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.

Despatches from the Frontier of the Female Mind, Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu

jgslf_despatchDespatches from the Frontier of the Female Mind, Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (1985)
Review by Jack Deighton

This is an anthology from a time when it was thought there had to be a Women’s Press and a collection of SF stories by women writers only. Given the relative rarity, still, of published SF written by women – though the barriers are no longer so high and the practitioners are at least on a par with and often surpass their male counterparts – arguably the desideratum is as important now as it ever was. The avowedly feminist perspective, the didacticism, of a lot of these stories dates them though. Then again most SF from the 80s would be similarly dated.

‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ by Josephine Saxton
On a regressive colony world an advertising copywriter describes the unusual procedure devised to illustrate the extreme stability of a new car.

‘Spinning the Green’ by Margaret Elphinstone
A fairy tale. It even begins, “Once upon a time.” A treacle merchant on his way home from a convention encounters a group of green-clad women in a wood. They demand a price for the rose he has picked for his youngest daughter. Curiously this world has computers, televisions and round the world cruises but the merchant travels on horseback.

‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ by Joanna Russ
Satirises the portrayal of women in the typical slush-pile SF story of pre-enlightened times – like the 1980s – with four overwrought, overwritten examples. (As they no doubt were.)

‘The Intersection’ by Gwyneth Jones
Two space dwellers from an environment where privacy is impossible, “SERVE sees all, SERVE records all,” take a holiday to observe the indigs of the underworld. Bristling with acronyms and told rather than unfolded this is more an exercise in information dumping than a story as such. (And de rigeur ought to be spelled with a “u” after the “g”.)

‘Long Shift’ by Beverley Ireland
A woman who is employed to use her mind to demolish buildings safely is given a priority assignment monitoring a subsidence which turns out to be worse than expected.

‘Love Alters’ by Tanith Lee
Women only have babies with women, and men only with men. This is the right, the straight way to do it. Our female narrator is married to Jenny but then falls in love with someone else. A man.

‘Cyclops’ by Lannah Battley
A space-faring archaeologist discovers Earth was not the cradle of humanity by uncovering an ancient manuscript written by “Aeneas.” It has a clever explanation of why the Cyclops appeared to have one eye. The story’s balance is out of kilter, though.

‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ by Pamela Zoline
A remedy for the world’s ills involves the kidnapping, and resettlement, of children.

‘A Sun in the Attic’ by Mary Gentle
In Asaria, women take more than one husband. Roslin, head of House Mathury, is married to a pair of brothers one of whom has gone missing. The Port Council does not like his scientific investigations.

‘Atlantis 2045: no love between planets’ by Frances Gapper
In a repressive future society letters are too dangerous to write. Jene is a misfit, earning her family penalty points to the extent that they have her classified as a Social Invisible. Then one day her equally invisible aunt returns from being Ghosted.

‘From a Sinking Ship’ by Lisa Tuttle
Susannah works trying to communicate with dolphins. She is happier with them than with humans; so much so that she is unaware of the impending nuclear war. The dolphins understand the danger; and have an escape plan.

‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill
In a heavily polluted future world Lucy has doubts about her daughter’s participation in the Breeding Roster.

‘Words’ by Naomi Mitchison
Is about the inadequacy of language to describe new experiences – especially those induced by a device to stimulate brain synapses.

‘Relics’ by Zoë Fairbairns
A woman’s visit to a Greenham Common type peace camp is overtaken by the beginning of a nuclear war. She is placed in a freezing cabinet and woken decades later to be part of an exhibition illustrating her times. The future people get it hopelessly wrong of course.

‘Mab’ by Penny Castagli
A post-menopausal woman who takes a yoga class gives birth – from a lump on her head – to a tiny child. This apparently prefigures the demise of the male.

‘Morality Meat’ by Raccoona Sheldon*
A simple morality tale. Droughts and grain diseases have killed off the supply of meat but as always the rich still manage to get their share. Meanwhile every pregnancy is forced by law to go to full term. Adoption Centres provide a service for those who do not want or otherwise cannot keep their babies. But parents cannot be found for all the children.

*Raccoona Sheldon (Alice Sheldon) is also known as James Tiptree Jr.

‘Apples In Winter’ by Sue Thomason
People from another world interfere with a native culture.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

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.

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…