White Queen, Gwyneth Jones

White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991)
Review by Ian Sales

If there is a common factor in Gwyneth Jones’ novels it is that the main character in the opening narrative is an outsider who offers us an objective focus for the story as it unfolds. The outsider in White Queen is Johnny Gugliogi, exiled electronic journalist. Johnny is a carrier of QV, a petrovirus that affects coralin, the 2038CE answer to the silicon chip. He maintains he is not infected, believing it all to be some political conspiracy, and dreams of returning to his wife and child in the USA.

However, despite the commonality of an outsider, the plots and settings of Jones’ novels themselves have been anything but similar – from the near-fantasy of Divine Endurance to the acronymic science fiction of Escape Plans to the Thatcherite nightmare of Kairos. And now we have the near-future “aliens have landed” scenario of White Queen, although to say White Queen is about an alien invasion is to miss most of the book.

The story opens in Asabaland in West Africa, where Johnny meets one of the alien Aleutians. At this point, they are observing humanity incognito. Johnny also meets Braemar Wilson, a British media personality. It is the relationship between Braemar and Johnny – predicated on the relationship between Johnny and one of the Aleutians – and the relationship between the revealed Aleutians and Earth’s chosen representative body (a conference on women’s affairs that seems to be going nowhere slowly), that forms the backbone of White Queen. The title refers to a group of anti-Aleutians led by Braemar. White Queen’s, and Braemar’s, motives for opposition to the aliens are complex and revealed to us piece by piece. Braemar sets out to recruit Johnny into White Queen, but he initially rejects the group, its reason for being, and her. As Johnny comes to accept his situation, including the fact he is indeed QV-positive and has no hope of a return to his family, so he becomes an active member of the group, if not the most active member…

White Queen is an intensely political novel – as, in fact, are most of Gwyneth Jones’ adult novels. The aliens’ arrival naturally has severe political repercussions throughout the world – partly a result of their actions, and partly a result of the existing world situation. Some things are profoundly different – Japan, for instance, disappeared beneath the waves during a global environmental catastrophe in 2004; but some things don’t appear to have changed at all – “The English Prime Minister, that utter nonentity…” (p 152).

This is a book that takes time to read. The Aleutians are not humans in rubber suits. It is difficult to understand them at first, and it is not until we begin to learn more about their society and origins that we can even start to comprehend them. The human characters, on the other hand, are impressively three-dimensional. White Queen is no book of the 1980s as Kairos was, but is it a book for the 1990s? What it is, is a textbook example of that intelligent, thought-provoking and involving brand of science fiction that has been eclipsed in recent years by cyberpunk. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared in Vector 168, August/September 1992.

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