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.