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Escape Plans, Gwyneth Jones

June 7, 2011

Escape Plans, Gwyneth Jones (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

I consider Gwyneth Jones one of the best British science fiction writers currently being published. So it shouldn’t really surprise me to discover how good her novels are whenever I reread them. Escape Plans I first read in the late 1980s, probably soon after reading and falling in love with Jones’ Kairos. When I came to this reread, I had not forgotten the story – a member of an orbital-based elite is trapped amongst the Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish drones of the “underworld” (Earth) – and I’d remembered the invented acronymic language which peppered the text. What I had forgotten was how well-written the novel was, how well-designed its background, and how… well, perhaps “clumsily-plotted” is too strong a term: but the story does seem to bounce from incident to incident, revelation to revelation, without actually come to anything more than a purely personal resolution.

ALIC (apparently a computer acronym, but it’s not in my OUP Dictionary of Computing) is a VENTURan, a member of a space-based society. VENTUR had originally been set up to colonise other star systems, but it never left the Solar System. And then the VENTURans ended up saving the Earth’s population from itself. ALIC (pronounced “Aeleysi”) is enjoying a holiday on Earth at SHACTI, Surface Habitat Area Command Threshold Installation, a planetary facility for the VENTURans. It is located on the Indian subcontinent. At a party, ALIC meets Millie Mohun, a bonded labourer jockey, who appears to be wearing a forged identification tag. The Earth’s population are, bar a minority of ruling “enableds”, all bonded labourers or “numbers”. Millie spins ALIC some story about being blackmailed into wearing the false tag; ALIC decides to help her. To this end, she infiltrates the numbers in SHACTI’s Sub Housing (the numbers’ underground hive-like city). Unfortunately, she soon finds herself trapped as a number, her VENTURan identity lost to her. And then a portion of the Sub number population rebels against their masters and the systems that maintain their habitats…

The plot of Escape Plans seems initially inspired by the story of Orpheus, who ventured into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from Pluto. It is, after all, the vague feelings of desire for Millie which motivate ALIC to set out on her ill-considered journey. However, not content with this, or with Escape Plans‘ departure from the myth when ALIC (now Alice) finds herself trapped as a number, Jones adds a further twist to the plot. Millie Mohun, many of the numbers believe, is immortal. As the story progresses, yet another myth takes this one’s place: Millie Mohun is an alien, come to Earth to deliver the multitudes from servitude. The VENTURans had already discovered that Earth is trapped in a bubble-universe, and the only world in it with life. Millie, the numbers claim, is from outside, and part of her message is to lead humanity to the galactic confraternity which exists beyond the bubble-universe.

It is perhaps an unnecessary complication of a story which is not all together easy to parse in the first place. The setting, the use of an acronymic language, the mentions of the myriad systems, the deliberate confusion between the systems’ real and virtual locations, and the metaphors used by the Earth’s populace in explanation of this… all serve to richen and partly obscure the story. Happily, the prose is so well written, it pulls you along with the plot.

That Jones is familiar with India (I believe she’s visited the country several times) shines through Escape Plans. For one thing, the novel’s matriarchal society strikes me as a deliberate irony. In rural Indian society, females are considered a drain on family resources: girl children must be married off and dowries paid. Boy children, on the other hand, will grow up to become contributing members of the family. In Escape Plans, it is the men who are entirely useless. The Earth culture is based upon the use of humans as processors in the pervasive computer systems which run life support, law and order, communications, etc. But only women can perform this role. Men cannot do it. This is a motif Jones has used many times: the society of her Divine Endurance and Flowerdust is matriarchal; and she also turns the tables on gender roles in her Aleutian trilogy.

Having read Jones’s later works, it seems to me that her depiction of technology in Escape Plans also echoes her use of it in later novels. The acronymic language used in Escape Plans disguises this somewhat, but the systems of the book are based upon a computing model which is probably more familiar now than it would have been in the mid-1980s. Escape Plans‘ systems are distributed and pervasive. Their real location, as opposed to their virtual location, is an important plot-point. They interconnect in a fashion not unlike the Internet – which predates Escape Plans by a couple of decades, but did not really become ubiquitous until the early 1990s.

I opened this review of Escape Plans by stating my high regard for Jones’s writing. It’s an opinion I’ve continued to hold with each book of hers I’ve read – or re-read. Escape Plans was certainly worth a second look.

This review originally appeared in a contribution to the Acnestis APA in 2001, and was later republished on It Doesn’t Have To Be Right…

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