On a rundown world, the buzz is of a new, pristine blue planet, like Earth as it was 65 million years ago. Who will be allowed to go, and will the arrivals treat this planet any better? This is the universe of The Stone Gods, novelist Jeanette Winterson’s latest book: part satire, part love story, part manifesto. She talked to Liz Else and Eleanor Harris about science’s role in our future
What’s going on in The Stone Gods?
I wanted to look at how technology is taking over science, how mechanistic it is. Without wishing to be too polemical, I wanted to challenge people’s ideas about what science can do. It’s not the solution for everything. I’m quite nervous about technology. Some of it has made our lives infinitely better, but humans are really bad at using things wisely. Every good thing that we make, we manage to turn into a negative, which increasingly threatens both the planet and its species. So my question is this: with all these things that we could do, what would we actually do?
What would we do?
If we found a new planet, would it really be any different? I don’t think so. When Stephen Hawking bangs on about how the future of mankind is in space, it makes me really depressed. It’s a boy’s fantasy, like not tidying your bedroom because your mother will do it – trash the place, then leave it. I wanted to challenge the idea that we can simply leave. Even if we could leave, not many of us would be allowed to – it would be terrible.
That’s a bit grim?
I don’t want to sound like a doom-monger because I’m not one, I’m optimistic. I do feel we have every chance, but not unless we are realistic, both about our own negativity and our own possibility. The idea that we might be repeating the same mistakes is central to the book – it’s there in the last line: “Everything is imprinted for ever with what it once was.” It also seems to be the truth of the fossil record, and you can go back into cosmic radiation and
find echoes of everything. It’s all there, isn’t it?
What do you make of our relationship with science and technology?
I am ambivalent because I think that the real problems of the human condition won’t be solved by another set of gadgets. Or even by spectacular interventions of the DNA kind. I introduce the idea of “genetic fixing” in The Stone Gods, with people choosing their ages. But when we’re all young and beautiful and everything’s supposed to work, it’s still going to be a nightmare because the problems are inside our heads. They aren’t going to go away just because we all look like star gods. Even if I could take a pill to be perfect, I wouldn’t.
What does help?
I tend to put my faith in the power of thought because I think people need to change from the inside out, not the outside in because that never works. We’ve got into a “science can fix it” mentality, which is not the fault of science.
No matter how much we pollute the planet, science will clean it up, if we run out of oil it doesn’t matter because the boffins will think of some other way. It’s always pushing the responsibility for fixing these problems onto “other” people, whoever they may be, giving them enormous power and, at the same time, suggesting there really aren’t any problems. It’s the George W. Bush school of thought, which cannot be right.
How will the 18 to 30 generation react to the book?
I’m starting up a MySpace campaign which I hope will provide a platform for debate. But I hope everyone will also understand that the book is my manifesto for what we could have, and that I can’t bear the heartbreak of what
we’re doing to the beauty of this planet. I come from a mill town, and to me the industrial revolution looked like a collective nervous breakdown. The human impact of these technological shifts is often devastating. You can’t change our heritage in 250 years: we are much older than that. I’d love it if science and technology weren’t always in the service of the bottom line. Of course there’s been progress, but generally the story is of smashand- grab and stuff the consequences.
Do men and women see these issues differently?
I do think there is a gender issue here. That doesn’t mean there is an obvious male/female split. But there is a sense in which boys get mesmerised with the potential of invention in a mad, Dr Frankenstein way. Perhaps they believe in their own myths more than women do. Women are realistic probably because right across the world they’re still the ones who tend the children, or look after the land. It’s no wonder that we call the planet “she”. It is home: men are always trying to escape from home, but we, women, are “home”.
You’ve written for children too...
Yes, Tanglewreck, which was about the nature of time – stealing it and running out of it! And I loved the idea of something travelling at the speed of light. I wrote it for my god-daughters.
How much science did you do at school?
Standard stuff; chopping up gerbils’ eyeballs and so on. But there was never any attempt to make connections, and I’m a real join-up-the-dots person. I want to know the consequences, I want a grand unified theory of me!
What do you think about novelists and science?
I hate science fiction. But good writers about science, such as Jim Crace or Margaret Atwood, are great. They take on science because it’s crucial to our world, and they use language to give energy to ideas. But others just borrow
from science and it ends up like the emperor’s new clothes, with no understanding of the material. But you shouldn’t fake it because science is too important, it’s the basis for our lives. I expect a lot more science in fiction because science is so rich. I certainly learn from my books as I go along.
What’s your next book about?
It’s called Robot Love and it’s for kids. A girl builds a multi-gendered robot, which then kills her parents because it sees them mistreat her, so they both go on the run. I’m fascinated by artificial intelligence and where it will lead.
These robots couldn’t build anything as bad as us – so why would they keep us?