nobody feels sorry for them. They are only machines.

She stands there, while the silver-suited saviours shake the President's hand. She's going to tell us all about the chemical and mineral composition of the new planet, its atmospheric readings, its possible history and potential evolution. Then, when the public part is done, she'll go backstage, transfer all her data, and open her power cells until her last robot flicker.

The End.

It's a kind of suicide, a kind of bleeding to death, but they show no emotion because emotions are not part of their programming.

Amazing to look so convincing and be nothing but silicon and a circuit-board.

She glances over to the Support Stand and catches my eye. I can't help blushing. I think she has read my mind. They can do that.

This is a great day for science. The last hundred years have been hell. The doomsters and the environmentalists kept telling us we were as good as dead and, hey presto, not only do we find a new planet, but it is perfect for new life. This time, we'll be more careful. This time we will learn from our mistakes. The new planet will be home to the universe's first advanced civilization. It will be a democracy - because whatever we say in public, the Eastern Caliphate isn't going to be allowed within a yatto-mile of the place. We'll shoot 'em down before they land. No, we won't shoot them down, because the President of the Central Power has just announced a new world programme of No War. We will not shoot down the Eastern Caliphate, we will robustly repel them.

The way the thinking is going in private, we'll leave this rundown rotting planet to the Caliphate and the SinoMosco Pact, and they can bomb each other to paste while the peace-loving folks of the Central Power ship civilization to the new world.

The new world - El Dorado, Atlantis, the Gold Coast, Newfoundland, Plymouth Rock, Rapanaui, Utopia, Planet Blue. Chanc'd upon, spied through a glass darkly, drunken stories strapped to a barrel of rum, shipwreck, a Bible Compass, a giant fish led us there, a storm whirled us to this isle. In the wilderness of space, we found ...

My name is Billie Crusoe. Here comes my boss, Manfred. He's the kind of man who was born to rise and rise: a human elevator.

'Billie, have you voiced through the downloads?'

'Yes, everything is there - sketches, diagrams, and a step-by-step explanation of how Planet Blue will change all our lives.'

'We have to present this positively.'

'It is positive, isn't it? Are you saying there are presentation problems with the chance that everyone is dying for?'

'Don't use the word "dying".'

'But Orbus is dying.'

'Orbus is not dying. Orbus is evolving in a way that is hostile to human life.'

'OK, so it's the planet's fault. We didn't do anything, did we? Just fucked it to death and kicked it when it wouldn't get up.'

'I know how you feel. I don't say you're entirely wrong in your analysis, but that isn't the way we can present the situation. The President has sent a memo this morning to instruct Enhancement Services and Media Services to work together on this. We don't want any stupid questions - any difficulties. The last thing the Central Power needs now is any unrest of our own. There will be trouble enough with the Caliphate and the Pact.'

'Because you're not giving a ride to either the Believers or the Collective?'

'When did they ever do anything for us?'

The Central Power is trying to live responsibly on a crowded planet, and that bunch are still scanning the skies for God, and draining the Last drops of oil out of the ground. They can go to Hell.'

Manfred looked down at my notebook. He frowned his older-man-thinker-type-sexy frown. 'Billie, if you weren't so eccentric, you'd fit in better here. Why are you writing in a notebook? Nobody reads and writes any more - there's no need. Why can't you use a SpeechPad like everybody else?'

'Notebook. Pencil. They have an old-fashioned charm that I like.'

'And I like the present just as it is. You still living in that bio-bubble thing?'

'You mean the farm? Of course I am. If I'd been able to make it pay I wouldn't be working for you. But a world that clones its meat in the lab and engineers its crops underground thinks natural food is dirty and diseased.'

'It is.'

'Yeah. And pigs are planes. So the farm is leased to Living Museum and I am enslaved to you.'

'You don't get many scientists coming across to work in Enhancement ... It's not exactly a career move.'

I had a feeling that something else was here - one of those ice-bound conversations that skate over the corpse in the lake. 'Is there a problem with my work?'

Manfred shrugged. 'Like I said, a Science Service high-flyer doesn't need to take a job with Enhancement.'

'You work for Enhancement.'

He was getting impatient. 'Billie, I'm going to be running the whole shooting match within two years. I have a graph. I have a Promotion Plan. I'm heading for the top floor.' (Yep, there he goes, Penthouse Man.) 'You aren't heading anywhere. You could have been promoted to Management within six months, but you're still on the ground, visiting people in their homes.'

'That's me, a cross between a District Nurse and an Insurance Salesman.'

'What's a District Nurse?'

'Never mind. History is a hobby of mine. It's not illegal, and neither is the farm, and neither is wanting a simple life. No graph, no Promotion Plan. OK?'

'OK. OK.'

He held up his hands. He turned to leave. 'Oh, you should move your Solo. Enforcement just gave you a ticket.'

'But I have a permit!'

'Take it up with Enforcement.'

'Manfred, this has been going on for a year - I clear them, they start again. I'm not paranoid, but if someone is out to get me, I would like to know.'

'No one is out to get you. But move the Solo. I would if I were you.'

He swung his handsome body and handsome head out and away to higher things.

Manfred is one of those confident men who have had themselves genetically Fixed as late-forties. Most men prefer to Fix younger than that, and there are no women who Fix past thirty. 'The DNA Dynasty', they called us, when the first generation of humans had successful recoding. Age is information failure. The body loses fluency. Command stations no longer connect with satellite stations. Relay breaks down. The body is designed to repair and renew itself, and most cells are only about a third as old as our birth years, but mitochondrial DNA is as old as we are, and has always accumulated mutations and distortions faster than DNA in the nucleus. For centuries we couldn't fix that - and now we can.

Science can't fix everything, though - women feel they have to look youthful, men less so, and the lifestyle programmes are full of the appeal of the older man. Everybody wants one - young girls and gay toyboys adore Manfred. His boyfriend has designed a robot that looks like him. Myself, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

I went downstairs, through the clotted ranks of Security and Support, officially known as Enforcement Services and Enhancement Services, but the SS has a better ring to it than the EE. We work together a lot of the time, soft-cop hard-cop kind of thing. It's my job - that is, our job - in Enhancement to explain to people that they really do want to live their lives in a way that is good for them and good for the Community. Enforcement steps in when it doesn't quite work out.

I know all the guys in Enforcement. I wave and smile. They nod, and let me pass.

Outside, there's a line of Solos and a line of Limos.

S is for Solo - a single-seater solar-powered transport vehicle. L is for Limo, a multi-seater hydrogen hybrid. S is for short-distance. L is for long-distance. Single-letter recognition is taught in schools.

In front of one of these vehicles, and one only, a CanCop is punching numbers into the Coder wired into his arm. CanCops are always around for back-up at high-security events - all they are is robots, soup cans with the power of Arrest.

On one of the long line of vehicles - and only one, mine - a bright yellow laser-light is covering the windshield. That's my penalty notice. Unless I press the yellow button on the parking meter next to it, I will not be able to drive away because I will not be able to see out of my glass. It's a clever system - you have to accept guilt before you can drive away and protest your innocence.

P is for Parking Meter. Slide up to the kerb, get out, look around, and the shiny solar-powered parking meter says to you, in its shiny solar-powered parking-meter voice - Hi there! You can park here for thirty minutes. I will bill your account directly. Welcome to the neighbourhood.

The meter then photographs your licence plate, connects to your Parking Account, which you must keep in credit at all times, and sends a digital receipt to your HomeScreen or your WorkScreen, whichever you have nominated. That's all there is to it, unless you run late, in which case the meter will laser-light your windshield in such a way as to make it impossible for you to drive off without accepting the Penalty.

So here I am - and I've been booked, even though I have a great big permit on the front of the car, with the date and time of my arrival and the impressive symbol of the Central Power.

I have been booked - again. If I were the paranoid type, which I am, I might almost start to believe that ... Believe what?

I wave my arms at the CanCop, and point to the permit. He shrugs his tin shoulders. The guys from Enforcement are laughing - it's true this kind of cock-up, or cop-up, happens all the time, and it's a bore but not a problem ... The trouble is that, for me, it's becoming a big problem.

I get out my Omni - the phone that does everything - and it automatically accesses the Parking Bureau Help Line. A sympathetic face flashes up in blonde pixels on my phone. 'DUE TO ...' I slam her off before she gets any further.

D is for Due to. Whenever anybody calls to complain, a sympathetic person - well, a sympathetic robot, actually, because they are programmed to be more sympathetic than persons. Anyway, this sympathetic robot says, 'DUE TO', and you know that due to a high volume of calls, due to heavy demand, due to staff shortages, due to difficulties, due to system failure, due to freak storms, due to little green men squatting the offices, well, DUE TO, nobody is going to speak to you, at least not in this lifetime.

Fuck it luck it flick it. F is for Fuck it.

And in the middle of this hi-tech, hi-stress, hi-mess life, F is for Farm. My farm. Twenty hectares of pastureland and arable, with a stream running through the middle like a memory. Step into that water and you remember everything, and what you don't remember, you invent.

My farm is the last of its line - like all ancient ancestor everyone forgot. It's a bio-dome world, secret and sealed: a message in a bottle from another time.

(Continues...)