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.

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