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Rereading Favourites – June Update, Part 2


Kairos I did not expect to disappoint. If anything, I imagined I would get more from the book on this reread – 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’d had of the others I’ve reread so far…

And right from the first page, the prose was as good as I’d remembered it. By the end of the first chapter, something else about the novel had 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.

I was going to write that we’re better off now than we had expected to be – both politically and economically. But a couple of days after finishing Kairos, I happened to watch Red Road, a film set in a far-from-salubrious area of Glasgow (it’s a very good film, incidentally). If Red Road is a true reflection of life in the present day for some, then for them the future of Kairos has come true…

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…

There’s no denying that Kairos is a very good book, and rereading it I can understand why it became a favourite. I’ve admired Jones’ writing a great deal since first encountering it, and Kairos is neither the somewhat clumsy science fiction of her earlier Escape Plans nor the near-fantasy of her debut, Divine Endurance. It is a novel that feels important – less so now , of course, than it did when I first read it (which would be a couple of years after it was published). Even so, it’s nice to read a sf novel that actually had relevance, even though that relevance no longer holds true. Perhaps that’s one of the definitions of a favourite novel – it recaptures what you felt when you first read the book. And a definition of a well-written book must be one in which you sympathise with the protagonists no matter how little you have in common with them – and I certainly have very little in common with Otto.

I’m glad I reread Kairos. I will almost certainly reread it again. It’s by no means a cheerful or fun book, although it is liberating and hopeful in its resolution. I’m going to keep it on my favourites books list.

Incidentally, my copy of Kairos is inscribed by Gwyneth Jones, To Ian, In memory of the strange sausages. She never did tell me what that means…

6 thoughts on “Rereading Favourites – June Update, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Gwyneth Jones - Thoughts? - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

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