The Universe of Things
Aqueduct Press, 2011
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.