It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones

universe-cvr-lr-100The Universe of Things
Gwyneth Jones
Aqueduct Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1-933500-44-7

Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading. As a result, throughout her career Jones has published remarkably few collections: five, in fact; and three of those are chapbooks. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of overlap between these collections, but if I were to choose one as the best, with the best choice of stories, and the most representative, with the widest selection of stories… it would be Aqueduct Press’s The Universe of Things. It contains fifteen stories, ranging from 1988 to 2009. Most are from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most are science fiction, but not all. Some cover a page or two, others are novelette-length.

This is one of the strongest collections of genre short stories I have ever read. There is not a bad story in it – even the single-page ‘One of Sandy’s Dreams’, originally written for The Drabble Project in 1988, manages to do more in 100 words than China Miéville’s BSFA Award nominated short story ‘Covehithe’ did in several thousand.

Some of the stories are set in the universes of Jones’ novels. The title story takes place in the world of the Aleutian trilogy – White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Café and Spirit – and is deceptively simple. An Aleutian takes its car along to a mechanic to have it serviced before selling it. The mechanic realises it is something more than just a car, it is a car that has been driven by an alien. He determines to do more work than asked, so he can then make an offer on the car, and so sell it profitably because of its provenance. But while effecting repairs, his thoughts are drawn to the Aleutian customer, and he briefly experiences how they view the world around them. His desire for the Other drives this epiphany, but to glimpse heaven is to recognise the cost of admission.

Change always exacts a cost. ‘The Eastern Succession’ takes place in the future-distant Peninsula of Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. One of the ruling princes has died heirless, so the remaining Dapur (the female councils who actually rule the principalities) gather in a town to determine to which of three candidates they will offer the crown. They must chose a prince who is both popular with the people of the prince-less state, the governments of the other principalities, and the Koperasi, the people who conquered the Peninsula and now rule it. The narrator is a young man of no family who visits the town to observe the deliberations. As a male, he has no power in Peninsulan society. Jones not only neatly turns the tables on gender relations, but she shows how pervasive sexism is at all levels and in all aspects of society. When the narrator tries to influence the Dapur’s decision through revealing a secret, it ends badly for all concerned. The narrator is playing at politics, he is imposing his own worldview, his own desires, on a situation which is resistant to both – but it is not him who pays the price for his meddling. There’s a clear sense in ‘The Eastern Succession’ that tradition exists for good reason, that change is costly and not always beneficial – and this in a world which is a distorted reflection of our own and, tellingly, set in a non-Western culture.

‘La Cenerentola’ by comparison is both near-future and set in Europe. A same-sex couple, Thea and Suze, are holidaying with their young daughter in the south of France and make the acquaintance of an American woman and her three daughters. Two of the woman’s daughters are beautiful, almost perfect, teenage twins; the third is a ragamuffin. The twins are in fact clones of the mother, their genetics tweaked to “improve” them – and yet, perhaps they are not: perhaps they are no more than holographic “eidolons”, idealised visions of their mother. The story plays with the tale of Cinderella, as its title suggests – Jones has, like Angela Carter, frequently turned to fairy tales for inspiration – but there’s no happy ending for this Cinders. Whatever the twins are, clone or eidolon, they are also signifiers of conspicuous consumption and part of their price has been exacted from the third child. Like the other stories in The Universe of Things, ‘La Cenerentola’ presents with a remarkable economy of words a fully-fledged world which seems as real and true as the real world. It seems wholly appropriate, for example, that in the world of Thea and Suze women fill every role and men are mentioned only in passing.

‘The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle’ mocks the construction of a fairy tale while making use of its ur-text. It is a fairy tale, but also a postmodern literary piece, as mutable as the changes it rings on its titular protagonists. Though it opens with a line which follows the form, but not the content, of its type:

Once upon a time there was a princess who was quite pretty and fairly intelligent, and when the time came to marry her off, the royal family didn’t worry about it too much. (p 225)

The story then promptly gives the lie to this opening – the princess is headstrong, wilful and unbiddable – and then subsequently dismantles the fairy tale narrative to suggest a layer of inventions in which the relationship of the princess and the thief is defined by the world in which they live, and in which they define the world around them. The princess is driven by a need for realness but inhabits ever-changing surroundings – her environs are defined by herself; she is her environs. This is woman as creator, using a mode of fiction in which women’s empowerment is either gifted by an external agency or altogether absent.

‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ is one of three horror/dark fantasy stories in the collection. A young couple move into an old house in dire need of renovation. But again, the change exacts a high price: the house is haunted. Or perhaps not. The narrator, Rose, must juggle her daughter, her career as an animator, and her aspirations for the house, and she is unequal to the task. Her failure to cope is externalised as the spirit haunting the house – the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, so to speak. Some of the imagery in the story extremely unsettling, and that the story maintains a chilling tone throughout, despite a focus on the quotidian, is testament to the strength of the prose.

The jewel of the collection is ‘Identifying the Object’, which has been a favourite story of mine since I first read it in Interzone in 1990 under its original title of ‘Forward Echoes’. It is, like ‘Blue Clay Blues’ and ‘The Universe of Things’, set in the world of the Aleutian trilogy. In fact, the Braemar Wilson of ‘Identifying the Object’s is the eponymous “white queen” of the first Aleutian novel. Braemar, the narrator Anna Jones, and Johnny Gugliogi (also the protagonist of ‘Blue Clay Blues’) are in Africa on the trail of what may or may not be the first aliens to land on Earth. Though it is set in the near-future, there is a thoroughly contemporary feel to the story. It is about Europeans experiencing an earthly Other while in pursuit on an unearthly one. It is also a story replete with assumptions, which it neatly skewers one by one:

Once he caught her in low company, têta-à-tête with an African down by the lifeboats. The black man fled. I heard racist assumption and that awful note of ownership in my poor friend’s voice.

“Hey! How come you suddenly speak their lingo?” (p 256)

There is no neat ending, no flying saucer on the Mall with a handsome representative in a space-age jumpsuit. There are many agendas at work here, and the truth of the alien landing is neither obvious nor relevant. Either way, a price must be paid – the possibility of the aliens’ existence is enough to force change. And this in an Africa which has refused to implement Western-imposed change; or rather, has made of its own change imposed upon it by Western powers. ‘Identifying the Object’ remains a favourite sf short story, and it continues to astonish me it was never shortlisted for an award.

It’s tempting to look for common threads in Jones’ fiction, but I suspect you’d find exactly what you were looking for. Her stories do not present easy answers. They’re happy to describe complex situations – indeed, they revel in their complexities. For that reason, Jones has often been called a “political” writer. In essence, this means she doesn’t write action-adventures stories in space. This is not sf as escapism, this is sf as literature. This is fiction that forces you to think, that makes you challenge your prejudices and preconceptions. These are stories that argue against change while forcing you to embrace it. These are stories which could only be science fiction, etc, yet are greater than mere genre fiction.

Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction, who is currently still writing, this country has produced. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Daughters of Prometheus in May 2012.


Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

I saw this meme on David Hebblethwaite’s excellent blog (and he picked it up from The Broke and the Bookish), and I thought: that’s a good idea, my turn now. It Doesn’t Have To Be Right (It Just Has To Sound Plausible) has been running since 2006, originally on but on for the past couple of years. Each year, I’ve put together a list of the best five books I’ve read that year – a habit which even predates my blog, as I used to do it for an APA I was in for a good many years. So those best of lists for each year were the obvious place to look for books for this meme.

This list of ten books are not my favourite books of all time, but they are books I liked and admired a great deal during the years 2006 to 2011. They’re also quite indicative of what it is in fiction that I like and admire. They’re in no particular order.

1 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
This has been a touchstone work for me for a number of years. Mercurio’s highly-detailed prose is something I try for in my own writing, though I do wonder if in Adrift on the Sea of Rains I’ve gone even further than Ascent does. The story of a Soviet pilot leading up to the Korean War and during the years following, Ascent paints a bleak picture of a driven man who, despite numerous setbacks, still ends up playing an important, but secret, role in the USSR’s space programme. Although its central character, Yefgeni Yeremin, is invited to train as a cosmonaut, this is not the cheerful gung-ho can-do-ism normally found in fictional treatments of the Space Race. Ascent is not a science fiction novel, and Mercurio is not a science fiction author (although he did write and produce the science fiction television series Invasion: Earth), but I felt Ascent could be read as sf – and I wrote as much here.

2 The Jewel In The Crown, Paul Scott (1966)
I vaguely recall watching the television adaptation of this when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, though all I can remember is Art Malik, Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James. When I stumbled across all four of the Raj Quartet books in a charity shop for 69p buy-one-get-one-free, I thought they’d be worth a read. And when I got around to reading The Jewel In The Crown I discovered that Paul Scott was precisely the sort of literary writer whose fiction I enjoy a great deal. There is an impressive control of voice on display throughout The Jewel In The Crown, and the collage of testimonies from which it’s put together create an impressively rich and detailed portrait of life in the invented Indian city of Mayapore. After finishing The Jewel In The Crown, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I collect in first editions (although I’ve yet to find an affordable copy of this book in first edition). I wrote about The Jewel In The Crown here.

3 Isles of the Forsaken, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011)
I used to read fantasy quite a lot – not as much as I read science fiction, but it was probably my second choice in terms of reading material. I worked my way through most of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, tried the first book of Steve Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and ploughed my way through sundry other well-known fantasy novels. And then I completely gave it up – or rather, gave up on it. It was all rubbish. Everything was the same, there had been no real invention in it since the 1970s. It was all magic systems and thinly-disguised role-playing-games’ campaigns. But I knew the name Carolyn Ives Gilman – I’d liked her debut, Halfway Human, which was sf – and the description of Isles of the Forsaken did sound like something out of the ordinary in fantasy terms. And so it proved. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel where two of the major characters escape imprisonment by the villains. Their route takes them along tunnels and inside the mountain overlooking the city, where they find themselves in some sort of vast otherworldly library built around an apparently bottomless well. It’s an astonishing moment in a fantasy novel that is very much unlike all the other fantasies currently available; and it’s one of only a handful of books in the genre that I consider worth reading. I wrote about it here.

4 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
I’ve been a fan of Sterling’s writing since the 1980s, and have bought each new book by him as it was published. Not all made my top five list for their year of publication as I sometimes felt his propensity to throw out ideas on every page occasionally made uneven reads of his novels. The Caryatids, however, seemed to me like a welcome return to form – more than that, it was one of the first science fiction novels which read like a truly twenty-first century science fiction novel. The world Sterling created in The Caryatids felt like one that was reachable from the present day – or rather, felt like one that was inevitable if nothing was done in the present day to halt things like Climate Change or the collapse of capitalism. I was happy when I was asked to review the book for Interzone, and even more chuffed when I was told I’d also be interviewing Sterling. The interview is in Interzone #221 March-April 2009, and I think it came out quite well. I reprinted the review on my blog here in May of this year. Incidentally, I still don’t understand why there’s been no UK edition of this novel.

5 Spirit, The Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)
I’ve long maintained that Jones is the finest British writer of science fiction currently being published – although she’s not had a novel published since this one. There have been three collections since 2008, and she continues to write short fiction – and, of course, there are the YA books she writes as Ann Halam… although the latest of those, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island, will only be published in the US. Spirit is perhaps the closest Jones has ever come to writing space opera, and the end result is characteristically Jonesian but also seems in part to carry the flavours of several other well-known sf authors, from Samuel R Delany to Iain M Banks. The story is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but the ending recasts Dumas’ tale of revenge as something less vindictive and more redemptive. I wrote about it here but the review’s cake-based conceit wasn’t as effective – or made as much sense – as I’d thought when I wrote it. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

6 Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (1974)
Three years ago was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and in order to celebrate it I decided to read the (auto)biographies of the three astronauts involved – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and review the books on my Space Books blog. I also read and reviewed several other books about the mission. Carrying the Fire not only proved to be the best of the three (auto)biographies, but also the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Collins was always characterised as the most introspective and erudite of the three “amiable strangers”, so it’s no real surprise that Carrying the Fire is so readable and so well-written. It also feels far less self-aggrandising than is typically the case for astronaut autobiographies – the nature of the job in those days demanded the sort of people who have big egos. Recently, of course, we lost one of the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, on whom the most attention regarding the lunar missions has focused, despite his retreat from public life afterward. My review of Carrying the Fire is here.

7 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
My father was the DH Lawrence fan in our family. On a trip to the US, he dragged my mother to Taos to see the chapel where Lawrence’s ashes are interred. But, despite a shelf full of books by and about Lawrence in my parents’ house, I’d never tried reading him. And then, for some reason I no longer recall, I decided I ought to have a go. So of course I picked Lawrence’s most famous – and infamous – novel. And I loved it. Like Lawrence, I’m a Nottinghamshire native, and though the Eastwood dialect he writes is much broader than the Mansfield dialect I heard throughout my childhood years, it’s still familiar. So there was an immediate geographical appeal to the book. But when Lawrence was writing about nature and the countryside, his descriptive prose really shone for me (Lawrence Durrell, a favourite writer, is also an excellent writer of descriptive prose). The characters of Mellors and Constance were also drawn much more effectively than I had expected. I so enjoyed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that on subsequent visits to charity shops I picked up copies of Lawrence’s other books, and now have most of them – and I plan to slowly work my way through them. Incidentally, the best film adaptation I’ve seen so far of the book is Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. It’s French-language, which is initially odd, but it does seem to capture the book much more effectively than any other adaptation.

8 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
There is a trio of books by a writer whose personal views I find odious which riffs on Golden Age tropes and attempts to do something 21st century with them. I read the first two shortly after they were published – and before I knew what the author was like – and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t actually very good. David Herter’s first novel, Ceres Storm, plays similar games with those tropes, but it is beautifully written and very, very good. Of course, Herter remains mostly unknown whereas the previous writer now churns out best-sellers. Such is the way things work. Evening’s Empire was Herter’s second novel, and it is not science fiction. It sat unread on my bookshelves for a decade, and when I finally read it I wondered why it had taken me so long. It starts off as a (John) Crowley-esque fantasy before taking an abrupt left turn into something strange and wonderful. The main character is working on an opera based on Jules Verne, and that in turn inspired me to pick up and read Verne’s two best-known works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth… but I don’t think I’ll ever really be a Verne fan.

9 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
If Gwyneth Jones is the finest writer of science fiction in the UK currently still writing, then Compton is the finest sf writer in the UK who is no longer writing (and hasn’t been published since a pair of near-future crime novels published in the mid-1990s). He’s perhaps best known for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), which was adapted for cinema by Betrand Tavernier as Death Watch in 1979. Compton started out writing crime novels in the early 1960s, but branched out into sf in 1965 with The Quality of Mercy. British sf of that period was far better-written than its US equivalent, chiefly because it was less orientated toward, or had fewer roots in, pulpish action-adventure. Writers such as Arthur Sellings, Keith Roberts, Rex Gordon, Michael G Coney or Richard Cowper – not to mention the New Wave authors – could write rings round their American contemporaries. Even those who banged out hackwork for US publishers with impressive regularity – Brian Stableford, EC Tubb, Edmund Cooper, Ken Bulmer, etc. – were better prose stylists than the big Hugo winners like Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert or van Vogt. Compton was the best of the lot. His books read like snapshots of the 1960s and 1970s now, but they’re beautifully observed snapshots. They are the embodiment of sf novels set in the near-future that are really about the time they were written. Synthajoy‘s science-fictional content does not especially convince, and its central premise is unlikely to generate sense of wonder… but it’s a wonderfully-written portrait of a woman who is driven to crime by the behaviour of her husband, the inventor of the eponymous psychiatric technique. I wrote about it here.

10 Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
I think I’ve always had a somewhat utopian bent, and that’s only grown stronger in recent years. Science fiction has its occasional spats over pessimistic versus optimistic stories, and while I can hardly claim that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is optimistic, I have grown increasingly annoyed with the default futures far too much recent sf employs. It’s all grimly corporate and capitalist near-fascist states which only perpetuate the myth of self-actualisation through money, power and material possessions. I’d like to see that change. Yes, I know there are utopian science fictions available, but it’s the default nature of this horrible US-led invented future that I’d like to see disappear. Red Plenty, however, does not depict a communist future, a USSR which outlasted the capitalist West. It’s actual a dramatised history of events during the first half a dozen decades of the USSR. But it’s beautifully done, and it’s easy to see how the soviet system promised so much more than it ended up delivering. It presents the USSR as a dream of utopia. The fact the dream failed should not invalidate the attempt. Read Red Plenty and then tell me the American Dream is the only sustainable future. Who knows, twenty years from now we may be mocking sf novels that don’t depict the USA as a repressive and misogynist theocratic oligarchy…

special extra 11th book: Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Mietz (1961)
This list is supposed to be ten books – it says so in the title of the post – but I really wanted to include this book… not because it is well-written, or because it’s the best book ever published on its subject. It is, as far as I can discover, the only book published on its subject. And it’s a subject which came to fascinate me when I learnt of it in 2010. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the first – and until only recently – visit by human beings to the deepest part of the oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Like the Apollo programme, the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste was a triumph of brute engineering, and that’s one of the reasons I find it so interesting. It’s also inspired some of my fiction. I wrote about Seven Miles Down here.


Long live rock n roll, side A

I first read Bold As Love back in June 2002, a year after its publication. While it was very different from Jones’ previous novel, Phoenix Café (the third book of the Aleutian trilogy), I enjoyed it and thought it very good. I wasn’t the only one – it was shortlisted for both the BSFA Award and the Arthur C Clarke Award, and won the latter. I started the sequel, Castles Made of Sand, shortly after finishing Bold As Love, but ground to a halt about halfway through it. Another three books in the series were published over the following years: Midnight Lamp (2003), Band of Gypsys (2005) and Rainbow Bridge (2006). I bought each one as they came out and put them on the bookshelves… but, after my experience with Castles Made of Sand, I never actually got around to reading them.

It had always been my intention to read the five books, preferably one after the other. But like many people who suffer from my condition – procrastination – I’m more likely to do something if it becomes part of my routine, or I make a project of it. This summer I did the latter. Jones’ Bold as Love quintet became a Summer Reading Project (along with L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle and Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos quintet; see here). The start of the project was delayed somewhat, for a number of reasons, but in late August I started rereading Bold As Love… and by 15 September had finished all five books.

It was well worth doing. And this is how it went…

Shape is important to a story. It is even more important to a story which stretches over several novels. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is one novel split into four books (see here); Paul J McAuley’s Confluence trilogy is one novel split into three books; EC Tubb’s Dumarest series has no shape, merely a direction (ie, Dumarest is seeking the location of his home world, Earth). Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love series is neither one novel split into five, nor is it a quintet possessing direction only. It has a five-book shape, which is itself comprised of five one-book shapes. The novels can be read individually, but are richer if read in order as a quintet.

The overall story of the quintet is the near-future of the world. It begins in the UK, but over the course of the five books encompasses Europe, the US and China. It begins during the dissolution of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For reasons not completely explained, the English government puts together a think tank, comprising members of the “Counter Cultural Movement” (CCM) – rock and pop stars, in other words. This goes horribly wrong when one such rock star, Pigsty Liver, machine-guns members of the government and seizes power. This is not, it has to be said, especially convincing. But Jones is busy setting up her “Rock n Roll Reich”, and the authorial hand-waving is forgivable. I mean, counter-cultural types are generally anti-authoritarian, government types are generally all about authoritarianism – there’s an obvious conflict of philosophies. But that’s neither here nor there, because the world as Jones wants it – and gets – is an England effectively ruled by the Triumvirate.

The Triumvirate is the three protagonists of the five books: Ax Preston, guitar hero; Sage Prender, AKA Aoxomoxoa, frontman and driving-force for a techno group; and Fiorinda, daughter of rock god Rufus O’Niall, and his incestuous victim in her early teens. That incestuous incident is important – both for what it does to Fiorinda, and for what it nearly did to Gwyneth Jones.

The opening chapter of Bold As Love was published in Interzone’s July 2001 issue, under the title ‘The Saltbox’. Apparently, someone bought that issue of Interzone in a shop, decided ‘The Saltbox’ was obscene (paedophilia and incest), and reported the magazine to the police. Who promptly descended on the editorial address and carted away several copies of the issue. Happily, nothing came of it. Gollancz published Bold As Love as planned, and Interzone is still going strong today.

But Ax, Sage and Fiorinda: the Bold as Love cycle is the story of these three, the world they create, the world in which they find themselves after they lose control of it, their accommodations with the future which results, and a final game-changing event which rewrites geopolitics for the future.

Bold As Love
Several things about Bold As Love struck me on this reread. I’d noticed the first time I’d read the book that it was structured more as a series of vignettes than it was a linear connected narrative. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I was surprised that I’d remembered the story as less episodic than it actually was, almost as if I’d confabulated something into the gaps in the chronology. I said in a review of Jones’ Flowerdust in Vector back in 1994 that the worlds she created felt so complete it felt as though they continued to live on after you’d finished the book. The same is true of Bold As Love.

Ax and Sage often came across as very similar, which was occasionally confusing in dialogue. The same cannot be said of Fiorinda, who is in many respects a typical Jones heroine – i.e., broken. The story-arc, and especially the plots of Bold As Love and Castles Made of Sand – seem driven as much by the need to “fix” her as it is by the unfolding of the future-history of the series’ world.

The musical dimension to the series I never found wholly convincing, perhaps because my own taste in music is defiantly niche (ie, extreme metal). While I could map Aoxomoxoa and the Heads onto Prodigy and their like, and there are plenty of female singer-songwriter analogues for Fiorinda, I could never quite figure out how Ax’s band, the Chosen Few, might sound, what position they might occupy in the rock universe. They felt out of time – too modern for the 1960s or 1970s, too old-fashioned for the 1980s and 1990s. The fact that three such acts might appear at the same festivals, sufficiently often for them to know each other, also seemed to me to depict the UK music scene as a curiously small world. The music is important, of course – Jones even provides a soundtrack to the novel (see here) – and plays its part during a national tour in which the country tears up the old to usher in the new.

As an introduction to the five chief elements of the Bold as Love series – the three members of the Triumvirate, the world of the novel, and the music – the novel Bold As Love works extremely well. And the prose, as is usual from Jones, is very, very good indeed.

Castles Made of Sand
This I expected to be a less satisfying read – I’d bounced out of it once before, after all. And the somewhat inelegant précis of Bold As Love which opens the novel didn’t bode too well. The first third of the story focuses on the Triumvirate’s relationship, depicted in a strange Delanyesque-Heinleinian fashion – character dynamics by Delany, dialogue by Heinlein. This may be why I bounced out of the book the first time I tried reading it. I’m not a big Heinlein fan. However, once Ax steps out of the relationship, things start to improve. In fact, the sub-plot concerning human sacrifice is very good indeed, and the way it slowly introduces magic to what has chiefly been a near-future sf story is cleverly done.

It is this last which eventually lifts Castles Made of Sand above what those early chapters had promised. The near-future of Bold As Love is slowly contaminated by magic – and yet, all the clues were there in the first book (not least the aforementioned saltbox). Castles Made of Sand is a darker book than its predecessor, and it’s the introduction of magic which is the cause.

This is especially obvious in the book’s finale, the magic duel with Rufus O’Niall. It recasts the story arc of the five books completely – the story-arc which starts to take shape in the second half of Castles Made of Sand is not the story-arc of which the first book offered misty glimpses.

To be honest, I found Castles Made of Sand a less satisfying read than Bold As Love. And yet, thinking about the books to write this post, I find that I remember more of Castles Made of Sand than I do Bold As Love. It’s a more impactful novel, I think, partly because it builds on the promise of the first book and partly because it warps and twists that promise into something very different. Which may be why I feel I want to reread the books more so after finishing this one than I did Bold As Love.

The remaining three books I’ll cover in another post, side B (of course). There may even be a third post of bonus tracks.


Three Sets of Five for the Summer

Everyone should have a project for the summer months. I have plenty of writing projects all ready, but I thought I should have a reading one too. Not just that list of books I want to read and plan to work my way through, something a bit more… structured. Which I can write about here.

And I’ve come up with just the thing. I have on my book-shelves three quintets I really want to read – and which, coincidentally, I have to date only read the first book of each. The quintets are:-

The Canopus in Argos Archives, Doris Lessing

  1. Shikasta
  2. The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five
  3. The Sirian Experiments
  4. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8
  5. The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire

The Bold as Love Cycle, Gwyneth Jones

  1. Bold as Love
  2. Castles Made of Sand
  3. Midnight Lamp
  4. Band of Gypsies
  5. Rainbow Bridge

The Marq’ssan Cycle, L Timmel Duchamp

  1. Alanya to Alanya
  2. Renegade
  3. Tsunami
  4. Blood in the Fruit
  5. Stretto

Starting in July, I’m going to work my way through the fifteen books listed above. I’ll decide once I’ve begun whether to post per book or per quintet.


Books from my collection – Gwyneth Jones

Gwyneth Jones has been one of my favourite authors since I first read Kairos back in the late 1980s (see my review of it here). I’m not alone in considering her one of the best British science fiction writers currently being published. She has appeared on the Arthur C Clarke Award short list six times and won once – in 2002, for Bold As Love. Only Stephen Baxter has matched her number of nominations, but he has yet to win the award.

Her latest novel, Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant, was published by Gollancz last year – well, actually at the end of December 2008, but most sf awards are treating it as 2009 publication. I thought it one of the best books of the year, and reviewed it here.

Several years ago, I wrote a review of her second novel, Escape Plans, for an APA I was in. I posted the review on my blog here in October 2008.

I’ve done this for other authors whose books I collect, so I thought I’d do the same for Jones. Incidentally, I’ve not included those she writes as Ann Halam, although I do have copies of them as well.

Four early YA novels, published as by Gwyneth A Jones.

The Aleutian trilogy.

Two small press collections, a sequel of sorts to Divine Endurance, and a criticism collection.

The Bold as Love Cycle.

A short story collection from the excellent PS Publishing, and a 4-story collection and criticism collection from the equally excellent Aqueduct Press.


Beyond the Bounds of Vengeance – Spirit by Gwyneth Jones

To date, Gwyneth Jones has appeared on the Arthur C Clarke Award short list six times, and won it once – for Bold As Love in 2002. Only Stephen Baxter has been nominated more times, and he has yet to win the award. If Jones’ 2004 novel Life had been published in the UK, I suspect it too would have been short-listed – it did, after all, win the Philip K Dick Award for that year. As David Soyka wrote in his review of the book on on

Simply, put, Life is one of the best things Jones has written. You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.

In other words, Gwyneth Jones is probably one of the best British science fiction writers currently being published. So a new novel by her is certain to be one worth reading. Spirit; or the Princess of Bois Dormant is her latest. It was published at the end of December 2008.

The plot of Spirit is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but it shares its universe with the Aleutian trilogy of White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café. The universe has also featured in a number of Jones’ short stories, including ‘Saving Tiamaat’ in The New Space Opera (it can be read here); and ‘The Tomb Wife’, which has just been shortlisted for this year’s Nebula Award (it can be read here).

The shape of Dumas’ story is well-known: Dantès is falsely accused of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Chateau d’If, befriended by a fellow prisoner who teaches him all manner of useful skills and knowledge, escapes, sets himself up in society using treasure whose location was given to him by his friend in prison… and subsequently has his revenge on those who conspired to send him to prison in the first place.

And Spirit does, in broad aspect, follow this. The novel’s protagonist is also unjustly imprisoned for twenty years, is educated while in prison, escapes and uses the “fortune” she was bequeathed by her mentor inside to… Not revenge, but neither is it justice. Call it a “balancing”.

Of course, Spirit is space opera – new space opera, in fact. The conspiracy which puts Dantès in prison was historical and reasonably well-known by readers. The conspiracy underlying Spirit is wholly invented; the world in which Spirit takes place is wholly invented. Which means the narrative of Jones’ protagonist – Gwibiwr; quickly shortened to Bibi – must begin much earlier than that of Dantès. It must give her origin, in fact. And the conspiracy which results in Bibi’s imprisonment must also be set up. It is not until halfway through Spirit that Bibi is actually sent to prison. This is not a criticism – Spirit is not about Bibi’s revenge, it is about Bibi. She is “the Princess of Bois Dormant”.

In the Aleutian trilogy, aliens arrived on Earth and precipitated a crisis. This led to the Gender Wars and, eventually, a World Republic. In Spirit, Jones has expanded this universe into an interstellar Hegemony of five worlds, ruled from a space station in the Kuiper Belt called Speranza. Each of the five worlds is the home of an “alien” race, although there is sufficient biological commonality between the various races to suggest Earth as a common home world in the ancient past. This is known as “having your cake and eating it”. A major theme of the Aleutian trilogy was colonialism, and Earth was the colonised; but in Spirit the humans – or “Blues”, as Earth is known as the Blue Planet – are the colonisers. The Hegemony also allows Jones to spread her commentary on gender and gender roles across societies that are very much other.

And there is plenty of cake to eat in Spirit. Not a Black Forest gateau or the like, not some fancy confection covered whipped cream and chocolate shavings. But a strong English fruitcake, steeped in brandy. Perhaps that’s too silly a conceit. Certainly Spirit contains plenty to chew on, not just the themes carried over from the Aleutian trilogy.

Admittedly, those themes strongly season the book, making Spirit very much a thematic sequel to Phoenix Café. But there are other ingredients: the opening section, in which Bibi grows up in semi-feudal Baykonur, has a flavour of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The sudden decamp to Speranza, and the explanation of the workings of the Hegemony’s interstellar transit network, contains pieces of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. When Bibi is on Sigurt’s World as part of a diplomatic mission, and it all goes horribly wrong, Spirit tastes almost Banksian. And there’s a soupçon of Samuel Delany in the section set on Ki/An.

Also present are small nuggets of Jones’ earlier works: Escape Plans – the distributed systems of that book have become virtual, or 4-Space; and Kairos – travel via Buonarotti transit-pod mimics in some respects the effects of that novel’s eponymous drug.

All this is mixed in with The Count of Monte Cristo. And layered with new space opera as a mode of science fiction.

It makes for a rich and complex story; a story which, no matter how well stirred, can sometimes overwhelm the palate. As each new flavour or tang rises to the surface, so the focus of the story shifts. Bibi is not always there. At one point, for example, the story breaks away from her, simply so we can experience her ex-boyfriend laying another brick in the conspiracy which will condemn her. And in the final section of the book, the Princess of Bois Dormant has taken Bibi’s place entirely.

It is in fact that last section where Spirit becomes less the dish of its ingredients. Dumas serves this dish cold, but Jones is less focused on revenge. The Princess of Bois Dormant sets out to redress the wrongs done to her, but also to right the wrongs done to those who suffered because of her. Chief among the latter is her son, a prince of Sigurt’s World. This leads to an odd detour, following the prince’s holiday on Ki/An, his trip into the marshes, and his kidnap. Later on Speranza, the prince and his companion help rescue a pair of young women from the Traditionalist roles their family intend them to play. Both women are the daughters of Bibi’s enemies. Those enemies, of course, get their compeuppance, although Bibi seems to have little to do with it. One has a stroke, another is killed while trying to escape. It all seems a bit… incidental.

Not everything in Spirit works. I don’t understand Jones’ decision to pepper the names of the natives of Sigurt’s World with apostrophes, such as her alien prince D”ffyd. If it’s a joke, it soon wears thin. The many references to the French Revolution also seem to add little – despite the novel’s template, The Count of Monte Cristo; despite the novel’s title, Spirit, also referring to the Princess’s Aleutian transit-pod, Spirit of Eighty-Nine (1789, that is). And speaking of French… Sleeping Beauty in French is known as La Belle au Bois Dormant. Perhaps my French isn’t as good as it should be, but I thought the dormant (sleeping) referred to the belle (beauty) and not the bois (wood). La Princesse au Bois Dormant makes much more sense. And is especially ironic as the Interplanetary Prison Moon of Fenmu is a rocky inhospitable place, and Bibi spends twenty years there underground…

Spirit is an excellent novel. I’d have expected no less of Gwyneth Jones. I fully expect it to appear in my best novels of the year list for 2009. However, I suspect Spirit will not be on the short list for the Arthur C Clarke Award next year. It is too rich and complex a novel, and the Clarke seems to prefer works of a much stronger and more distinctive flavour. But I do think it will be on the BSFA Award short list – literate sf novels by British authors do well with the BSFA Award. And so they should.

Incidentally, 2009 should prove a good year for Jones. Spirit may have been published right at the end of 2008, but due during 2009 are a short-fiction collection from PS Publishing, Grazing the Long Acre; and a “Conversation Piece”, The Buonarotti Quartet, and a non-fiction collection, Imagination/Space, both from Aqueduct Press.

(Ah well. The cake-thing seemed like a good idea at the time. But never mind…)


Days of Future Past

A couple of weeks ago Niall Harrison wrote about Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos on Torque Control. Since I’ve long admired Jones’ fiction, I thought I’d do something similar and post a review of her 1986 novel Escape Plans. This review is actually a few years old, but never mind.

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 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 piece on 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.


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…