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A sci-fi tale of love and survival

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Special to The Times

Maybe a prodigy, certainly a rebel with a divine knack for metaphoric invention -- this might describe Jeanette Winterson as a child. In her self-exploratory debut novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” the protagonist, like the author, was given up for adoption to a rigorously evangelical couple and discovers her powers as a revivalist speaker shortly before discovering her lesbian love for another girl.

A few decades, many prizes and numerous impassioned and original fictional worlds later, Winterson hasn’t changed her spots, let alone her fierce moral stance. Her newest novel, “The Stone Gods,” contains bold scientific hypotheses, enough anger to topple mountains and the imaginative assurance of a sleepwalker pirouetting on a tight wire.

And while this emotionally charged dream is sustained over considerable time (about 65 million years), it feels heart-stoppingly immediate on nearly every page.

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Winterson’s early novels, notably the seductive “Written on the Body,” were focused on questions of personal identity, the slippery “I.” In this latest tale, the successive voices emphasize a “We” -- in fact, “The Stone Gods” purports to be nothing less than our own collective, planetary story.

The project could not feel more urgent, in these preapocalyptic years of the 21st century in which the fires of “contained” wars mix with searing pollution and poverty, and powerful nations’ governments look like puppets jigging for the super-rich.

The story opens on Orbus, a plundered and media-plagued planet that resembles Earth a little ways down the timeline. Girl scientist Billie Crusoe is giving a boosterish presentation of a newly discovered, colonizable world. On Planet Blue, “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.”

Already the reader is being deftly jarred out of logical expectations and prepped for wonders and terrors. Evidently, Winterson couldn’t care less that this science-fictional Earth’s-end terrain has been well trodden recently by such other nongenre writers as Michel Houellebecq and Cormac McCarthy. She has her own ideas about what’s out there and about what’s inside us -- in other words, about what it means to be human.

This subject is explored with some originality by Billie, who falls body-and-soul in love with the stunningly beautiful and intelligent Spike. In the womb-free, licentious society of Orbus, where people are genetically “fixed” to remain gorgeous indefinitely, and men sated with Barbie types are turning to 12-year-olds, same-sex relationships raise no eyebrows.

But there is a problem, because interspecies sex remains a no-no, and Spike is not Homo sapiens but Robo sapiens, the prototype of a brave new creation. Says the splendidly ditsy housewife Pink, Billie’s accidental sidekick, who pipes up whenever the topic threatens to turn too weighty, “I’m not prejudiced or anything, it’s not your fault that you’re a robot -- I mean, you never had any say in it, did you? One minute you were a pile of wires, and the next thing you know you’re having an affair.”

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Presented in three narratives, self-contained but studded with cross-clues and allusions, the story moves from Billie’s Orbus (and the Blue Planet), to a sailor abandoned on Capt. Cook’s Easter Island, to a fresh set of characters (though namesakes of the old) on a near-term Earth still smoking in the aftermath of “3War.”

It’s a shame that convulsively funny Pink couldn’t stick around for the whole ride. In her weaknesses she is livelier than the central Billies and Spikes, who have a lot of pronouncements -- on love, religion, the structure of the universe -- to deliver.

The third narrative in particular feels hampered by rephrasings of key ideations, while paradoxically speeding toward the end, brakeless and high on the novel’s sustained vision while disregarding the pile-up of hard-to-believe images and coincidences.

Still, when the connection among the three narratives finally dovetails, and what once flickered as an early suspicion blooms to certainty, the sense of closure is both chilling and fulfilling.

Some novels are intriguing enough to shorten a plane trip; some even offer a trip into other people’s skins and minds. And then there is this kind of book, one that you don’t so much read as drink in, refuse to put down, cast inside of like a hunting dog, seeking against all odds the insight that will illuminate everything, a true answer to the fix we’re in.

Bursting with urgent apprehensions, “The Stone Gods” also gives due respect to quantum theory by purporting to be only one version of our story. As Billie Crusoe realizes, “[e]very second the Universe divides into possibilities and most of those possibilities never happen. It is not a uni-verse -- there is more than one reading.” Later, Billie II, outcast and on the lam with Spike in the revolting postnuclear meltdown, picks up the theme.

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“The problem with a quantum universe, neither random nor determined, is that we who are the intervention don’t know what we are doing.” Are humans doomed to repeat destruction, or is there a way out? Her answering thought, “Love is an intervention,” tolls like a bell through this fable of time.

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Kai Maristed is the author of several books, including the novels “Broken Ground” and “Belong to Me.”

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