Bold as Love: II

Bold as Love cover

(previously.)

There is a current in the novel that snakes outside the 1997-2001 moment; or at least a character who seems out of step with his surroundings. Ax Preston, guitarist with The Chosen Few, destined (it seems) leader of England, the nearest thing to a hero we’re going to get, “bit old fashioned, bit left wing” (23), and most importantly:

Ax would continue to come and go as he pleased. […] Go on living his fearfully public life in this fearfully changed world as if he were a private person with no enemies, and the date some mythical year in the nineteen sixties. (206)

The aptness of his particular nostalgia in a novel which springs partially from the nostalgic Britpop moment aside, this is what makes Ax special: this ability to preserve his own private Real Year in the face of the progressive isolation of England, first politically, through dissolution and an ongoing economic and ecological collapse, then culturally and digitally as their internet is collapsed by a virus. This new England is an island England, cut adrift (it seems) from the main line of history (I gather later volumes in the Bold as Love sequence get around a bit more). And Ax is both the moral leader we might wish for England, and a literal dictator: military, temporary, populist.

Ax is also Arthur returned (and updated), although I don’t feel qualified to do very much more than just note the fact. Accompanying him are Sage, the skull-masked “brilliantly commercial techno-wizard” to Ax’s “pure musician with critical and political cred” (27) and, I gather from Tanya Brown’s extremely lucid reading of the novel in The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, Lancelot with a hint of Merlin. I find him the novel’s bedrock, the wall off which other characters can bounce. (I find him a little dull.) Decoding the third of the triumverate, Fiorinda, takes longer, because she’s loaded down with more symbolism. Guinevere, says Tanya; rock royalty, precocious teen, Titania, virgin queen, says the novel; “a phenomenon,” thinks Ax, “where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?” (40-1). Fiorinda sees her position more clearly than either of her companions, as when Sage tries to protect her from the darkness of war: “I’m not built to play Red Sonja, so I have to be the lickle princess. There aren’t any parts for me as a human being in this movie” (161). Perils of being in a mythic story while female.

Everything real the trio does is also symbolic, and everything symbolic they do is also real. Ax is a soldier, and carries his guitar like an assault rifle as a reminder of that power. In his conversion to Islam midway through the novel, in the fetishization of Fiorinda, in Sage’s abusive past, in their varied class and ethnic backgrounds, and most of all in their shifting relationships with each other, they represent their country in more ways than one, a polymorphousness condensed by an artist, late in the book:

He grinned, envisaging Sage as the big strong mother of the tribe, Ax the father of his people, Fiorinda their shining prince. But any permutation of the roles would be equally valid. (282)

Ax nags like a mother, Sage is headstrong like a prince, Fiorinda negotiates like a father. And so on. The self-consciousness of it all could get wearing — seems to get wearing for many readers — but for me the novel’s centre of gravity was elsewhere. The role of the triumverate is to be a prism: to ensure that Fiorinda is telling the truth when, to buck up her band, she insists: “This is England. This is how it feels” (244).

(next.)

Bold as Love: I

Bold as Love cover

It’s a truism that time is cruel to science fiction, that the relentless now eats into the future and leaves husks of stories in its wake and that, per William Gibson, the lag time is decreasing. When editing the 2002 Nebula Awards Showcase, Kim Stanley Robinson asked some writers to riff on the science-fictionalisation of the present, specifically on the role of science fiction in the twenty-first century. Gwyneth Jones was one of the contributors to the resulting symposium, and described “the problem of meaning”:

… which can best be understood by considering the ratio between the author’s intention and the rest of the content of a science fiction novel or story. The whole vast edifice of reality, the universe, and everything may have a single meaning that is known only to God. […] A science fiction novel or story, however, has a meaning known to the author. […] In the space of three hundred pages, where the author has elected to explain life, or consciousness, or theories of everything (typical projects among sf writers), meaning is so concentrated as to distort the most perceptive prediction to the point where it is almost unrecognisable. (241)

At first glance — which is particularly to say, when it was first published, back in 2001 — the predictive bedrock of Bold as Love may seem more unrecognisable than most. It chronicles the unlikely rise of a “Rock and Roll Reich”, an authoritarian Green state within which protagonists struggle for something better, and self-consciously constructs a future that only gets stranger the further into it we travel. It seems to fully earn its “near future fantasy” subtitle, and I speculate — this is the first time I’ve read it — that in 2001 Bold as Love seemed as much as anything to be about the possibility of an unknowable future; that its rockstar protagonists, improbably recruited into a Think Tank intended to define a new future for England, seemed written with a wind of millennial possibility in their sails.

Time may be cruel, but it’s the friend of the critic of sf who wants to strip away the layers of future, to get past the singularity of authorial intent. This, too, is a truism, encapsulated by the Clutean concept of the Real Year. Some of the things that stand out so starkly now must have been obvious at time, although the extrapolation of New Labour “Cool Britannia” co-option of pop seems to have been little commented-on in contemporary reviews. (Adam Roberts suggested it’s not even really about politics; Cheryl Morgan provided an exception; Roger Luckhurst, a couple of years later, digs into this aspect a little in an essay in Science Fiction Studies.) Some things might have been dimly discernable on the horizon, such as the extent to which the internet would gut the mega-label mega-bucks model of music distribution that dominates Bold as Love (no bittorrent, no YouTube). But what fixes this novel in time most profoundly seemed to come out of a clear blue sky: a door slammed shut, a month after the novel was published, on what in retrospect feels like a wasted moment of historical possibility. There are about a dozen mentions of terrorism in this novel. It’s there, but low down in the mix.

Bold as Love has already earned its place in sf’s modern canon. It’s probably the most sustained engagement with the nature of Englishness published within the genre in the last ten years, not to mention an early entry into the broken-Union trope that’s been so common in recent British sf, in novels by Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts. It’s a clear influence on Justina Robson’s even more dislocated near-future fantasy sequence Quantum Gravity (indeed, in one character’s crack about not wanting to “end up transformed into some crackpot post-human elf” [194] it could have offered direct inspiration). Yet it feels somehow irretrievable, locked away from me, innocent. I discovered Jones’ contribution to Robinson’s Nebula symposium because her novel had put me in mind of what one of the other participants said. Over to Ken MacLeod:

What sf enables us to do is not to forsee the future, but to entertain possibilities. The more possibilities science and technology —

[At this point, about 3.30 British Summer Time, 11 September 2001, the phone rang.]

I leave this piece as I wrote it, words from the old world. (248)

If I’m unbothered by Bold as Love‘s much-touted lack of plausibility (and I am, largely), this is most of the reason why. For once, being yesterday’s tomorrow is a kindness. It’s words from the old world; and by that token, it owns its world.

(next.)

Reminder: Bold as Love

Just a quick reminder that, per Shana’s post earlier this month, I’ll be kicking off a discussion of Bold as Love next week. So if you were planning to read it but haven’t got around to it yet, now’s the time!

(In other news, those who haven’t been following the comments on my post about Nina Allan’s short fiction may like to know that she seems to be eligible for this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.)

February: Bold as Love

This month begins my chronological reading of the novels nominated as the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years. I invite you join me, starting with the first-published of the eleven books on the list, Gwyneth JonesBold as Love.

***

2001 was almost last week in the history of books, but a very long time ago indeed in the history of websites. That’s why I’m so impressed that the book-specific URL given in the introductory apparatus of Bold as Love is still going as a functional website.

The site has evolved along with the series, from an all-black version, to green with modulating rainbow-colored type, to animated falling leaves (lovely in concept, gawky in execution), to the more minimalist maroon with a rotating orb of leafery which the present version has retained for the last several years. That design evolution reflects the sheer distance which websites from 2001 have traveled to today.

I’m not telling you this because I’m particularly  prone to posting reviews of website design, but for two other reasons. The first is to think a bit about what the world, particularly the world of science fiction and fandom, was like in 2001. The second is to tell you that there is a copy of Bold as Love, available for free download there in PDF. The sequels are available too. You’ll miss out on the Anne Sudworth cover and the Bryan Talbot illustration of the major characters, but you’ll have the text.

***

Gwyneth Jones had been publishing fiction since at least 1973 and novels since 1977. By my counting, Bold as Love was her thirteenth novel. In 2001, she was Guest of Honour at Novacon, and won the Richard Evans Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction. She was also at A Celebration of British SF in Liverpool that year, a lively event, well-attended by authors and fans.

The cover of the 2002 edition of Bold as Love which I have proclaims it to have been “Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award”. More importantly, it went on to win the Clarke Award in 2002, showing that the reprint must have been designed in the gap between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner! Bold as Love was one of three Clarke-shortlisted books by women published in 2001, the others being Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi and Connie Willis’ Passage. (The Clarke Award for books published in 2000 was given out at 2001: A Space Odyssey Event, organized by Pat Cadigan at the Science Museum. At it, China Miéville won his first.)

Women authors of science fiction and fantasy did fairly well in 2001 in terms of prizes. Mary Gentle’s Ash won best novel in the BSFA Award, while Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. J.K. Rowling won the Hugo novel award for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

In other 2001 news, Dorothy Dunnett, Tove Jansson, Douglas Adams, and Poul Anderson passed away. In Britain, the food-and-mouth crisis began and the Eden Project opened. While there is all sorts to be said about the events of 9/11 and their consequences, what still strikes me most in terms of Britain in particular is that it is referred to as 9/11 on this side of the ocean – even though that would normally be the ninth of November.

***

Niall will be leading discussion of Bold as Love in the second half of February. Check back for his posts then!

P.S. You can hear the short story on which the novel was based in Dark Fiction Magazine‘s newest issue.

January Review Round-Up

Shana will start reading future classics by women next month but I thought I’d round-up a few reviews published this month of books by women. I’m planning to make more of the BSFA’s archive of reviews available online so let’s start with a couple of re-prints from Vector. Firstly, Nic Clarke on White Is For Witching:

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is a subtle little gem of a ghost story, written in a sparsely elegant style and paced as a page-turner whose mystery lies mostly in its characters’ fears and flaws. It centres on a haunted bed and breakfast in Dover, and the people – living and dead – whose lives are entwined with the house, and with each other.

Then Niall Harrison on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:

The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else. Those details interest Beukes, too, I think.

I also reviewed Moxyland to inaugurate a year of reading science fiction by women:

This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.

Ian Sales started a similar project by reviewing The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein:

Had I not known of it when I found it in that charity shop, I would not have bought it. I’d heard it was quite good – but how often do you hear that about books, which promptly disappoint? I’d heard it read as fantasy but was really science fiction – but there’s so much room for manoeuvre in that statement, it’s hard to take it as any kind of useful description. Something brought The Steerswoman to my notice, something persuaded me it was worth reading… And I’m glad I did. The Steerswoman is a gem.

As you would expect, Strange Horizons covered several books books by women in depth, perhaps most notably Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin. Here is Farah Mendlesohn on Who Fears Death:

There is a hint in Who Fears Death that we are in the far future of Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor’s debut novel. For all the resemblances to our own Africa, this is a distant planet in a distant time, and the story the Okeke and the Nuru tell, in which the Nuru come from afar, might well be true. This is a science fictional world with water captures, hard-tech computing, and newfangled biotech. It is also a world of magic, of small jujus and powerful sorcerers.

And Paul Kincaid on 80!

Conceived by Kim Stanley Robinson and compiled by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, 80! was intended as a personal birthday present on the occasion of Le Guin’s 80th birthday in 2009, and originally came in a specially bound edition of one. But now, a year on, Le Guin has agreed that the book should be made more generally available. It is worth it for parts, if not for the whole. It is not easy to describe this book. I suppose it comes closest to being a festschrift, and there are several pieces that would not be out of place in such a volume. But it is also an opportunity for people simply to express gratitude, which is genuine and often moving, and certainly not out of place in a birthday card

Finally, Abgail Nussbaum reviewed both Bold As Love and Life by Gwyneth Jones:

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.

Top Ten Writers

As was noted back at the start of the week, and by a good number of people casting their votes in the poll, the popularity of series in the sf field can make it hard to single out individual books. Moreover, many writers are prolific — if someone’s written one outstanding novel in a decade, they may have an advantage, in this sort of poll, over someone who’s written three. So here’s another way of looking at the data, counting up the top ten writers who were nominated for multiple books, ordered by total nominations received.

1. Gwyneth Jones

Not a surprise, given her three appearances this week. But two other books were also nominated: Castles Made of Sand, the follow-up to Bold as Love, and Siberia, one of Jones’ YA novels (published as by Ann Halam).

2. Justina Robson

Natural History did well, of course, but plenty of people also nominated Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Mappa Mundi and Keeping it Real.

3. Tricia Sullivan

As noted in this morning’s post, in addition to Maul, nominations were sent in for every other novel she’s published this decade — Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn.

4. Elizabeth Bear

The first writer to appear on this list who hasn’t appeared in the main top ten, Bear received nominations for Hammered (often as a proxy for the whole Jenny Casey trilogy), standalones Carnival and Undertow, for Dust, and for By the Mountain Bound.

5. Elizabeth Moon

In addition to Speed of Dark, Moon picked up nominations for Trading in Danger and Moving Target.

6. Jo Walton

Farthing‘s placement low in the top ten certainly doesn’t reflect the strength of support Walton received, with many nominations for the second Small Change novel, Ha’Penny, and for Lifelode.

7. Liz Williams

Like Bear, Williams hasn’t made it into the main top ten; but she achieves the distinction of having more novels nominated than any other writer, six in total:Ghost Sister, The Poison Master, Empire of Bones, Nine Layers of Sky, Banner of Souls, and Darkland.

8. Karen Traviss

In addition to the nominations for City of Pearl, Traviss picked up a few nods for her tie-in work — Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, and Star Wars novels Hard Contact, 501st, and Order 66.

9. Ursula K Le Guin

Lavinia accounted for the bulk of Le Guin’s nominations, but a few enthused about the Western Shore novels, in particular Gifts and Voices.

10. Connie Willis

And finally, Willis picked up nominations for both Blackout/All Clear, and for Passage — both not that far off the top ten.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #5

Not a typo in the subject line, because now we reach the other tie.

Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (2008)

Spirit cover

Spirit is Jones’ most recent novel, and the other science fictional retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, as Karen Joy Fowler explores:

The reader picks up a sprawling space opera with certain expectations: a fast pace, exotic settings, mysterious aliens, badly behaved (and also much-abused) nobility, plenty of off-world adventure and intrigue. In her new book, Spirit, Gwyneth Jones delivers all these and more.

The plot of the novel is loosely modelled on Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Jones is not the first writer to find that a classic swashbuckler translates effectively into outer space, and, in this case, the fun of finding familiar elements strangely transformed more than compensates for any predictability in terms of how the plot will go. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, Jones’s book features an exiled emperor, a conspiracy involving imperial restoration, an impregnable prison, an unjust imprisonment, a fellow prisoner with wisdom and wealth to bequeath, a daring escape dependent on the removal of a corpse, unimaginable treasure, fabulous fetes and balls, appalling betrayals and the intricacies of vengeance.

To this, Jones has added a great many elements not found in Dumas’s book (and surely the Dumas is the poorer for it): space travel, a Hegemony of many planets and many “numinally intelligent bipeds”, an ill-starred diplomatic mission to a world of bloodsuckers, chitinous serpents that can be saddled and ridden, robots, body modifications and, as the Edmond Dantès character is female in Jones’s retelling, bizarre pregnancies and childbirth.

Other reviews: Paul Kincaid, for Strange Horizons; Dan Hartland, for Strange Horizons; Nic Clarke, for SFX; Duncan Lawie, for The Zone; by Cheryl Morgan; and by Ian Sales.

And here’s a thing: you can download the full text of the novel from Jones’ website. It was release online in January of this year which, I think, counts as its first US publication — which means it’s eligible for a Hugo. Isn’t that interesting?

Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon (2002)

Speed of Dark cover

Winner of the Nebula Award and shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, Speed of Dark bowled over many reviewers with its examination of the introduction of a cure for autism; John Grant, for instance:

In sum, The Speed of Dark is one of those exceptionally rare novels that has the power to alter one’s entire worldview, and reading it is a profoundly rewarding and enriching experience. It is impossible to avoid superlatives when speaking of it, even though one’s all too aware that one may be perceived as perpetrating hyperbole. Well … tough. I cannot remember when last I enjoyed a novel this much, but it must have been a very long time ago.

Other reviews: Adam Roberts, at Infinity Plus; and Jayme Lynn Blaschke at SF Site. See also an essay by Moon, “Autism: Past, Present, Future, Speculative.”

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #7

Life by Gwyneth Jones (2004)

Life cover

Gwyneth Jones’ second entry is, as I said at the weekend, a superb account of the working life of a scientist who discovers an ongoing change in human genetics. Thanks to the wayback machine, I now hand over to AM Dellamonica:

In Life, author Gwyneth Jones manages a delicate balancing act, showing the massive implications of a slight shift in the genes that control human gender while, at the same time, reminding readers that life goes on. Anna’s pursuit of Transferred Y happens against a backdrop of personal minutiae and career moves. She is a wife, a mother, an employee—and the years go by. She may be making a fantastic discovery, but that doesn’t render her immune to marital discord, tragedy or the aging process.

Jones’ prose is deeply engaging, drawing readers fully into her near-future setting. Anna is a well-drawn protagonist, one who inhabits a role usually reserved for male characters in SF: the obsessed scientist, willing to make big sacrifices to unlock the mysteries of life. It is an intriguing portrayal, but also an alienating one: Anna is hard to like. Some of her personal difficulties create reader sympathy, making her harsher choices somewhat forgivable, but these also make the book—which is quiet and thoughtful in tone—quite bleak.

Other reviews: David Soyka at SF Site and Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City. See also two essays by Jones about the development of the novel, “The Brains of Female Hyena Twins” and “True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural“.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #10

Strictly speaking, #10 equal, since we start with one of two ties.

Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones (2001)

Bold as Love cover

Jones’ Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel, and the series it inaugurates, is probably one of the landmark generic hybrids of the past decade, being both near-future science fiction and Arthurian fantasy. As Francis Spufford put it:

The salient oddity of Bold as Love is that its achievement is rooted not in the festival scene of 2001, but in the world of 1971. It substantiates the dreams not of present-day apocalypse-minded teenagers, but of their counterparts 30 years ago, who read Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and relished the fantasy of the Rolling Stones playing gigs in the rubble of liberated cities. Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; Jones has an equally sexy guitar hero put the reverb into “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. This book reopens the door to a particular stylised world next to our own, where the slender-hipped male heroes of pop culture are freed from time and place to do cool, violent deeds. It’s a rock’n’roll world, but it’s English. It’s a world where the young Mick Jagger is always to be found jamming in the Hundred Acre Wood, his gun lying on the grass beside him among the forget-me-nots.

Other reviews: Chris Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City, David Soyka for SF Site and Kathleen Bartholomew in Green Man Review. See also Sheryl Vint’s take on the concluding volume, Rainbow Bridge, for a sense of how it all pans out, and a 2003 interview with Jones. Oh, and the Bold as Love website, where you can download the full text of the first four volumes of the series.

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss (2004)

City of Pearl cover

Another series-initiating book, this time the well-received six-volume Wess’Har War series. Stuart Carter reviewed it with the sequel, Crossing the Line:

Another glorious aspect of these two books is that they’re almost the antithesis of everything Trek: humans haring round the universe imposing their morality and point-of-view upon anyone who can listen, and always, eventually, turning out to be right, or at least admirable. And if we’re not even admirable then at least we have bigger guns than everyone else to console ourselves with. In Karen Traviss’s universe we’re seen as being far from admirable and even further from right, and it looks like being a very hard, possibly even fatal, lesson for us to learn. A warning to the unthinking patriots amongst you: you may find these books somewhat unpalatable.

I’ve followed quite a tortuous route to discovering Karen Traviss’s novels: she’s English, I’m English, and yet neither of these books has a UK publisher, so I’ve had to get them from the US, a fact that both perplexes and saddens me since both City Of Pearl and Crossing the Line would seem to be a very English type of SF, and English SF at its very best, too. If you want to read something that will leave you thinking, perhaps if you’re a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson or, more generally, of intricately gloomy English science fiction, then this series is one you want to read — I promise.

Other reviews: Christ Butler at Infinity Plus, Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City (hang on, I’m getting deja vu), and Russ Allbery. See also 2006 interviews with Traviss at Infinity Plus and in Strange Horizons.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Life by Gwyneth Jones (2004)

Life cover
Life‘s exploration of the working life of a scientist is one of the best I’ve read; and the thoroughness with which it maps the faultlines between sex and gender makes it, for me, the best thing Jones has written in a strong decade of work, and a deserved winner of the Philip K Dick Award. Paul Kincaid’s review in Foundation 95 finds a few faults to argue with, but sums up the novel’s virtues well:

None of these quibbles is fatal to the book. It remains beautifully written, vividly realised, seriously thought-out. It is rare to come across a novel which is clearly the consequence of such serious thought. The ideas are complex and patiently illuminated; and the story has been carefully constructed to throw those ideas into relief. If we read science fiction for intellectual as well as emotional engagement, then this is what the genre is all about.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.