The Stone Gods One English Literature Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
It used to be that the real and the invented were parallel lines that never met. Then we discovered that space is curved, and in curved spaces parallel lines always meet. (The Power Book, 94)
Science and literature has always been arguably been seen in opposition to each other since the period of Enlightenment. A scientist by training and writer by vocation, Snow’s 1959 lecture on “The Two Cultures” presented an antagonistic model of the cultural domains of science and literature that remains pertinent. According to C.P. Snow, there is “a gulf of mutual incomprehension, … hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding …[and] a curious distorted image of each other” between the two cultures. While Snow had felt that it was impossible for artists and scientists to be able to assimilate each other’s ideas because of major differences in each other’s worldviews, he was, however, not in favor of the divide. Snow felt that a misunderstanding of the two cultures would serve to impede the solution making process to solve problems present in the world. “The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures – of two galaxies, so far as it goes ought to produce creative chances” (16). The disciplines of science and literature although filled with differences can be mutually exclusive and complementary, if chance were given to the collaboration of the two cultures.
Not all thinkers, however, felt that way. I.A. Richards, for instance, felt that there should be no reconciliation of the sciences and the humanities (Science and Poetry) in that there were too many differences; not only a linguistic difference but to their fields of interests and language within ‘the two cultures’. It is in this paradox of the two cultures, where most writers generally attempt to reconcile ‘the two cultures’ in their works. Jeanette Winterson is one such example. From instilling scientific knowledge of human anatomy in Written on the Body (1992), to detailing the workings of the cyberspace in The Power Book (2000), to deploying the theory of quantum physics in Gut Symmetries (1997), Winterson is often portraying her visions through the synergies and differences of sciences and literature. Primarily because of the distinction between the two cultures, the inclusion of science within novels gives it an extra edge, an added layer of perspective powered by the author. “Science is never absorbed by writers, [but] always co-opted; it serves as a source either of objective correlatives or of solutions to their own dilemmas” (Limon, 24). The multiplicity of layers encoded within the text of Winterson owes much of its due to her brilliant play with both the cultures.
In The Stone Gods (2007), however, Winterson takes on a different approach towards the portrayal of the sciences and literature. As John Limon writes:
A writer with a personal, aesthetic, political, or religious problem is sure to find at least one version of science that responds to it, serves as a straw man for it, settles it, or, more likely, dignifies it, seems to give the dilemma a philosophical point. (25)
Indeed, in Stone Gods Winterson argues that the sciences are a cause or catalyst to the ill fate of man. Scientific advancements are prevalent in the bulk of the novel, yet the conveniences they bring are overshadowed by the destruction they have brought about. Spanning three tales in three different time zones and three different locations, the unifying theme between these tales lies in all the fate of the three tales; the environment Man inhabits is en route to destruction. Despite claims that Winterson makes of The Stone Gods as a narrative akin to a ‘poetic meditation on who we are and what we might do next’ where the readers are allowed to think for himself or herself (RBN Book Show), I shall argue that the text presents a much more explicit critique of scientific progress.
Having conceived of ideas of the novel and its structure upon listening to Stephen Hawking’s opinion on colonizing space for survival in the next decade (RBN Book Show), Jeanette Winterson is slightly more affirmed with her critique of science in this novel. Because The Stone Gods expands a little further into the futuristic aspect of scientific developments or what it could potentially become, there is no need to justify the fictional nor scientific accuracy about the possibilities she lists.
It is a tale of repeating worlds, a lost manuscript picked up in the Tube, a tale of the past, a tale which offers a glimpse into the futuristic worlds, probable futures not too far beyond our grips of a possible future. The novel at first reads like stories and tales loosely linked, directions unclear. Yet the beauty of the language and the fantasy of a scientific future weaved is adequate to instill is a sense of enchantment and engagement for the reader to remain catpivated. There are three main sections within the novel that locate themselves in three different areas, namely Planet Orbus, Easter Islands and Planet Blue. Deliberate attempts to link the novel up, clearly evident in the repetition names and characteristics of the main protagonists in Billie and Spike are present. Billie Crusoe (note the name) is always seen to be posing questions to the world around her; Spike’s supposed mission is to solve worldly issues. She is only prominent artificial construct the novel largely deals with. Apart from the similar names; the same ideas are repeatedly manifested in identical chunks of texts repeatedly, and that the events that occur in the differing realms of dimensions manifests itself in another. A brief of the novel’s chief ideas and narrative follows, in order to establish a general sense of the text in which the paper deals with. The past, present and future dimensions of time transverse in The Stone Gods, the futuristic notion lies primarily in that of Planet Orbus, which opens the novel.
I. The Stone Gods in a Nutshell
The novel begins on fictional Planet Orbus where the civilization is filled with robots, programmed to carry out the daily routines and duties of the human race. Like the letters of the English language, the robots have seemed to have infiltrated into the lives of the humans, having within themselves a range of names ranging from the letters A- Z. It is as though these robots were as essential as to the role of letters in correspondence with the alphabet or words as opposed to the role of the robots to the lifes of humans in that time period. Also, human bodies can be easily manipulated in this chapter, genetically modifications to a desired age or outlook are so easily attainable that the day you genetically get fixed is commonly known as ‘G-day’. Almost everyone in the fictional society has been there, done that. The possibilities science offers in the alteration of the human genome draws a parallel to the possibilities of cloning in the state of the present world. In many ways than one, Jean Baudrillard’s critique on cloning in Vital Illusions can be said to parallel Winterson’s critique of genetic manipulation in The Stone Gods. Both Winterson and Baudrillard questions,” [what] of the destination of the scientific project [?]” (9).
In Orbus, our protagonist, Billie, is a Public Relations officer whose primary job is to confirm prosthetics arrangement via genetic manipulation. She is one of the rare few left in the period that is still capable of empathy and thus the capacity to feel. She is different from the rest in that she still uses paper and pen, has her beliefs instilled within literature and humanities.
Although technology is very well advanced on this planet, the scientific advancements are not able to prevent the planet’s resources from depleting. The people on the planet therefore look to another planet for survival; of which this sounds almost incredulous, but Winterson’s narration is fuelled with endless optimism amidst the desperation that the mission works; to extinguish the monsters (dinosaurs) on a certain ‘Planet Blue’ before humans can start to evacuate Orbus and restart civilizations on the newfound planet. Although the Captain does manage to deflect an oncoming asteroid to create a climatic change to the planet, wiping out the dinosaurs as the collision results in an ice age, human life would only be made possible only 65 million years later. Winterson seems to imply that the futuristic Orbus belongs actually to a portal of the past, a time forsaken and forgotten, a future that we once were 65 million years ago, a future we have yet to become.
The next chapter brings us back to a time in the past, March 1774, on the Easter Islands. Our protagonist, incidentally named Billy, has been left stranded on the island by his crew has to fend for himself among cannibalistic natives for survival. While it all sounds too much like the fate of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), a cast away on an island all by himself, Billy credits his survival to Spikkers, a second-generation castaway who had first originated from the Netherlands. The choice of ‘Billy Crusoe’ as its name is of no coincidence and the paper shall deal with it later. Similarly, one is note that there is significance in the portrayal of the Easter Islands, as it clearly resonates the novel’s title, and the moral it upholds, serving a larger part of its representation of a microcosm of what is being done to Earth, or more specifically pertaining to the situation addressed well within the novel. The occupants of Easter Island have relentlessly wasted the once lush greenery and resources of the island to build themselves stone gods, which ultimately sees itself eventually being destroyed; “the island has been destroyed (to build the Stone Gods), and now the Stone Gods are themselves destroyed”. The futile wastages of resources, misjudgments of Man, are themes of which are constantly repeated throughout the novel.
Planet Blue (Wreck City/ Post 3 War)
The third tale takes a bold leap into a future, that of post World War Three. A city is generally reestablishing itself after a nuclear war declared by the Iranians. In the location where the protagonist thrives, ruins, political struggles and ill effects of the war imposed upon the innocent survivors are rampant. Billy recollects her memories of her abandonment as a child in this chapter and a myriad of metaphorical texts and recollections of her past amidst the ongoing narrative intercepts her encounter with Friday helps her to locate Spike and navigate her way around the outskirts of Tech City. Spike’s physicality remains from the first portion of the novel, as she remains a robot without a head. She is however continually evolving and has removed herself from the mainframe, which she has all along been governed by. The Spike we now see is a robot that has the ability to now make her own decisions and receives no orders from any authority. In Wreck City, a post-Apocalyptic town where teenagers wear Doc Martens and survive on champagne and sardines as staple food, Billy and Spike discovered a satellite dish that receives a signal sent 65 million years ago. Similarly the readers are led to discover a more intricate side to Billy as she reminisces about her past, a recollection of her then young single mother who had dumped her when she was merely 28 days old.
II. Uncovering Winterson’s critique of Science & Humanity
Although advancements in genetic engineering on the Planet Orbus in the opening chapter may have helped fix and satisfy the superficial desire of its people to look youthful forever, the society at large had generated a new ill. With everyone else on the planet looking beautiful, people look to deviants of the normal, of “freaks” for wonder and idolism. Celebrities are hankered after because they can never grow up or have an extra limb, or two. “[People] want something different when everything has become the same (Winterson, 21)”, men are chasing girls who are still little children who have not gone through puberty, celebrities undergo macro-surgery to get surgically enhanced to be ‘star-gods’ (19) with changeable hair colors to match their outfit. Although it is very much a result of the wants of a society, it is notable that the society at large is malfunctioned and has further degraded. There is such a similar situation in the world of genetics today in that of cloning. Initially used for improving or sustaining lifelines or health aids, the futuristic possibilities that Winterson creates within the novel may one day become reality. It is ironic however, that we should most often find ourselves wanting to be different or unique from one another only to end up being a conformed individual, to that of a societal body. This is similar to the state Jean Baudrillard suggests in that of cloning in the twenty first century today. He writes:
It is the matrix of acquired traits that, today, clones us culturally under the sign of mono-thought – and it is all the innate differences that annulled, inexorably, by ideas, by ways of life, by the cultural context. Through school systems, media, culture, and mass information, singular beings become identical copies of one another. It is this kind of cloning – social cloning, the industrial reproduction of things and people – that makes possible the biological conception of the genome and of genetic cloning, which only further sanctions the cloning of human conduct and human cognition. (25)
In the novel however societal values become contorted, as a utopia of sorts is gradually revealed as a dsytopia due to scientific advancements. The idea of cloning has infiltrated through the society because of the sanction behind societal pursuits. People seek for acceptance and therefore look to conformity. In the novel, Men become pedophilic, the perfect is now the normal, and people look towards what used to be called freaks for instant gratification. Everything is becoming a copy of a copy, nothing is real, everything becoming like illusions people once envisioned, towards being the ideals that everyone originally had. Science alone is not to blame, but the state in which Man has abused science is worthy to note.
Apart from the society plunging into a state of dsytopia, the portrayal of massive destruction and depletion of the natural resources brought about by the advent of technology on the various locations of Planet Orbus, the Easter Islands and Planet Earth certifies that destructive quality in Man. Planet Orbus has been wasted away and is soon becoming inhabitable; Easter Island is lacking in the resources it used to have in abundance; Planet Blue is full of chaos and war-stricken, miles apart from the fresh new planetary site it once promised the people on Orbus. These devices of the sciences are merely tools, objects that do not have a life of their own. Hence is that of war, environmental degradation etc a result of Man’s doings, science and technology merely a catalyst for man’s actions. In Wreck City “a new generation of humans made out of the hatred of others (233)” comes to light in the most grotesque descriptive of passages:
Coming in on all fours, coming in on crutches made from rotten forest wood, coming in ragged, torn, ripped, open-wounded, ulcerated, bleeding, toothless, blind, speechless, stunted, mutant, alive – the definition of human. Souls?
They live in the Dead Forest. They were the bomb damage, the enemy collateral, the ground-kill, blood-poisoned, lung-punctured, lymph-swollen, skin like dirty tissue paper, yellow eyes, weal-bodied, frog-mottled, pustules oozing thick stuff, mucus faces, bald, scarred, scared, alive, human. (232)
These were the victims of war, their fates sealed with having to live with inadequacies, for whichever reasons the higher powers held over them, reasons for which may have been the result of wanting power over another. Even in the Easter Islands chapter before technological advancements came into view Man is seen to be veering and fighting for power, setting their own rules and winning glory, to change the way one governs the area, the nation, the lands. And this is exactly a part of what Winterson exemplifies; the decrepitude of Man, in the many errors, misjudgments. “Mankind, I hazard, wherever found, Civilized or Savage, cannot keep to any purpose for much length of time, except the purpose of destroying himself” (Winterson, 132).
In the three possible timelines that Winterson had laid out, there seems to be only degradation, destruction and damages all around. This thus resonates greatly with what the novel has been driving at thus far, that Man is destructive.
According to Baudrillard, “in [our] blind quest to possess greater knowledge, humankind programs its own destruction with the same casual ferocity that it applies to the destruction of everything else” (Baudrillard, 18), in which anything in the way of attaining the goal of Man is eradicated. Perhaps there is some significance to how this ‘knowledge’ should present itself in the form of ‘power’ and nothing else within the novel. The novel seems to agree with Baudrillard’s contention, in his observation that appeals to the larger political bodies that decide the management and fate of the general population, the form of ‘power’ attained through technological advancements; having closer watch on its own citizens, robots to man mundane duties, or make ‘subjective’ decisions, the threat of misuse or abuse of this power is highly detrimental. Significantly enough, Winterson voices her critique through the voice of the artificial intelligent protagonist, Spike:
The ones that don’t believe [in God] blame religion for the ills of the world, and while this is an attractive theory, especially among scientists, it does not account for the part that science and technology have played in bringing about mass destruction. You can believe what you like, but without guns and bombs, the damage you can do to yourselves and others is fairly limited (162)
Man can only blame himself for the harm he inflicts upon one another. Lucid description of the wrecked cities and their inhabitants in the last chapters at the Playa aforementioned further establishes Winterson’s argument of the destructiveness of weapons. Severely mutated due to the bombings of a Third World War, these people were “torn, ripped, open-wounded, ulcerated, bleeding, toothless, blind, speechless, stunted, mutant, alive” (232). These people are fed from humanitarian aid dropped from the skies above. Ostracized from the rest of the civilization, their lives are forever damaged. Living in forests and unmanned lands, their fates are forever now controlled by the larger powers, fully dependable on their aid for survival. Recall earlier from the grotesque descriptive passages that Winterson writes, of “souls?” and “humans”, the identities of these victims are questionable.
Mistakes happen, abuses occur. Despite having the power of thought and the option of securing knowledge, misjudgments can still occur. The novel presents a variety of cases where Humankind attempts to employ science to improve the quality of life- from genetic manipulations to replacing humans in handling mundane tasks like that of household chores. However the consequences of mishandling of science; terrible fates of the victims in a postmodern war portrayed within the novel goes far enough to subvert the good that sciences can implement. Just as young children are naÃ¯ve in their undertakings, humans in both the fictional and real world tend to mishandle these “toys” which inevitably “get out of control” (RBN Book Show), the “toys” being new scientific inventions. Science can aid and reverse the progress of man. Yet it cannot help to fix everything. “Humanity sacrifices itself as a whole species to an unknown experimental fate – unknown before this, in any case, to other species, who have never known any fate but a natural one” (18). Experiments are after all experimental, results hypothetical. Until humanity is able to judge well for themselves, it seems as though mistakes are bound to reoccur, thus may fates be sealed in that manner.
However bleak the novel seems to present the fate of humankind in the hands of scientific advancements, Winterson offers a form of redemption. This is clearly portrayed by Spike’s observation, which resonates throughout the novel: “This is a quantum universe, neither random nor determined. It is potential at every second. All you can do is intervene (75)”. The only redemption in the face of such consequences lies within the potential for humanity to rise up to the occasion. Spike’s offering of love as a solution could well be double-edged: first and foremost, at the level of individual characters, to serve as a bid to tempt Billie into reciprocating Spike’s affection, and in a more broader context, to address the problems created by humankind.
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