Bold As Love, Gwyneth Jones

boldasloveBold As Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Martin Wisse

For a long time I wondered whether I had made a mistake selecting Bold as Love to read, picking it up and putting it down again, not getting to grips with it. Didn’t like the writing, didn’t believe the world building or plot, couldn’t care for the protagonists. Only the fact that I was reading this as part of a self-imposed challenge kept me going. That, and the feeling that a novel which had won the Arthur C Clarke Award and which was commercially successful enough to span four sequels, must have something in it that I was missing.

Perhaps it was just that this was a novel I needed to immerse myself in fully, not read in bits and chunks here and there during the daily commute. Gwyneth Jones is not a writer who grabs you from the first sentence – at least she isn’t for me. She writes her characters from the outside in, rather coolly and hence it takes more time to get into her characters’ heads than it would with a more “warmer” writer. I had the same sort of problems with the future England Bold as Love predicted, which at first seemed dated and implausible, more sixties New Wave than early 21st century science fiction.

Bold as Love‘s future England is part of a Britain more or less peacefully dissolving itself, against a background of ecological catastrophe engulfing Europe, never really explained. There are some hints of global warming, some mentions of eco scandals – BSE, foot and mouth – that had recently happened or were happening when Jones wrote the novel, but nothing all that concrete. Despite all the chaos and dislocation this environmental stress supposedly visits on England, it barely impacts on the protagonists’ lives.

Probably it’s because our heroes are countercultural royalty, two rock princes and the princess they both love: Ax Preston, Sage Prender and Fiorinda, impossibly young, ethereal, a rockstar in her own right. All of them came together on one of the last big rock festivals to celebrate Dissolution Summer. The government meanwhile, or what remains of it while Britain dissolves, is running consultation sessions with all the heavies of the counterculturals, or at least those bothering to show up. The old system is dying and the young, ambitious men and women one or two rungs below the real power in England want to use the counterculturals to replace it, to get themselves into power. Ax certainly knows he’s being used, but he has his own plans, Sage knows but doesn’t care, while most of the other, lesser countercultural stars are just there for a laugh; Fiorinda is there but has bigger problems. But when of the lesser stars stages a coup and takes over the counter, all three are drafted to form part of his government to lead the green revolution.

Bold as Love revolves around the adventures of Ax, Sage and Fiorinda as they have to solve the problems of an England where the counterculture isn’t any more, but in control of the country. These are huge, from more radical greens wanting to destroy everything modern to Muslim separatists in Yorkshire, but are all sorted out through the same solutions, by holding a rock festival. The power of rock and the genius of Ax, Sage and Fiorinda conquers all.

The plot’s not the heart of the book; that’s obviously the relationship between our three heroes, one that every review of Bold as Love insists is like that between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, though I find that too pat. These three lovers don’t need to destroy themselves just because they’re two men loving the same woman. Gwyneth Jones instead makes this a much more mature love triangle, in the end based on mutual respect and love between the two men as well as between each of them with Fiorinda. It’s in the scenes that she concentrates on the deepening of these bonds that Jones is at her best and Bold as Love convinces the most.

At first glance Bold as Love looked like a late and out of date example of New Wave nihilism, but thinking about it when reading it I realised that instead it mirrors the anxieties of late nineties Britain, when the optimism of early New Labour had long since vanished, the country resigned to being rundown and slightly shit, but still with a bit of the glamour of Cool Britannia left, that idea that rock bands could influence politics by rubbing shoulders with the politicians. The counterculture as well aren’t sixties hippies, but the much harder nineties ecological movement, the people who’d sit out in the woods for months on end to stop the construction of another highway. Jones takes these elements and puts them in essentially a fantasy tale.

Bold as Love didn’t quite convince me as a novel, but I think that was as much me as the novel. Try it yourself.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

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.

Flowerdust, Gwyneth Jones

Flowerdust, Gwyneth Jones (1993)
Review by Ian Sales

It was nearly a month now since the news from Gamartha… And overcrowding was weighing heavily on [Ranganar’s] resources. Divine Endurance (p 155)

Between those two sentences, Gwyneth Jones has squeezed a novel: Flowerdust is set during the events narrated in her debut novel, Divine Endurance. That novel told the story of the Peninsula, the angel-doll Chosen Among the Beautiful, the eponymous cat, and the revolt of the Peninsulans against the offshore rulers. Around two-thirds of the way through Divine Endurance, the two main characters, Derveet and Prince Atoon, find themselves waiting in the Southern city of Ranganar for some sign of what their next move should be. And this is when the events of Flowerdust take place.

Refugees have been flooding to Ranaganar and have been placed in a large camp. Whilst visiting this one day, Derveet and Atoon hear of a drug called Flowerdust, a drug they know to be both dangerous and extremely rare. with the help of Endang, an educated male, and Cycler Jhonni, a character who appeared in Divine Endurance (but only in a minor role), they set about uncovering the source of the drug. This leads them north into Timur and a reform camp run by an old Koperasi friend of Derveet’s. The characters, however, soon realise they have stumbled across more than just a cache of the drug, and the last part of the novel leads up to the revelation of what exactly it is behind the reform camp.

However, the story is just as much about the characters – especially Cycler Jhonni and Endang. Their relationship forms one of the major narrative threads of the book, centring around the strange “female” powers he begins to manifest. This is particularly so during the trip north from Ranganar to Timur where his powers go into overload and affects the reality of those around him – shades of Kairos (see here and here)?

The Peninsula has always been one of the better-built fictional worlds, both interesting and sufficiently alien, and leaving the sure knowledge that it continued to live after the story was over. Gwyneth Jones has often been seen as a political writer, and it is this that adds depth to the world of Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. Matriarchal societies may be fairly common in sf, but successful ones are not and I would count the Peninsula with its dapur as one of them.

It is always interesting to see how authors behave when they return to worlds they have previously built. So, if I’ve taken liberties in finding a place to slot Flowerdust into Divine Endurance‘s narrative, then so has Gwyneth Jones in her return to the Peninsula. There are small details that don’t tally across the two novels. Why such revisionism? These changes don’t detract from the novel in any way, but then I’m not sure they add value either. Perhaps it’s just Varleyism (see the Afterword to Jon Varley’s Steel Beach).

On the whole, I think Flowerdust is a more coherent novel than Divine Endurance (and comparisons are inevitable). However, of the two, I’m not sure which is the better. Whilst Divine Endurance is a book that needs to be read carefully and savoured, I don’t think this applies to Flowerdust. This is not to say it isn’t an excellent read, but it is an easier one. It’s a difficult judgment call: Divine Endurance did most of the hard work in setting up the background and (most of) the characters, after all.

Overall, Flowerdust is a highly readable, well-written and valid addition to both Divine Endurance and Gwyneth Jones’ oeuvre. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared in Vector 179, June/July 1994.

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones, part 3

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Niall Harrison

This review follows on from part 1 here and part 2 here.

Part 3
A confession: I actually came to the Bold as Love series backwards. As part of my Clarke judge duties I had to read the final volume, Rainbow Bridge (2006), and at the time I had no experience of its predecessors. Truth to tell I don’t remember all that much about it, and that which I do remember I should not speak of, but what does seem worth mentioning here is the lingering elegiac impression the book left, crystallised in a self-description by one of the triumvirate, that they are “veterans of utopia.”

And so I came to Bold as Love on the lookout for the possibility of utopia, and was a little surprised by the novel’s darkness. Not the darkness in the stories of its characters — I’d read ‘The Salt Box’ in Interzone — but in its ambience and events. Bold as Love opens in a period of near-crisis, with the authorities struggling to maintain an orderly dissolution against a backdrop of economic and ecological collapse, and the trials don’t let up: an influx of migrants, a failing electronic infrastructure, a small war in Yorkshire. It seems astonishing that this world will ever progress far enough to look back on utopia.

But there is a utopian desire present in Bold as Love, refracted by the triumvirate, and in particular by Ax and Fiorinda. The latter is profoundly pessimistic — the combination of youth and experience, perhaps — and sees no good in the way the world is turning. More than once she comments that everything is going up in smoke, that it’s the end of the world. And on the role of Ax himself, when pestered, she says:

“I think he’s the Lord’s anointed. I think he has the mandate of heaven. I think he is rightwise king born over all England. But still–”

“But still you are the cat who walks by herself, green-eyed Fiorinda–”

“But still nothing’s changed.”

What does that “nothing” denote? Manifestly things are changing through the novel, dramatically so. But we know what Fiorinda means, of course, we know she means that there are still winners and losers and — in the novel’s terms — suits with power. Sage, similarly, is a sceptic. For him, the cross-demographic appeal of the triumvirate, as evidenced by the diversity of their gig audiences, does not seem like a compliment; it seems “like a deeply, deeply mistaken confidence” (p 243).

It’s left to Ax to lead: the only character to deliberately articulate any vision of utopia. In the aftermath of the coup, he rallies his countercultural comrades to that vision, speaking of the potential for something new in history, “a genuine human civilisation. For everyone”, enabled by technology. His goal is “To make this turning point the beginning of civilisation, instead of a fall into the dark ages”; but it’s tempered with pragmatism:

And yeah, before anyone says it, I know it won’t work. If I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, it’ll be partial, fucked-up and temporary. Partial, fucked-up and temporary will be fine. If we can get that going, for just a few years, just here in England, we’ll have made our mark. Something will survive. (p 82)

The grandest of visions an the most modest of terms: that’s the tension that defines Ax, seen later as dedicated to the art of the possible over the good, and seen from inside his head as one who endures. In the warzone, he recognises “a reason for Fiorinda’s mourning, the end of a world, an unbearable loss”, but “he had to bear it. Accept” (p 118); or, later, more than once, he thinks, “If we can just get through this part…” (I started to think of the catchphrase of Kim Stanley Robinson’s much sunnier Phil Chase: “I’ll see what I can do!”) The fragility of it all, the provisionality, is exhausting for Ax, and we sometimes feel that exhaustion. But between the three leads we also scent the elusive spirit of change, the muscular belief that things can get better, slowly.

All of which leads to the curious ending note. Superficially Bold as Love closes on a not entirely unexpected moment of grace, a pause that sees the triumvirate together and comfortable. Stubborn stuff, this world; hard not to retreat from it sometimes. At the same time, Ax’s thoughts, on the final page — “I was not perfectly happy, but now I am, and if I had the power this is where I would make time stop, this is where I’d stay forever. This is it, this moment. This, now” (p 307-8) — make it seem coldly plausible that this is the utopia of which they become veterans: a limited, individual utopia, an impression of the world around them shaped entirely by their personal emotional circumstances. But on reflection, it’s hard to imagine another ending for this quixotic, thorny book.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control.

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones, part 2

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Niall Harrison

This review follows on from part 1 here.

Part 2
There is a current in the novel that snakes outside the 1997 – 2001 moment; or at least a character who seems out of step with his surroundings. Ax Preston, guitarist with The Chosen Few, destined (it seems) leader of England, the nearest thing to a hero we’re going to get, “bit old fashioned, bit left wing” (p 23), and most importantly:

Ax would continue to come and go as he pleased. […] Go on living his fearfully public life in this fearfully changed world as if he were a private person with no enemies, and the date some mythical year in the nineteen sixties. (p 206)

The aptness of his particular nostalgia in a novel which springs partially from the nostalgic Britpop moment aside, this is what makes Ax special: this ability to preserve his own private Real Year in the face of the progressive isolation of England, first politically, through dissolution and an ongoing economic and ecological collapse, then culturally and digitally as their internet is collapsed by a virus. This new England is an island England, cut adrift (it seems) from the main line of history (I gather later volumes in the Bold as Love sequence get around a bit more). And Ax is both the moral leader we might wish for England, and a literal dictator: military, temporary, populist.

Ax is also Arthur returned (and updated), although I don’t feel qualified to do very much more than just note the fact. Accompanying him are Sage, the skull-masked “brilliantly commercial techno-wizard” to Ax’s “pure musician with critical and political cred” (p 27) and, I gather from Tanya Brown’s extremely lucid reading of the novel in The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, Lancelot with a hint of Merlin. I find him the novel’s bedrock, the wall off which other characters can bounce. (I find him a little dull.) Decoding the third of the triumverate, Fiorinda, takes longer, because she’s loaded down with more symbolism. Guinevere, says Tanya; rock royalty, precocious teen, Titania, virgin queen, says the novel; “a phenomenon,” thinks Ax, “where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?” (p 40-1). Fiorinda sees her position more clearly than either of her companions, as when Sage tries to protect her from the darkness of war: “I’m not built to play Red Sonja, so I have to be the lickle princess. There aren’t any parts for me as a human being in this movie” (p 161). Perils of being in a mythic story while female.

Everything real the trio does is also symbolic, and everything symbolic they do is also real. Ax is a soldier, and carries his guitar like an assault rifle as a reminder of that power. In his conversion to Islam midway through the novel, in the fetishization of Fiorinda, in Sage’s abusive past, in their varied class and ethnic backgrounds, and most of all in their shifting relationships with each other, they represent their country in more ways than one, a polymorphousness condensed by an artist, late in the book:

He grinned, envisaging Sage as the big strong mother of the tribe, Ax the father of his people, Fiorinda their shining prince. But any permutation of the roles would be equally valid. (p 282)

Ax nags like a mother, Sage is headstrong like a prince, Fiorinda negotiates like a father. And so on. The self-consciousness of it all could get wearing — seems to get wearing for many readers — but for me the novel’s centre of gravity was elsewhere. The role of the triumverate is to be a prism: to ensure that Fiorinda is telling the truth when, to buck up her band, she insists: “This is England. This is how it feels” (p 244).

”They’re both very brave men and very good officers,” says Richard Kent, ex-regular CCM army commander, with whom they served in that little English pocket-war in Yorkshire last year. “And that’s what counts today: leadership and vision. I don’t know where the rock music comes in.” (p 271-2)

It is Bold as Love’s central strangeness: that it asks us to believe rock stars could really be revolutionaries. It’s not, I think, the exchange of celebrity for political power that’s problematic – not in a post-Governator era, at least; not until after the initial off-screen hand-wave that brings the musicians into politics in the first place, anyway – but the idea that such individuals might make the transition yet retain principles. Even Ax is forced to comment on the implausibility of that.

It’s a potent notion, this belief in the power of music, with enough juice to often obscure the fact that Jones is at her weakest when writing about it, when creating a musical world. She displays an absolute tin ear for band names and song titles, her made-up music journalism is cringeworthy, and there is little sense of the wonder and transformative power of music itself. What she can convey is the ambience of musical events: her gigs are all jagged energy and aftermath, her festivals true worlds unto themselves, right from the start, when Fiorinda stands outside Reading seeking “the mere will to cross that boundary and join that fair field full of folk” (p 2). To enter faerie, with its customs and denizens and magical ways.

Bold as Love is, as Francis Spufford puts it in his review, a novel in which a festival swallows up the whole country. The answer to “where the rock music comes in” is “everywhere”; it has to, to give the idea of the Counterculture some gravitas, to make it a political force, a movement with sufficient cohesion and will to drive events. Ax, with his sixties Real Year, is merely the purest expression of the Counterculture. Music brings him security, and enables him to lead: to inspire, and occasionally placate the masses. And yet despite its pervasiveness, I don’t know that Bold as Love actually presents rock itself as revolutionary. Ax is as much a revolutionary who happens to be a rock star as the other way around, and the meaningfulness of the rockstar part of his identity is constantly challenged, from the quote at the head of this post to a sharp awareness of the sinister side of cultural conformity, to the simple, heavy irony of Sage and Ax’s repeated “Hey rockstar” / “Hey, other rockstar” greeting. Fiorinda certainly sees no glory:

From a distance she could see it happening: Ax’s future, the rock and roll lifestyle written over everything, the nomadic idleness, the emotional excess, the tantrums … she saw no hope in the development. A certain model of human life becomes accepted: once we were manufacturing workers, then we were venture capitalists, now we’re rockstars. The world stays the same. (p 91)

It’s perhaps useful to consider the “we” in this statement. Manufacturing workers, venture capitalists and rockstars are not equivalent classes – each is smaller than the previous – nor can Fiorinda meaningfully lay claim to have ever been the first two. (She is literally born to her position.) It’s tempting to take it as a premonition of the all-famous-now YouTube future, but I think that would be mistaken; I think Fiorinda is imposing a narrative on history whereby power has travelled from the many to the few. A false narrative, mainly, but that’s not the point; what matters is that she can’t believe any of the power is meaningful. Ax, meanwhile, doesn’t know whether he believes the power of rock is meaningful, but puts his finger on the real strength of his government:

Had the country been about the split in two, collapse into civil war, until the situation was saved by rock and roll? This morning the idea seemed absurd. We will never know, he thought. Maybe we made a difference, maybe we didn’t.

It didn’t hurt for the future, however, that a heavy proportion of the forty million seemed quite convinced that the Rock and Roll Reich had saved everyone’s bacon. Again. (p 255)

This, I think, is the closest to a definitive understanding of the role of music that the novel offers, a viewpoint that downplays the importance of music as music. Rather, what’s significant is the potential of music to be a vehicle for belief, at a moment when belief in all other systems of the world has been shattered by catastrophic cynicism.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control here and here.

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
Review by Niall Harrison

Kairos is a novel that spends a lot of time refusing to look you in the eye. Very nearly half of its pages (which number 260 in the revised 1995 edition, i.e. not the one pictured; I don’t know if the original 1988 edition is substantially shorter or longer, although Jones’ afterword suggests not) have passed before it actually admits that it’s going to be something more than one of the most grimly hypnotic visions of a real-year-88 near future committed to paper, but the pattern is there from the start. The first person we encounter is Sandy Brize who, on a cold August day, is deciding to leave the lover with whom she has spent her whole adult life. We never see the leave-taking itself: what we get is Sandy’s thought that, “around her failing love affair the failing world had gathered: started and spoiled, tried and failed, until Sandy could scarcely tell the two apart” (p 3), and other cheerfully entropic observations. Similarly, chapter two, a flashback to ten years earlier, doesn’t show us the couple in happier times; rather, it begins with Sandy having visited Otto Murray, who has just given birth, in hospital. Chapter three then opens with Otto Murray alone in a protesting crowd, Sandy having stormed off after an argument. And so on. In each case, the imagined scenes are more powerful than anything Jones could have written, of course; when Otto does visit Sandy, post-breakup, in the story’s present day, it’s something of an anticlimax, although one in which what is not said, what is absent, remains a looming presence — which, for marginalized inhabitants of a United Kingdom falling to pieces, whose inhabitants are only too well aware that the future is being decided elsewhere, even if by war, is only fitting.

The urban gloom that pervades most of Kairos is a peculiarly British drabness, but — another way in which the novel is evasive — conjured predominantly in the corner of the eye, through observations such as Sandy’s that relate a character and their environment. It’s an approach you could describe as street-level, if that didn’t conjure images of the lurid angsts of cyberpunk. Things that would be the meat of a more typical science fiction novel are passed over in brief, or excluded altogether. We are told that the Tories are in power — after one term of a “moderate” Labour government — but the Prime Minister is never named. The first decade of the twenty-first century has apparently seen “the oil crisis, the dollar crisis, the Japanese Rearmament”, and there’s mention of “the Islamic Bomb” and “the Israeli Bomb”, plus various brushfire wars, but Kairos cares about these events only to the extent that they shape the people who have to live with them in the back of their mind. Most characters are introduced in terms of the niches they cling to, of class, race, gender, sexuality, and how those niches constrain and define them. Sandy and Otto are unambiguously poor, but even the better-off characters seem excluded from wherever it is that the decisions are being made. For Sandy, increasingly as the novel proceeds, the only way to live in such a world is to seek a kind of psychic oblivion. Otto, on the other hand, raised in a relatively more liberal time, feels “betrayed […] she had no choice but to consider certain conditions normal and struggle for their recovery” (p 39). At times, it’s almost a cliché of how the eighties in Britain are meant to have felt, but its power remains. For all that Otto, Sandy and their friends try to find a way to deal with the world they find themselves in, Kairos can be as corrosive to the soul, if not the senses, as its inspiration.

The sf plot is, to start with, a conjuring trick. There is an organization, with the slightly cringe-inducing name of BREAKTHRU, which probably started life as a pharmaceutical company, apparently became a millennial cult, and has hung around for reasons not fully apparent to any of the characters. Sandy goes to one of their meetings, and is partly baffled, partly repulsed by their ideology. At the same time, Otto’s young son, Candide — a cruel affliction of a name if ever there was one – reports occasional sightings of things that may or may not be angels. Otto herself ends up in possession of a package, containing something taken from BREAKTHRU, which is barely mentioned until one of Candide’s angels turns up, explains the plot (ta-da!), and then anatomizes Otto and her friends:

“Okay, so we’ll rerun the story so far. The container that has gone astray holds an enormous quantity, relatively speaking, of a very new and potentially very dangerous drug.


“With the concentration that is packed in that little tube, there is no need to ingest it. It affects any contacts like a kind of radiation. Touch isn’t necessary, even: intention is enough.


“It gets right back to the, um, sub-particulate interface between mind and matter. It is operating under Planck’s constant, down where everything turns into everything else. It’s like, you can really play around with things.


“[You] probably think of yourselves as outsiders, dissenters. That isn’t true at all. In fact you epitomise the present state of the world, especially in this country and the others like it; white consumerism. […] You’re very comfortable in your separate ways but deep down it’s all based on denial.” (p 113-5)

It’s difficult to convey how incongruous the twin intrusions this passage represents — the appearance of an angel, kilt and golden breastplate and all, and the sudden, brazen clarity he brings to the story — seem after a hundred densely gnarled pages of Kairos. Whether or not the angel came from heaven, or is simply a kairos-user, he certainly appears to have come from another story, though as the last part of the quote may suggest, he doesn’t herald a dramatic shift in the novel’s trajectory. With kairos loose in the world, what the second half of the book sets out to demonstrate is that denial does you no good if intention is enough.

So the characters set out on journeys that take them deeper into landscapes that they are probably creating. These chapters are, at times, almost unbearably tense; they are also largely superb. Otto finds herself wandering dazed through the ultimate betrayal, a postapocalyptic Brighton — the aftermath of World War, for her, is marked by silence everywhere, the absence of people — then incarcerated in a prison that may be as much mental as it is real, before temporarily losing her identity entirely: one chapter begins, starkly, “The prisoner had escaped. It could not remember how” (p 220). Meanwhile, Sandy journeys with Candide to the headquarters of BREAKTHRU; she was not actually present during the angel’s visitation, but is increasingly conscious that the separation between her mind and the world is breaking down. She may be trapped in a version of the story that Otto has created, refracted through her own psyche. In one of the book’s most striking images, while trapped in a motorway traffic jam Sandy looks up to see “the pale November sun burst into an arc. A multiple arc of white suns spanned the sky. Everyone in all the cars shouted in terror and amazement” (p 150). Whether this is a literal change in the nature of reality, or simply how Sandy interprets the sunbursts of nuclear war, is unclear; as is, for a long time, whether the war itself is real, or caused by the protagonists thinking it so, or simply happens to coincide with the Kairos event. It seems to be the revolution the characters have been yearning for. It is terrifying. It even succeeds, briefly.

Or perhaps more than briefly. John Clute described the end of the book this way:

But Candide joins forces with Sandy, Otto’s working-class lesbian lover who has suffered both the snubs of her circle and most of the wounds an uncaring state can inflict. Sandy’s apocalyptic bitterness now combines with Candide’s natural abandon to impose a convulsive transmutation upon the shattered land. But kairos, which literally means fullness of time, has also a specifically Christian meaning: the moment of Christ’s appearance. Though Jones wisely refrains from attempting to limn an actual Second Coming, the vision that closes Kairos, of an unpatriarchal world in which it is inconceivable that dogs (and humans) might be tortured, rings backwards through her text like a blessing, and justifies it. (Look at the Evidence, p 135; TLS, 6 January 1989).

I’m with him for the first couple of sentences, but although the vision he mentions is in the book I read, it doesn’t close it. This may be what changed between the two editions, because in mine the final chapter of Kairos takes place after the event has ended — after, in fact, it has been made safe to think about, by parcelling it away as some kind of cosmic phenomenon, not a human action at all — in a world which in many ways appears to be going on much as it ever has. Not all: there are echoes of the power that kairos lent its users, and Otto in particular seems to have retained some ability to shape the reality she sees, and in fact worries that “I have to keep imagining things now” (p 259), lest they end. And some characters who had been dead are restored to life. But although there may be more, as Otto puts it, to the kairos event than “a changing of the guard” (p 231), there is also less. Sandy’s new job working on road repairs is purely mundane. Torture remains conceivable, although perhaps it might be more effectively resisted; an absence of dialogue has been replaced by “the ever present murmur of the human ocean”.

If it’s a blessing, it’s a fundamentally pragmatic one. I can’t think of many other novels in which the political and science fictional arguments complement each other quite so carefully; nor many from which the science fiction ultimately evaporates so devastatingly. What is left are people. Essays could be written about the way this novel plays with identity, but they would have to note, as Otto ultimately does, the potential for self-defeat in such considerations. “We would rather be slave owners and slaves,” she declares, “than try to live in the real world” (p 220). And so it seems to me that Kairos ends where it must. More people may have realised that opportune moment — the time of changes – is always right now, but crappy jobs and politics remain. The world remains; and we remain.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control.

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Niall Harrison

Part 1
It’s a truism that time is cruel to science fiction, that the relentless now eats into the future and leaves husks of stories in its wake and that, per William Gibson, the lag time is decreasing. When editing the 2002 Nebula Awards Showcase, Kim Stanley Robinson asked some writers to riff on the science-fictionalisation of the present, specifically on the role of science fiction in the twenty-first century. Gwyneth Jones was one of the contributors to the resulting symposium, and described “the problem of meaning”:

…which can best be understood by considering the ratio between the author’s intention and the rest of the content of a science fiction novel or story. The whole vast edifice of reality, the universe, and everything may have a single meaning that is known only to God. […] A science fiction novel or story, however, has a meaning known to the author. […] In the space of three hundred pages, where the author has elected to explain life, or consciousness, or theories of everything (typical projects among sf writers), meaning is so concentrated as to distort the most perceptive prediction to the point where it is almost unrecognisable. (p 241)

At first glance – which is particularly to say, when it was first published, back in 2001 – the predictive bedrock of Bold as Love may seem more unrecognisable than most. It chronicles the unlikely rise of a “Rock and Roll Reich”, an authoritarian Green state within which protagonists struggle for something better, and self-consciously constructs a future that only gets stranger the further into it we travel. It seems to fully earn its “near future fantasy” subtitle, and I speculate – this is the first time I’ve read it – that in 2001 Bold as Love seemed as much as anything to be about the possibility of an unknowable future; that its rockstar protagonists, improbably recruited into a Think Tank intended to define a new future for England, seemed written with a wind of millennial possibility in their sails.

Time may be cruel, but it’s the friend of the critic of sf who wants to strip away the layers of future, to get past the singularity of authorial intent. This, too, is a truism, encapsulated by the Clutean concept of the Real Year. Some of the things that stand out so starkly now must have been obvious at time, although the extrapolation of New Labour “Cool Britannia” co-option of pop seems to have been little commented-on in contemporary reviews. (Adam Roberts suggested it’s not even really about politics; Cheryl Morgan provided an exception; Roger Luckhurst, a couple of years later, digs into this aspect a little in an essay in Science Fiction Studies.) Some things might have been dimly discernable on the horizon, such as the extent to which the internet would gut the mega-label mega-bucks model of music distribution that dominates Bold as Love (no bittorrent, no YouTube). But what fixes this novel in time most profoundly seemed to come out of a clear blue sky: a door slammed shut, a month after the novel was published, on what in retrospect feels like a wasted moment of historical possibility. There are about a dozen mentions of terrorism in this novel. It’s there, but low down in the mix.

Bold as Love has already earned its place in sf’s modern canon. It’s probably the most sustained engagement with the nature of Englishness published within the genre in the last ten years, not to mention an early entry into the broken-Union trope that’s been so common in recent British sf, in novels by Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts. It’s a clear influence on Justina Robson’s even more dislocated near-future fantasy sequence Quantum Gravity (indeed, in one character’s crack about not wanting to “end up transformed into some crackpot post-human elf” [p 194] it could have offered direct inspiration). Yet it feels somehow irretrievable, locked away from me, innocent. I discovered Jones’ contribution to Robinson’s Nebula symposium because her novel had put me in mind of what one of the other participants said. Over to Ken MacLeod:

What sf enables us to do is not to forsee the future, but to entertain possibilities. The more possibilities science and technology –

[At this point, about 3.30 British Summer Time, 11 September 2001, the phone rang.]

I leave this piece as I wrote it, words from the old world.(p 248)

If I’m unbothered by Bold as Love‘s much-touted lack of plausibility (and I am, largely), this is most of the reason why. For once, being yesterday’s tomorrow is a kindness. It’s words from the old world; and by that token, it owns its world.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control.

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
Review by Ian Sales

Kairos has long been a favourite novel of mine, and so I did not expect it to disappoint on a reread. If anything, I imagined I would get more from the book – it’s been over a decade since I read it last and I hope I’m a more discerning reader now than I was then. Which also means, I suppose, that I had higher expectations of this favourite novel than I do of other books I might reread…

And right from the first page, Kairos‘ prose proved as good as I remembered it. By the end of the first chapter, something else about the novel had also occurred to me – what had been near-future science fiction was now alternate history. Kairos was first published in 1988, and it posits a future extrapolated from Thatcher’s Britain. The ever-widening equity gap, the increasingly ham-fisted attempts to enforce law and order, the slow realisation that the decisions made by government were not for the benefit of the people it represented… It wasn’t hard to imagine a dystopic future back then. If anything, it seemed almost inevitable.

Jane “Otto” Murray is a lesbian ex-political activist, and the owner of a small secondhand book shop. One of her closest friends, James, a gay soap opera actor of Nigerian extraction, asks her to look after a small film container given to him by his sister. Both James’ sister and brother are involved with BREAKTHRU, a pharmaceutical company turned cult religion – there is, incidentally, no commentary here on cults or religions. BREAKTHRU have managed to obtain a sample of a drug, which they call Kairos. This drug allows users to directly affect the real world. There is mention of quantum theory, used to “scientifically explain” how the drug operates, but it is its effects not its mechanism which is important.

After dabbling with BREAKTHRU, Otto’s lover, Sandy Brize, leaves her. Shortly afterwards, Otto’s son, Candide, runs away. Someone has kidnapped his dog and demanded the film canister as ransom. But Candide runs to Sandy, taking the film canister with him, and enlists her help in rescuing the dog. Together, they head north, meet up with a posse of animal liberationists, and raid the BREAKTHRU laboratory where Candide believes the dog is being experimented upon. Throughout this period, the drug in the film canister has been affecting Sandy, who has in turn been affecting the real world…

Kairos is split into eight sections, labelled First Angel through to Seventh Angel, and a final section, ∞. Each of the chapters is titled. I’ve never really understood chapter titles, perhaps because authors use them in so many different ways – from hints to a chapter’s contents to in-jokes to literary allusions. I suspect it’s the latter in Kairos, although many are beyond me: e.g., ‘Umbriel’ is a character from Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’; and ‘Abîmes des Oiseaux’, or ‘Abyss of Birds’, is a section from Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a piece of chamber music by Olivier Messiaen (I had to look both up, and I’m still none the wiser).

On rereading Kairos, I can understand why it became a favourite. I’ve admired Jones’ writing a great deal since first encountering it, and the prose in Kairos is as sharp and elegant and, on occasion as beautiful, as anything she has written:

The trees were larches. They had a manmade look, their slender girlish bodies laid out ready for processing while still upright. Their boughs swept down as smoothly as combed hair along the rows. Errant branches had been aborted when they collided with the pattern, the flowing locks concealed bruises. And yet the effect was extremely beautiful: red gold on red gold, falling in endless sheaves. (p 161)

But it’s not simply one word after another, put together in pleasing fashion. It has been said that Jones is a cold writer, though perhaps this sounds unfairly negative. To me, it’s more that her narratives give the impression of a vastly intelligent and dispassionate observer – as in this quintessentially Jonesian passage:

One cold spring day she was cooking skirlie pudding and cabbage while Candide and Vera played under the kitchen table. Sandy and Otto had hoped they would get used to having a dog around. They had not. There was something fundamentally repellent about the little terrier, with her slavish regard for beatings, her periods of abject sexuality; her constant amoral measuring of every comer – do I show my belly or do I bite? (p 41)

And yet her characters are alive, and not the affectless automatons you would expect of a dispassionate narrative voice. Indeed, it’s hard not to sympathise with her protagonists, despite the fact that, for me, there is little or no common ground. Further, Jones’ books have always given me the impression of continued existence, that on turning the last page, the world of the story carries on despite no longer being observed. The same is true of her characters.

Why Kairos a favourite more than any other Jones novel? It is very much a book of its time, fully grounded in the real world of its time of writing, as so many of my favourite novels are. It had relevance – and even now, reading it twenty-three years later, it recaptures that spirit, those feelings I experienced when reading it at its time of publication. Jones can be a prescient writer, but Kairos is no longer a book that looks forward – and that is part of its appeal. Its world has passed, its future exists only in some alternate timeline. But in 1988 it felt so very real, and reading Kairos in the twenty-first century only strengthens that sense.

A shorter version of this review originally appeared on It Doesn’t Have To Be Right…

Escape Plans, Gwyneth Jones

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…