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cover of Gwyneth Jones' LifeI first encountered the fiction of Gwyneth Jones when her novel White Queen was published in the US in 1991. I immediately felt I'd discovered the heir to Joanna Russ and went back and read what I thought were her earliest novels, starting with Divine Endurance, although I see that Wikipedia now list four earlier novels. Her American editor was David Hartwell, and we discussed the rest of the Aleutian Trilogy, which started with White Queen, as it came out. Something about the third book, The Phoenix Cafe, with it's cavalier attitude toward men as an eternal danger to women and children, really put me off, however, and I gave up on Jones after that, although I was still curious enough about her to pick up the first book of her next series, Bold As Love at the Eastercon on my TAFF trip in 2003. I don't think it ever had a US publisher, nor did the rest of that series. I took it off my To Be Read pile not long ago, and bounced off what I found to be a very confusing story about European politics (seemingly very prescient in the post-Brexit world) and countercultural defiance. I switched to another book of hers in the Pile, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which I found completely fascinating. Having consulted with Claire Brialey about her own experience reading Jones, I settled on Life as the next novel to try.

Suffice it to say that I liked it a lot better than Bold As Love. In the meantime I also realized that one of the things that makes her an heir to Joanna Russ is her pessimism about the battle between the sexes and the ability of feminism to solve the problem. Life is a very complex meditation on this question. It's a story of gender and genetics, which poses the idea that genetics is what makes the difference an unbridgeable breech. She then imagines a genetic solution to this problem that is probably beyond my ability to describe, but basically it's a non-Darwinian way for genes to be selected. The upshot of this is that genetic sexes (based on Y and X chromosomes)seem to be on their way out evolutionarily.

It's also a novel about life as she is lived, following a group of friends who meet at university, fall in and out of love, and fall in and out of contact later in life. The protagonist, Anna, is a geneticist who discovers the change in the X/Y exchange and spends her life trying to prove it to a disdainful scientific establishment, where her gender is held against her. Spence is her husband -- the apparently ideal house husband and lover -- who still manages to interfere with her research with his emotional neediness. In many ways their frenemy, Ramone, is the most interesting character -- a feminist who despises women and becomes a media star as a pundit, along with her mentor, the mystical old schizophrenic Lavinia. Jones' novels are always sprawling, contradictory affairs, full of crisis and pain, and Life is no exception. Two of the female characters are raped under circumstances in which they are unable to report it without unacceptable repercussions, there's also a heartbreaking miscarriage, and Anna's career seems to be a long series of firings by petty assholes.

What kept me going through all the carnage was the fascinating characters grappling with their messy lives. In her note about the book "Life: an Explanation" Jones writes, "The story of Anna Senoz is not my life story (the scruffy and pugnacious Ramone, Anna's shadow girl, is more like me, if I could imagine myself a feminist media star). But in many ways it's the story of my life as a writer: the experiences that shaped me, the changes that swept over my world, the ideas that made me write the novels I've written, the people who have inspired me; the future I imagine." There's a personal, heartfelt, career-summarizing quality to Life that's refreshing. The science fictional content is relatively small scale, but it has a lot of layers, and I appreciate how Jones confronts the limitations of feminism while tackling the underlying problem with a grand SF concept that ultimately completely reimagines what it means to be male or female.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Imagination Space.jpegI went through a Gwyneth Jones phase when the Aleutian Trilogy was being published by Tor. Dave Hartwell was her editor at Tor, and I used to talk about her books with him. I went back and read all of her adult SF and fantasy, starting with Escape Plans, and I read one Ann Halam YA book too. My favorites were Divine Endurance, White Queen, and North Wind. In her I found an heir, both literary and feminist, to Joanna Russ. I found the third book in the Aleutian Trilogy, Phoenix Cafe, a big disappointment, and between that and the fact that Tor dropped her after that, I lost track of her career.

On my TAFF trip in 2003, however, I did manage to pick up a British paperback of her next novel, Bold As Love, which I'd heard her read from when she taught at Clarion West in 1999. (I wouldn't have remembered that date, except she mentions it in the acknowledgements to the novel, where, alas, she also refers to the Crocodile Club, which is actually called the Crocodile Cafe. Ah well, a very minor error in the grand scheme of things.) So as part of my ongoing project of reading mostly books by women, I finally pulled it off the Pile a couple of weeks ago. Alas, I found it completely impenetrable -- which was also true of her first two novels, now that I think of it. I didn't care about the characters and couldn't keep some of them straight, I couldn't figure out the political factions, I couldn't distinguish the different bands or which characters were in which band. In short, I found it completely incomprehensible. On the off chance that it was the chemo causing the confusion, I consulted with the temporarily-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter, who I knew had had some problems with the book too, and she confirmed that she had had many of the same problems I was having. Worse, she told me it was the first in a five book series, not the diptych I expected. I gave up on it at the point.

I was considering the semi-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter's recommendation of another novel by Jones called Spirit when I recalled that I had one of Jones' non-fiction books on my Pile. Since I'd been vaguely feeling that I've been reading way too much fiction lately anyway, I started reading Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which was published by Aqueduct Press out of Seattle. Two days later, I had read the whole thing. Although I had read some of the excellent reviews and essays on her website during my period of infatuation with her writing, I hadn't heard that in 2008 she had won a well-deserved Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of science fiction scholarship. She turned out to be an heir to Joanna Russ as an incisive critic and reviewer as well as an author of self-critical feminist science fiction.

However, at first it seemed like a bad sign when the first essay in the book -- "What Is Science Fiction?" quoted extensively from the book I'd just bounced off of, Bold As Love. But I admired the essay greatly for not trying to pin the origins of SF to one book or one literary movement. Instead she cites multiple roots in the Gothic (expecially Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula), travel writing of the ancient past (e.g. Herodotus), the Romantic concept of the Sublime (citing Burke's essay on the subject), and the more modernist genre of the Grotesque (e.g. Kafka's "Metamorphosis"). I love this kind of genealogical, very literate, influence-spotting approach to genre history, so this was a perfect essay for me.

Another favorite piece was "Postcript to the Fairytale", subtitled "A Review of The Two of Them by Joanna Russ." This is one of Russ's most slippery, shifting, difficult works of fiction, and Jones does a brilliant job of tracing Russ's wrestling match with the contradictions of exercising power as a woman in a patriarchal society and her resistance to the common feminist urge to retreat into fantasies of female superiority. Like Russ, Jones is not much for the easy answer, and she is as pointed and balanced in her criticism of feminists as she is of sexists. Of course The Two of Them is partly about the ways women are complicit in their own oppression. Jones sees her own complicity too in brilliant passages like this:

The story behind the fiction, the story of a generation, always starts the same way: I was a girl-child in the fifties. I was attracted to the alien culture (indubitably alien!) of a set of books with rockets on the spines. Maybe I was influenced, though I didn't really know it, by my mother's memories of the halcyon days of World War, when women's work was needed outside the home and she had a life. Maybe I felt her unease, though she never talked about it, at being socially engineered back into the kitchen and the negligee. (Maybe I called this "not wanting to be like my mother.") The books were exciting and adventurous, and there were plenty of tomboy girl characters. I didn't know they were there for decoration, I thought it meant the genre had a place for me! So I ran away with Science Fiction, to start a new life. And here I am, still happy to be dressed in long underwear, with my raygun, but sorely disillusioned about those tomboys ... And then the story divides. The unregenerate tomboys keep their rayguns; the alpha female fans create a female, womb-friendly space within sf; but aren't both playing by the rules of the boy club? The Two of Them examines this dilemma, with illustrations. (p.48)


Jones is frequently provocative. Her essay about the links between horror, sexual arousal, and science fiction is called "String of Pearls," which although derived from a work of criticism, it is a work of criticism about pornography, which leaves the sexual suggestion intact. Her essay on video games connects that industry to the science fiction field in ways that I haven't seen anyone else talk about, although that likely reflects my own lack of interest in video games. She provides fascinating insight into her own working methods as a writer, specifically in "True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural" about tagging after a female molecular biologist, Dr Jane Davies, while researching her novel Life, which is about a non-Darwinist concept of evolution.

As with any good work of criticism, I come away from it with a list of other books I now want to read. Jones provides not one but two lists of top feminist science fiction, and I've already started reading Joan Sloncewski's A Door into Ocean, which she mentions more than once, not necessarily disparagingly, as an example of "a female, womb-friendly space within sf" and has long been on my big list of books I'm interested in, largely due to the advocacy of a feminist writer-friend of mine. Indeed Jones' Life now seems like the next novel of hers I want to try, but based on this collection I'd also like to track down her previous non-fiction collection, Deconstructing the Starships. I thought Imagination/Space was completely fascinating and riveting, and I'd like to read more of the same.

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