Gwyneth Jones: The music of the future

Gwyneth Jones is one of this country's finest and most original writers of science fiction. Barry Forshaw talks to her about politics, pop and paganism

Gwyneth Jones may have some of the accoutrements of New Agery, down to the nose-ring, but there's nothing wishy-washy about the fecund intelligence that glitters behind her wary eyes. Talking about her work, the most acclaimed British female science-fiction writer since Ursula le Guin is initially reserved and hesitant. But it's quickly apparent that Jones balances her reserve with quiet charm and a fierce intellect. Jones is considered to be one of this country's finest science fiction practitioners, a writer of visionary skills with a striking and poetic narrative style. Her feminist credentials are impeccable, but gender issues do not obsess her as much as such predecessors in the field as Joanna Russ.

Just don't start criticising the pretensions of rock stars or their inability to string together a coherent sentence. Such personalities are at the core of Jones's extraordinary vision of a strife-torn, near-future Britain in Midnight Lamp (Gollancz, £10.99): the latest book in her ambitious, five-volume Bold As Love sequence.

Jones is more than ready to counter the drug-addled chunterings of the Ozzy Osbournes or the rainforest chic of such stars as Sting with the (generally) good instincts of music-biz denizens. Despite being an unapologetic child of the Sixties, she is au fait with current movements in popular music - although she admits that the negativity of most rap gives her pause.

"I realised quite some time ago that music had shaped my consciousness", says Jones, "and I suppose that's why I set the Bold As Love sequence in a world which has been transformed by music and (in particular) the ideals of rock music, much mocked though they may be."

Midnight Lamp continues the story of three rock musicians who form a think tank to prevent the UK from splintering into total political fragmentation. But, after a battle with politicians and eco-warrior counter-culturals, the UK collapses, and the trio are hiding in Mexico. An emissary from the US president tracks them down, and the future of Britain is up for grabs again.

So is national identity a central concern for Jones? She's a touch wry about this: "Well, it's a key subject only because I live here. I'm deeply suspicious of nationalism and extreme patriotism. And I don't think the latter is the exclusive preserve of the Far Right. Although I'm sometimes assumed to espouse counter-cultural values, I've made some people on the Left uncomfortable when I've pointed out that there's a kind of dewy-eyed patriotism that come from that quarter - and it doesn't stand up to rigorous analysis any more than that of Tory colonels in the Shires.

It's similar, she argues, with paganism: "I've taken a great interest in the subject, and many pagans have been very kind and helpful to me, although I should state that I'm not now - nor have I ever been - a pagan. I'm not really sure that any of these groups who offer an alternative to established society provide any real threat. It amuses me when they're called 'dangerous'; that probably pleases them - after all, what group doesn't like to feel it has people worried? But things are too entrenched, and if my books show English society torn asunder, that's not necessarily wish-fulfilment. I don't wish death and destruction on society, however much I might object to certain aspects of it."

Leaving aside the battle for the heart of society, what about that other unending battle - that between the sexes? As a foot-soldier in the conflict, what's her position today? Jones leans back and laughs. "Oh, I was never a militant feminist, although I obviously espouse all the ideas you might expect. But I'm not concerned with scoring points in this area, and proselytising is definitely not my thing. What interests me ... is the shifting of gender roles, which is a very fluid thing.

"The three books in the Aleutian trilogy focused on this subject to some degree - not in any crass 'girls are powerful' fashion, but with an understanding of how shifts in perception of the status of men and women are beneficial to both." Ironically, she says, science fiction, which still struggles fitfully for literary acclaim in some circles, "has always been more prepared than most genres to deal with difficult gender issues in a complex, non-judgmental way. Ursula le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, for instance, pictured a world where sexuality was actually amorphous."

A certain glint enters Jones's eye when she mentions the often lowly image of science fiction. Surely, it has to be said, such negative impressions emanate from the often nerdish behaviour of SF enthusiasts, sanctioned by SF writers? Jones is having none of this.

"That's just too easy! Sure, it's an excuse for unthinking people to trundle that one out - but intelligent people shouldn't be guilty of such laziness. Of course, there are embarrassing aspects of SF we'd all rather draw a veil over. But for its engagement with ideas, and a willingness to examine the most challenging issues... SF is more ambitious than, say, crime fiction, which has no problems being taken seriously!

"And look at the issue of class. Once SF dealt exclusively in middle-class protagonists - scientists, etc - but now it's happy to tackle all strata of society and posit ideas of flux that simply aren't up for discussion in other literary arenas. I'm heavily into this change: it used to annoy me that everyone in SF was so amazingly well-informed and comfortably off. So I decided to deal with issues like the underclass in my books. As someone born north of the Trent, I'm well aware that issues of class mould peoples' lives in this country."

The temperature drops to a more comfortable warmth when Gwyneth Jones talks about how winning the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award for Bold As Love changed her life. "I won't deny it was very nice to bask in the kudos that came my way - but when people call that my 'breakout' book, I'm a little bemused, as I felt I was courting unpopularity by shaking loose the idea of authorial control with that novel. I'd grown tired of the demands of being an omniscient author by that time - it was, in the demotic, 'doing my head in' - and I allowed the book (as much as I could) and characters to shape themselves. And it seemed to work. Suddenly, I'm this 'significant voice', and so on. Perhaps it's because I let music shape my consciousness more fully with that novel - a more imprecise and improvisatory approach, more informed by the freedom and poetry of music".

Clearly, Jones sees music as a repository of all kinds of civilised and civilising elements. But isn't this more true of classical music than the rock and pop which is her source of inspiration? While rock stars may adopt all the fashionable causes, can most of their naïve Spinal Tap-style pronouncements be taken seriously?

"I think many of them can - and rock stars are not all brain-frazzled dinosaurs. Look at Coldplay... I have a lot of time for them. In my books - particularly in Midnight Lamp - I actually set the young indie hopefuls against the more stultified older rock stars. ..But I'm not using music as some paradigm of positive values.

"After all", she adds, "is music about anything? Stravinsky said it couldn't be - music could be itself and nothing more - but I'm not sure I agree with him. Why should he be more worthy of attention than rock singers?

"Music is language without words, and in many ways it can square the dichotomy D H Lawrence was struggling with: the conflict between mind and body, achieving a balance. Sure, music is a sensual experience, and like arousal, it's a mysterious thing. But the mind should, I think, be engaged in an active fashion with the demands of the body. Music does that, and I hope my books can stimulate both the senses and the intellect."

If music is the engine of her books, does Jones draw similar energy from political indignation? Extrapolating trends from the world around her, will the final book in the Bold As Love sequence offer a utopian or dystopian Britain? The question draws a lengthy silence before her reply.

"The best SF writers - in my view - are often political writers. But there's no obligation to be optimistic, although writers like H G Wells clearly believed that the future held tremendous possibilities for the human race while later writers such as Philip K Dick have taken a more jaundiced view. And Bold As Love, which was written in the 1990s, articulated a vision that I had been moving towards."

She explains that "As I wrote it, living in Brighton, the police were having pitched battles with travellers, and there wasn't a general sense that we were living in the Best of All Possible Worlds. But perhaps the feeling that some kind of restoration of Arcadian beauty was possible is an ever-to-be-unfulfilled yearning."

Jones reveals that "I've always been beguiled by English Utopian dreaming: John Ruskin, Clem Attlee. But do I believe in the perfectibility of everyday life on these shores? Probably not; all communes seem to auto-destruct, and successive governments... invariably betray their promise. If I'm pushed, I'd say I believed in the perfectibility of the moment. That's not too much to strive for, is it?"

Biography

Born in Manchester in 1952, Gwyneth Jones had a convent school education before taking an undergraduate degree in European history of ideas at the University of Sussex. These studies created her appetite for examining the structure of scientific revolutions: a key element in her work. She began writing for younger readers in 1977, and as Ann Halam, she has written more than 20 novels for teenagers. Her science fiction novels for adults began with Divine Endurance in 1984. They include the Aleutian trilogy, White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café, and have gleaned many awards. Bold As Love was the first novel in a sequence tackling pop culture in the near future, which has its roots in her lifelong devotion to rock'n'roll. The book won the Arthur C Clarke award for 2001. She has also won two World Fantasy awards. Midnight Lamp, successor to Bold as Love, is now published by Gollancz. Gwyneth Jones still lives in Manchester with her husband and son, balancing writing with yoga.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album