Thursday, January 27, 2011

Women Writing SF: Gwyneth Jones

Before we get started, some other reading projects inspired by Niall's focus week.  At Torque Control, new blogger Shana Worthen is planning to read and host discussions of the eleven books selected in Niall's poll of the best SF by women from the last decade.  The schedule is here.  Martin Lewis, Martin Wisse and Ian Sales have also embarked on similar projects to read SF by women during 2011.  The first installment of Ian's series, on Rosemary Kierstein's The Steerswoman, is here.  Finally, as Chance reminds us in the comments to Martin's post, she's been blogging about women writers since before it was the popular thing at a blog with the self-explanatory name of 365 Days of Women Writers.  Happy reading to everyone, and kudos to Niall for inspiring so many people.

On to Gwyneth Jones, who, like Joanna Russ, is a name that has come up a lot in discussions of SF by women and feminist SF in the last couple of years.  My first foray into her fiction came last year when I read the Clarke-nominated Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant, but it left me unsatisfied (possibly because it is a standalone follow-up to her Aleutian trilogy, which I haven't read).  When two other of Jones's novels ended up on Niall's best of the decade list, however, I knew I had to give her another look.  What I found was an author who in fact shares several similarities with Russ--a similar uncompromising intelligence, a similar unwillingness to coddle her readers, and a similar awareness of feminist issues and of the movement's jargon.  But if Russ's work is feminist in a classically second wave way--either despondently calling attention to the injustices of a misogynistic society or rallying her readers to the cause with visions of a brighter tomorrow (and sometimes both)--Jones takes a very third wave approach.  Her characters are aware of feminism and of feminist issues, and are often confronted with the difficulty of reconciling their feminist principles with everyday life.  Some of them are Bad Feminists, and others are unappealing ones.

Bold as Love, which won the Clarke award in 2002, is the first in a sequence of four novels which retell the Arthurian myth as the story of a counter-cultural revolution in near-future England.  As the novel opens, Parliament is about to pass an act dissolving Britain into its component nations, and economic and environmental crises have given rise to a new brand of fascism, environmentally-conscious but no less violent or xenophobic, whose English ranks are swelling.  The government, eager to connect with and maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the populace, especially young people, recruits several rock stars to a think tank on Britain's future, among them superstars Ax Preston and Sage Pender, and up-and-coming teenage rock princess Fiorinda Slater.  When a bloody coup from within the think tank leaves the government in the hands of Pigsty, a provocateur whose humorous antics conceal deep instability, the trio must on the one hand scramble for their own survival, and on the other hand try to temper Pigsty's policies and the growing eco-fascist menace, assuming leadership positions which they maintain even after his downfall.  For the rest of the book Ax, Sage and Fiorinda are faced with such overwhelming challenges as a religious war between Christians and Muslims, an onslaught of European refugees, and the collapse of global communication systems, overcoming each by winning hearts and minds with a combination of their star power and good old rock and roll.

Bold as Love is a largely shapeless novel (if it has anything like an arc it is the three leads' journey towards the acceptance of a predictably bohemian solution to the famous Arthurian love triangle), essentially repeating the same sequence of events over and over: a crisis occurs, Ax responds in a forthright, principled manner, Fiorinda and Sage rally to the cause, the populace is brought in line by a rousing rock concert, and the waters are calmed, cementing both the trio's leadership and their bond.  The second volume in the quartet, Castles Made of Sand, has been described as the second half of Bold as Love's story, and this might explain the novel's episodic structure, but I found that Bold as Love stands very well on its own.  The pleasure of reading it is rooted less in its events (about which perhaps the less thought expended the better, as I'll discuss in a minute) than in its energy and flow.  Whether the events she's describing are violent or transcendent, whether her characters are fleeing a hail of bullets or electrifying an audience from the stage, Jones never lets the adrenalin flag, never lets up the novel's operatic tone.  True to its title, Bold as Love is a bold, joyous novel about people who don't hold back from their passions, and who embody the rock and roll ethos of living each moment to the fullest.  It's a conviction that carries through the novel's pages.

Less persuasive is Bold as Love's conception of itself as science fiction (or, to be fair, the science fiction community's, including the Clarke judges and the voters in Niall's poll, perception of it as such).  Jones does a good job of creating a world fifteen minutes into the future, one that is both degraded due to economic collapse--travel within England is precarious, and a major sub-plot involves the collapse of the internet due to an unstoppable computer virus--and in which new technologies are still cropping up, such as gene therapy that allows users to power electronic devices with their own ATP, or a chip implanted in Ax's brain that places enormous stores of knowledge at his fingertips.  None of these details, however, are enough to counteract the implausibility at the novel's core, its insistence on a world in which the notion of a rock and roll revolution--repeatedly exploded as a hippie fantasy in reality--not only comes into being but proves workable and resilient.  "The time for politics is past," Fiorinda announces, and Ax explains to a politician who thinks he can control the counter-cultural government that "We're not their political leaders, we're more like their gods.  That's what rockstars are to their public, Countercultural or otherwise: objects of superstitious devotion."  Jones tries her best, establishing the nation's desperation, the trio, and particularly Ax's, charisma and capability, and the precariousness of the process by which they come into power, in which album sales more or less replace elections, but still the novel's premise doesn't make any sense.

Or, at least, it doesn't make sense as science fiction.  Bold as Love works quite well as a fantasy, and between the Arthurian parallels and the faint but increasingly insistent hints of magic in the novel, this is quite likely the direction Jones intended it to take.  Rock stars, after all, are less gods than celebrities, and celebrity is the modern-day equivalent of royalty (so much so that actual royals usually find themselves being judged, and expected to behave, as celebrities).  As England's woes increase its population turns increasingly to Ax, the new Arthur, gradually accepting him as a leader who is king in all but title.  The sense of strangeness that permeates the novel as a result of its insistence that a celebrity cult can be parlayed into functional leadership eventually solidifies into an in-between state, suspended between SF and fantasy, waiting, presumably, for the next volume to crystallize the story's genre and the shape of the world Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda are making.

Life, Jones's 2004 novel about a female scientist who makes a groundbreaking discovery about the genetics of gender, is, like Bold as Love, uncertain about its genre.  The novel begins with the scientist, Anna, entering university in England, and follows her career for the better part of two decades, in the process taking her, and us, from a familiar recent past (the millennium celebrations and 9/11 are name-checked) to an unfamiliar near-future, complete with global unrest, environmental catastrophes, and, in one particularly chilling instance, a lethal flu pandemic.  All of this, however, is in the background.  Anna's life, despite the upheavals she witnesses and in some cases experiences, is quite ordinary and mostly comfortable, and the business of the novel is the mundane one of charting the ups and downs of her career as she methodically pursues her controversial discovery, and of her marriage to the devoted, determinedly feminist, stay-at-home dad Spence.  In Bold as Love Jones uses the forcefulness and energy of her writing to get readers past the absurdity of the events she describes.  Life's tone, in a sharp contrast, is even-tempered and unfussy, but it's in the service of the same effect--to make palatable and even plausible the events of Anna's life--which read like The Perils of Pauline as written by Betty Friedan--as well as her saintly, long-suffering personality. 

Raised by hardworking, conscientious parents, Anna is dedicated to principles of equality, determined never to demand special treatment and always to do her part, and more interested in working hard and learning than in recognition of praise.  She epitomizes, and takes to almost humorous extremes, the post-feminist type, the young woman who is convinced that feminism's goals have been achieved and that to put herself forward would be to tilt a perfectly egalitarian system in her favor, and as if this were not enough she seems to lack anything resembling pride, and though she is ambitious it is an ambition to do good, not gain accolades, that drives her.  Unsurprisingly, the result is that Anna is repeatedly trampled by the men and authority figures in her life.  The misogynistic calamities she endures include, but are by no means limited to: having her work stolen by a fellow student (who explains that his career is more important than hers, since she'll be leaving science after she has children) and losing a prestigious graduate spot to him, being fired from her PhD program for becoming pregnant, and then again after her controversial findings about gender are seized on for their sensationalistic implications by the press, and, of course, being raped.  No single injustice that Anna endures, and no single misogynistic opinion that blocks her path, are unbelievable in themselves, but that they all should have happened to the same woman, who nevertheless does not experience a single moment of bitterness or rage as a result, who in fact continues to blame herself for everything that's happened to her--for putting herself forward, for trusting the wrong people, for not anticipating the weaknesses and prejudices of those around her--strains credulity past the breaking point.  If Life's tone were a little bit different, Anna's ordeals would have the effect of making it seem like a very dry, very dark comedy.

The tone that Life is told in, however--matter-of-fact, sympathetic, and nonjudgmental--imbues Anna and her life with a quiet dignity that makes heartbreaking, recognizable stuff out of her experiences.  There probably (hopefully) isn't a single person who has experienced all of the indignities piled on Anna's head, but a different one will reverberate with each reader.  Anna is rounded enough person, even through her saintliness, that she comes to seem less like an everywoman, a representative of embattled femininity, and more like a real, albeit remarkable, person.  Jones manages this by making Anna's perfection, and her ability to maintain it in the face of overwhelming unfairness, a flaw.  It is an indicator of her fundamental disconnect from reality, her inability to grasp that the system she moves in is profoundly misogynistic, that the people around her are petty and grasping, and that the honesty, forthrightness, and selflessness with which she deals with the world are rarely reciprocated.

Because she fails to grasp the imperfection of the world she lives in and the people around her, Anna's attempts at fair and equitable behavior are often indistinguishable from cruelty.  Her relationship with Spence, embarked upon when they're both students, feels like a dramatization of this XKCD strip (another instance of the book taking what might have been comedic and making it earnest and heartfelt), but what Anna fails to realize is that Spence has been in love with her for months.  This sets the stage for a marriage that is nearly scuttled not by the disparity of affection between Anna and Spence, but by their determination to do the right thing, to sacrifice for one another and carry their own weight, and their guilt over the other's sacrifices and weight-carrying. A romantic novel would end with Anna realizing that she loves Spence; a cynical one, with the dissolution of their marriage.  Life, with typical deftness, makes room for both romance and cynicism.  By its end, Anna and Spence's love is rooted as much in the life they've built together and the child they've raised as it is in romance, but for all its importance it is not the central point of Anna's life, and its significance is in the fact that it enables Anna's career.  The end of the novel finds Anna crying hysterically at having realized, finally, that she is loved, but that love doesn't come from Spence but from the scientific community, which has finally accepted her findings.

So far I've written about Anna, and the reviews I've read have also focused on her, but shadowing her throughout the novel and acting as her dark mirror is Ramone, a girl Anna meets at school, who remains, despite years spent apart and out of contact, Anna's closest friend, and possibly the true love of her life.  If Anna is post-feminism taken to parodic extremes, Ramone is the quintessential angry feminist--belligerent, confrontational, deliberately and joyfully offensive.  She spends most of the novel being dead right about the world and how it treats women, but utterly incapable of pulling herself together for long enough to do anything about this or even get herself heard.  In one particularly surreal segment, she goes from sought-after controversial media personality to living on the streets after being kicked out by her abusive boyfriend in the space of a few weeks.  Like Anna, Ramone seems more a type than a person.  Like Anna, she is an exploration of how feminism doesn't necessarily solve your life--just as Anna's belief in equality doesn't make the world around her egalitarian, Ramone's recognition of inequality, and her determination to fight it, don't render her equipped to do so.  (Unlike Anna, however, Ramone can't be a delicately shaded character, and as a result the chapters focusing on her veer closer to farce than the Anna-centered portions of the novel.)

Life's jaundiced take on both feminism and post-feminism is complemented by Bold as Love fielding a heroine who is almost anti-feminist.  To an outside observer, Fiorinda, who is Ax's lover before Pigsty's revolution and remains in Pigsty's court after his coup, could easily be taken as embodying the stereotype of the woman who gravitates and latches on to powerful men, something she herself admits to doing, and though there is more to her than this cliché, the fact remains that it's with men that Fiorinda forms relationships, while feeling either indifference or antipathy towards women.  Raised by a depressed, emotionally distant mother, and betrayed by her fun-seeming aunt, who pimped Fiorinda out to a rock star who turned out to be her own father, Fiorinda comes by her dislike of women honestly, but when the one act of feminine solidarity in the novel--the murder of Pigsty after he's accused of pedophilia and murder--turns out to be a calculated attempt by his wife to conceal her complicity in his crimes, to which end she'd manipulated a female member of Pigsty's inner circle (who lambastes Fiorinda for hating women), it's hard not to suspect Jones of something deliberate.

Interestingly, it's this internalized misogyny that humanizes Fiorinda, who teeters, on occasion, on the brink of seeming more like a symbol than a person, driving the novel with the force of her personality, her cool intelligence, and her magical acts--"Where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?" a character wonders.  That she has such obvious hang-ups about women gives Fiorinda a flaw we can latch onto, just as Anna and Ramone's inability to live up to their ideals make them more sympathetic despite their exaggerated construction.  Though Jones's feminism seeps through both novels, it is of a complicated and cynical variety.  In Life in particular, Jones seems to be saying that for all its truth, feminism is too simple a metaphor to encompass life in all its complexity, and that human existence can't be boiled down to ideology, even though that ideology remains vital and true.  That Jones accomplishes this subtle, disquieting message with characters who often come off like archetypes in feminist fables, and with a narrative of their travails that often veers towards the mawkish, only makes her accomplishment with this rich, furiously intelligent novel all the more impressive.

So that's Gwyneth Jones seen through two novels--a feminist who seems not to like women, or perhaps people in general, very much, a science fiction writer who can't seem to keep both feet in the genre, an ideologue who mocks her own convictions at every turn, an angry feminist who can't quite keep from winking at her readers.  What I feel at the end of these two novels, mostly, is intimidated--by Jones's intelligence, her forcefulness, and the complexity of her vision.  The next step would probably be the sequel to Bold as Love (though I have the sense that the series is going to sink into melodrama in a way that I won't care for) or perhaps her short stories (a collection is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press).  Either way, I'm sure there will be much to read for.

2 comments:

Farah Mendlesohn said...

If you haven't read White Queen, try that next. I never quite got on with the Bold of Love sequence (not keen on Arthuriana or Rock Music so it was sort of a problem), but I think the Aleutian series as good as sf gets.

Ian Sales said...

Jones is probably my favourite genre writer - as is no doubt illustrated by this.

I'm still in two minds about Castles Made of Sand - I didn't get on with the Heinleinesque dialogue, yet it remains one of the most memorable books in the cycle.

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