The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson Hamish Hamilton, HK$280 When men are surrounded by model-thin women who look like Jennifer Aniston they will go for 12-year-olds with three boobs, while women 'surrounded by hunks ... look for the ugly man inside'. Welcome to the future, where the ice caps have been refrozen and mass illiteracy is a state-sponsored goal. Jeanette Winterson's ninth novel, The Stone Gods, subject of a spat between her and Man Booker Prize panel chairman Howard Davies, is her most polemic yet, an imaginative and often funny rant against the dehumanisation of the technological age. Readers familiar with Winterson's style, which has been developing neatly since her 1985 debut, the semi-autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, know not to expect anything as simple as a beginning, middle and end. The Stone Gods is circuitous and focuses on inevitability. In its four stories of time and place, characters appear and reappear in different eras, meeting the effects of their previous actions. Central to the allegorical narrative is the slow destruction of the planet Orbus. Brave New World meets The Handmaid's Tale meets Blade Runner, it is not so much science fiction as exaggerated fact about where we are now. In the opening story, the 'western democracies' have discovered how to refreeze the ice caps and lower carbon emissions, but the Caliphate and members of the Sino-Moscow Pact, not having been part of the rush for economic growth and progress, are still polluting in a manner considered 'selfish and suicide'. The democracies have reduced literacy to the recognition of a letter in 'a move towards a more integrated, user-friendly, day-to-day information and communications system' by means of 'state-approved mass illiteracy'. On Orbus, scientists have discovered how to fix age, create the perfect breast and alter complexions to match outfits; few women are older than 30 and clothes come in two sizes (model thin and model thinner). Robots take care of all mundane jobs: Kitchen Hands for the chores, Flying Feet to run errands and for the rest, top-of-the-line Robo sapiens, which are so sophisticated they are evolving. Most humans, meanwhile, are so dumbed down their brains are shrinking. Having had its way with the planet, humankind finds its fate rests on the discovery of Planet Blue, hyped by the global PR machine as an escape route for the rich. Enter Billie, whose job it is to do a one-minute, in-depth interview with Spike, an improbably beautiful Robo sapien just back from a fact-finding mission. Billie is a renegade because she still has a womb, most women having been genetically fixed to be 'wombfree'. The idea is that those who can still reproduce will be moved to Planet Blue, along with workers from the backward Caliphate who still understand farming. But to make the planet prime property, the dinosaurs will have to be destroyed; the dust cloud from a deflected asteroid is thought to be the quickest way of removing the largest beasts. There follows a story about Easter Island and how a habitat covered in vegetation came to be stripped bare by human foibles. The praying to what we don't understand leads to the same destruction, albeit on a much smaller scale, as the godless rationalism of Orbus. A change of pace and feeling comes in the tale Post-3 War, in which 'it's possible to be telling the truth even in the moment of invention'. Winterson incorporates into this story the incident of her manuscript being left on the London underground by a Penguin employee and picked up by a curious commuter, whose later comments intrigued her: 'I flicked through it. No point starting at the beginning - nobody ever does. Reading at random is better.' This odd, autobiographical section, in which Winterson muses on how she was given up for adoption by a young mother she knows must have loved her, strikes a personal chord amid the high-paced raging at robotic traffic wardens. 'Human beings aren't just in a mess, we are a mess,' Winterson writes. 'We have made every mistake, justified ourselves, and made the same mistakes again and again. It's as though we're doomed to repetition.' You may recall that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Says Winterson: 'The problem with a quantum universe, neither random nor determined, is that we, who are the intervention, don't know what we are doing.'