An interview with Gwyneth Jones
Gwyneth Jones, writer and critic of science
fiction and fantasy, was born on 14th February 1952 in Manchester where
she studied at a local convent school and then at the University of
where she took an undergraduate degree in History of Ideas, specialising
in seventeenth century Europe; a distant academic background that still
resonates in her work. After university, a few years in the civil service
and some foreign travel, she spent two years in actual, gainful real
world employment, writing tv cartoon scripts (about three cute newshound
robots and their cute robo-puppy). Since the late eighties, she has
been writing full time.
She's written more than twenty novels for teenagers,
mostly using the pseudonym Ann Halam, and several highly regarded science
fiction novels for adults, notably the Aleutian Trilogy, White Queen
(co-winner of the James Tiptree Memorial Award); North Wind and
Phoenix Café. Her short story collection Seven Tales And A
Fable won two World Fantasy Awards, and her critical writings and
essays have appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Foundation,
and New York Review of Science Fiction amongst other venues.
Some of these are collected in Deconstructing the Starships.
Her latest sequence, which began with Bold
as Love (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award), posits an England
which is overrun by a Green Rock and Roll revolution when the government
of the time decides to set up a Counter Cultural Think Tank. Ax, Fiorinda
and Sage, despite their best efforts, were drawn into this ruthless
revolution, eventually forming a triumvirate to re-stabilise England.
Personal differences lead to a temporary split but their mutual attraction
brings them back together during the continuing volumes, Castles
Made of Sand and Midnight Lamp, which sees them leaving England
to tour America.
Iain Emsley: Who is
your ideal reader?
Gwyneth Jones: I write for myself, first
and foremost. I write to entertain myself, and to find out what I think,
if that makes any sense. It's a thrill if other people get entertained
too, and seem to be on my wavelength -- then I don't feel so alone.
But I do like writing dialogue, which is something I definitely do for
an imaginary audience. It's quite a trick, getting your lines to do
the work the scene needs; and sound great; and read naturally; and stay
vividly in the character's voice, but without caricature. It takes a
huge amount of work to make it look effortless, but it's very enjoyable
IE: Where is genre
going, now that we live in the future?
GJ: I don't think we live in the future.
There's a borderline, it keeps moving and we don't cross it. This is
a fairly obvious observation (tomorrow never comes, eh?). But the sf
borderline hasn't been crossed either, not yet. Show me an alien person
from another planet (or even an alien slime mould). Show me convincing
evidence of just one other earth like planet. Let me enter a videogame,
seamlessly. Land a human crew on Mars, set up a colony on the Moon.
Develop an AI (whether or not clothed in doll-skin) that passes the
Turing test with no cheating. As long as these sort of things haven't
happened, the quantum leap stays unleapt, and maybe that means the genre
can go on going round in circles. (If I was a betting woman, my money
would be on the seamless entry to the game environment 1st, AI second
(they're linked, of course), the space exploration boost whenever military
hubris decides; and the alien possibly never.)
IE: What does Fantasy
offer that Science Fiction can't? Why is it gaining popularity among
GJ: I'm one of the people that thinks
Fantasy is the broader label, and it includes science fiction. If Fantasy
is gaining in popularity, I can give a good reason and a depressing
reason why. The good reason says more sf&f readers now want their
fiction richer with possibilities, a broader live pathway and less authorial
control over what's going on in the 'world' of the book: science fiction
is very paranoid fiction, very tightly controlled. And (auxiliary reason)
maybe this area, China's "New Weird" is where the natural home of the
arthouse end of the genre has moved, since real science has become so
fantastical, and since the sf has become so artificial -- a fascinating
game, but disconnected from any real future.
The depressing reason (and it really does depress me) is that science
is harder than fiction. Harder to read about, harder to write about,
and much harder to integrate into a human drama. Hence you get great
sf short stories, but relatively few genuine sf novels ever get written.
It's usually space-age drag, with homely old fashioned storytime underneath,
but even that doesn't fool the public. To be fair, I'm sure only a few
really great fantasies are written (and they all tend to be totally
different from each other, same as great sf). But while the middle class
(so to speak) of sf is shrinking, possibly because even the smell of
something like science puts people off, the genre Fantasy mill goes
on churning out endless cod-mediaeval thousand-pagers, and no one knows
how to stop it. I think you have to keep this hinterland in mind, when
you're talking about idealised "sf and fantasy". The reality on the
bookshop stacks is that all those serial fantasies nobody can stand
to review (I know. I've pleaded with reviewers, but in vain) are the
ones getting publisher support and fanbase.
IE: In the ICA talks
in May, you commented that SF was claustrophobic, which is why you abandoned
it. Do you still feel this way?
GJ: Yes I do, although never say never,
and I might write a space opera one day. Writers I admire, such as C.J.
Cherryh, and Frederik Pohl, have managed to write space opera that wasn't
about manifest destiny, or that nauseating Heinlein libertarian agenda.
But the kind of science fiction I've enjoyed writing so far is very
intense, very paranoid, and you'll find the examples in Greg Egan or
(tho' Mike cares v.little for the actual science, whereas me, I am part
nerd) Mike Harrison. By the end of the Aleutian trilogy I'd started
to feel trapped by the engineering that goes into an sf novel. I hope
I've matured. Equally possibly the hard science seemed less interesting
because it's really a young person's game, like mathematics, and I had
nothing more to say on those lines. But I wasn't ready to kick back
and start writing adventure fantasy with infodumps, so I'm doing something
different. (There are other, political explanations, see below.) I'm
still keen on science. There's plenty of Bruce Sterling type near-future
extrapolation; and very involving fantasy-neuroscience in the Bold As
Love books (involving for me, I mean) ... It's just not what the books
are about. The books are about the characters, and the world they live
IE: Has Science Fiction
moved into the mainstream and into popular language? If so, do you think
that it affects the content or delivery?
GJ: Science Fiction hasn't moved into
the mainstream, or into popular language, via print fiction. It's all
been tv and screen media-based: Star Wars, Star Trek,
The Matrix (same goes for Fantasy, with Buffy and Angel
and the like). Besides the obvious, the branded stuff and novelisations,
print fiction writers have to be influenced by this phenomenon, they
have to chase the market. The effect is bound to seem a dumbing-down,
because screen-based sf&f works are good at being immediate, visceral,
kinetic. They aren't big on exposition, complexity, or making sure a
story makes sense all the way through, which are the natural strengths
of print fiction. On the other hand, I always flipped over the special
effects scenes in sf books, and even more so now. Oh, there was a great
battle. Blah blah blah ... Hand me my game controls, this just doesn't
work in print. Maybe I'm speaking only for people who play games here,
but I can't help it. As a writer, I've always played those scenes very
visually and kinetically in my head, and I've found their true expression
in the games-coders' work.
My feeling is that print science fiction is still an orphan genre.
But I bet if the mainstream ever embraces it, the cultured people will
only be interested in the infotainment and the rocketships. They won't
have any time for 'literary' sf (sigh). The mainstream writers think
they can do that sort of thing all by themselves.
IE: That's a very downbeat
view. How come? Mainstream writers have flirted with sf but have rarely
come up with anything that is satisfying either at the idea level or
the story level. Do genre readers need to be more attentive to the 'literary'
mode? Indeed, what do you mean by literary?
GJ: I think mainstream fiction about
science or the future is different from the genre treatment in this
important respect: in the mainstream the human interest is rated as
more important than the ideas; in the genre works, the ideas are privileged
above the human world. (Same goes for magical realism.) I can try and
explain this further if you like but suffice it to say I think it's
a subtle but absolute difference. (Hey. It's all in Plato. What do
they teach them in these schools?)
IE: How do you feel
about the future?
GJ: As you might have gathered from Bold
As Love (unless you thought I was putting it on for a laugh) I feel
that the future for us non-spacefaring folk is in poor shape right now.
It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that 'we' (I mean middle class
people in developed nations away from the war zones) could actually
find ourselves getting uncomfortable, quite soon and quite suddenly.
Take a look at what's going on in Italy, and the harvests in Western
Europe, and oh, a whole lot of other indicators. The woods are burning,
they really are. I am not making this up.
IE: What makes you
the most hopeful and the most fearful?
GJ: The expected blow never falls. The
Americans and Russkies never did blow up the planet, we're not yet standing
on Zanzibar. Probably nothing so dramatic as a plunge into the dark
ages will overtake us. We'll limp through the population-bulge somehow,
without changing our evil ways, and come out the other side still more
or less civilised, just with a real lot fewer other living species for
company. I think for me, that outcome will do for both hope and fear.
But who knows. Maybe something much worse and totally unexpected will
happen instead. Bring it on.
IE: Does writing have
a role in shaping people's worldview?
GJ: Reading and writing had a huge role
in shaping my worldview, and though I know a lot of people who don't
read much (much less write), I think the culture is still conveyed in
words, however the message is finally consumed.
IE: Can it ever disengage
itself from demanding (or delivering) a moral response?
GJ: Morality will always be part of the
cultural baggage that gets passed on. I think that's unavoidable, because
we're social animals, and the distinctions we call 'moral' are hardwired
into us. Like good/bad, fair/unfair, just/unjust. But having said that,
many writers don't have any intention of engaging with morality. They
intend to engage with the money. Tho' (due to the hardwiring) they'll
feel obliged to produce a moral response if you poke them with a stick.
IE: What are you currently
GJ: Band Of Gypsies, the fourth
Bold As Love book.
IE: You seem to be
consciously using the Matter of Britain to your own ends. Do you think
that this mythology is in need of an update or somehow rescuing from
cod retellings or do you see it as a vital part of the cultural heritage?
GJ: The whole fantasy genre is in need
of an update. If I had the power, I'd wipe all the cod-mediaeval stuff
off the board. The story they tell, the rapine and pillage and the breaking
of nations, is in our real world future now, god help us, not some safe,
imaginary past ... But there's no use saying pigs can't fly when you
see them catching swallows (this is an Alan Garner quote by the by).
The people want to read it, so it will be written and it will be read.
When I wrote the original Bold As
Love story (for In Dreams, ed Kim Newman and Paul McAuley,
which came out in 1992), I knew I wanted to write something much longer
set in that world. When I came back to it, I realised that I had to
invent some kind of situation where my rockstars would be in charge,
and yet not be branded as complete arseholes. This was a tough project,
and I fell back on folktale.
So let's think about Arthur. (NB, my main inspiration for this strand
was and is a book called The Lantern-Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff,
and I don't know if there was an overt Arthurian element in there at
all.) I don't know if a historical Arthur ever existed, but if he did
I see him as a young man growing up in Roman Britain, in the civilised
south west, close enough to the line to believe he could still have
a decent career, while still aware everything civilised was falling
apart (sort of like today). Instead, he took up the defence of civilisation
-- in full knowledge that by becoming "dux bellorum" of the embattled
Britons, he was completely wrecking his own hopes of living the "normal"
life he was defending.
That's the hero who inspired my story. I'm not in the least interested
in imaginary Iron Age kings, or hero-tales of super-warriors; or of
warrior queens. The writers who inspired me were Chretian de Troyes
and Malory, sophisticated mainstream fiction, with a hefty dash of weirdness.
Plus my youthful reading of The Once And Future King (and other
teenage, children's novels, refs available on request. John Masefield,
Susan Cooper, etc); and the presence of the Grail myth in fiction, from
mediaeval times onwards. Which becomes the neuroscience Grail of fusion
between matter and mind, in Bold As Love. Plus quite a lot of practical
bgd, such as my sister's a very competent mediaeval latinist, who was
on the now-legendary Cadbury dig. So, just the normal genre reader's
Chretien de Troyes (who is the real progenitor, in my opinion, not
Malory) wrote at the court of Marie de Champagne, and later of Philip
of Flanders, early in the twelfth century. He took his inspiration from
the Celtic tradition (possible imported to Brittany by British refugees
from the Anglo-Saxon conquests); but he wrote totally contemporary novels,
in which he had to reconcile the brutal and mythic source material with
the courtly, feminised taste of his audience. (Hands up if you thought
'feminised' was a bad word) ... That's the way it should be. The tension
and friction, between the older material and the modern context is what
keeps the story evolving, alive.
IE: Was it a need to
make it somehow pay attention to the Britain as it is now? Are you concerned
with understanding where the UK is now politically and socially in terms
of the last twenty five years of governments?
When I set out to write Bold As Love it was going to be two books,
like Malory only haha! Completely different! Castles Made Of Sand
was going to end just as it does, but then there was going to be a coda,
with Fiorinda speaking directly to camera, years afterwards, saying:
now you've read the legend, of course it wasn't really like that. And
discussing how memory, just like the fossil record of life on earth,
contracts some things, exaggerates others, completely loses whole sections
... But my editor at Gollancz really hated the idea, and by the time
I started to write Castles Made Of Sand so did I. I didn't want
to do a trick ending. I knew a lot of what happened in the space between,
and I wanted to write about it. To my mind, this is where the statement
about the state of Britain begins. The earlier stuff, the floods and
railway collapse and rabid Boat People and alla that stuff was just
obvious, it was what was happening around me as I wrote.
I don't know if the UK will dissolve into three nation states (and
a federal Ireland). I'm very clear that there are three nationalities.
I've concentrated on England, specifically, because I wanted to give
the separateness of Wales or Scotland respect and anyway, I live here.
But seriously, I do think there is something terrible going on in the
world today, in the UK as well as anywhere else. I'm calling it magic,
in my fantasy. It's a way of describing a world situation where unbelievable,
jaw-dropping bad things happen, and nobody bats an eye, and people (except
for what's known as the lunatic fringe) just carry on as normal. In
another generation, it was called fascism.
Midnight Lamp, are you trying to escape from the confines of
these islands or trying to put what was happening into a more global
GJ: What happens in Bold As Love
and Castles Made Of Sand cries out for a global context, and
also these are rockstars. They had to have a US tour.
IE: Will you expand
the story into Europe?
GJ: I'm not sure. Band Of Gypsies
is mainly set in England. But I'm starting to feel a pull towards Europe,
for the last piece of the story. It would be much more challenging than
writing the USA episode (which I cunningly cut down to California, the
only part of the USA of which I have anything like personal knowledge).
IE: Is all good genre
about the present?
GJ: In a strictly formal sense, yes.
What else would we write about? But I have no problem with setting things
in the future (obviously); and I have no problem with historical fantasy
if it's specific and classy, like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series.
I like it. And tho' all historical detective series get pretty cracked
if they go too often to the well, I really liked the first Lindsey Davis
IE: Is it about extrapolation
of current trends or does it need to be something greater than
GJ: Ideally, you want to base it in current
trends and make a connection with something greater. Like a good song,
or a good haiku, make a statement about the particular, then map it
onto something universal.
IE: Are we coming back
to the 80s fetish with social and urban collapse?
GJ: I don't think social and urban collapse
goes away, it's a perennial favourite in sf&f, especially in the
UK. We're suckers for survivalist-cosy, blitz spirit sort of stories.
And adding a few magic dragons and so forth, as in Mark Chadbourn's
near-future England fantasies, definitely does no harm.
IE: Do you think that
there is a post-Seattle confidence in the notion of protest?
GJ: No, I think there's a growing anger
IE: Were you concerned
that the music would somehow lock the series into a late 1990s and early
GJ: There are several layers to the music.
First there's the sixties classics -- Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley,
John Lennon, The Grateful Dead; music no one should ever forget. Then
there's my own personal experience of helping out at a punk venue (which
you can read about on infinity plus); Brighton
gigging, clubbing; the Urban Free Festivals of the early nineties --
the Levellers' years. Then there's the late 1990s and early 2000s, of
course. Bold As Love volume one has summer-of-1999 written all
through it, complete with the NME gonzo journalism, and I'm happy
to have it like that, although it is dead nostalgic already. Nostalgia
is one of the things rock&roll is all about, in my opinion. The
past, the golden days, the anthems of our lives ...
IE: How much of it
is an influence for you?
GJ: Music means a lot to me, all kinds
of music, but when I embarked on the Bold As Love series I thought it
was a joke, me as a rock-and-roll buff. I just wanted to do it, qualified
or not. Punk taught me this ... Then I started running into the people
who REALLY don't know anything about it. So, well, relatively, it depends
on your point of view. I'm like the Ufologist who doesn't believe, no,
no, no ... but, er, I do keep a couple of scrapbooks. And a special
thing what I put on my head at night, so that I won't get abducted other
than by NICE aliens-
I love music, and I still buy rock cds and even listen to the radio,
and even go out and dance. I think I've really seen the Carling Weekend
for the last time, but it was in 2001. That's the whole story. Read
it in greater detail on the website.
IE: What do you feel
about the apparent New Wave of British Writing that was hailed? Was
it just an extension of the previous New Wave coming back in terms of
GJ: Some of the modern stuff is very
new-wavy. But I think the possibilities for making science fiction relevant
to the present were temporarily played out, and that's why we're now
heavily into the Heinleinish, libertarian space operas, rocketship fantasies
and militarist "boarding school" series. A more sinister interpretation
says that there's been a bit of a regime change, and science fiction
across the board, US and UK, has retreated into the safe territory of
might-is-right, so as not to lose the neo-conservative public. But I
don't think that's happened consciously. I think it's more a winnowing
process. The market decided that the unisex, moral, environmentalist
days of the nineties were over.
IE: Do you see SF in
particular as still an area for boys with their toys?
GJ: The UK SF genre will be an area for
boys and their toys until there's a whole group, or generation, of women
who have significant commercial success, which will earn them publisher
support. While sf is defined as "the sort of science fiction blokes
write", this is, logically, unlikely to happen. But does this matter
to UK sf writing women of today? I'm not sure. If I were them, I'd think
diffusion into the mainstream looked like a more attractive option.
IE: Are you looking
for a different way to express yourself and your ideas?
GJ: I'm looking for something different
with every book I write. But I haven't left anything behind. It's like
evolution, you're never finished with something, you carry your old
preoccupations into the new work, and put them to new uses.
IE: Did you have any
qualms about the use of phases like "Arbeit macht Frei" given its historical
use? Is it just to provoke the reader into thinking?
GJ: For your readers: "Arbeit Macht Frei",
which means "Work Makes You Free", (or, a popular version, Joy Through
Work) was wrought in iron on the gates of Dachau, and of Auschwitz,
the extermination camp in Poland to which Jews were brought, believing
it was a labour camp; and on the gates of other camps. Here's a link
for you (there are plenty more): www.cympm.com/arbeit.html
It's the name of an album brought out by my Techno bad-boy band, who
are operating ( futuristically) somewhere between Rage Against The Machine
and Marilyn Manson. But they come from Cornwall. The Heads use the Auschwitz
quote as a violent, contemptuous, political statement about world capitalism*,
and it makes them muchos dineros. *Or that's what they think they're
doing. They're pretty young.
Qualms? I will tell you a story. When I did the Bold
As Love website, I had some teeshirts made up, just for fun (you
could really buy them, on the merchandising page, and quite a few people
did). I wore one of the Arbeit Macht Frei tees, out and about, in fear
and trembling, wondering what the hell people would say. My genre-fairy
godmother, Tanith Lee, took me severely to task when she saw this (at
a vampire story signing). But the ONLY TIME I got any other comment,
was once on the campus of a Mid West, US university, when a young slacker-looking
bloke walked up to me and said, Freedom Through Work, huh? That's cool!
I kid you not. I can only presume, all the other people who noticed
the significance were too reserved to tar and feather me--
IE: You play with the
idea of spin with Fiorinda's "death" and also the whole conspiracy theory
about the government experiments. A thought towards modern politics?
GJ: Like I said, I'm writing the fantasy
of now. I think you can find these elements in the thousand-page cod-mediaevalers
too, if you take the time to look. Fantasy is like sf, it reflects what's
going on around the writer. I really wish I had time to review more
genre fantasy, and talk about this ...
IE: In Midnight
Lamp, were you reflecting on the US government's last well known
attempt at creating a weapon of mass destruction? You have a distinctly
downbeat view of parts of US society, including the right to bear arms.
Would you care to elaborate?
GJ: I do not have a downbeat view
of US society! Far from it! I think they castigate themselves unecessarily,
and valorise (is that a word?) Europe far above what we deserve. If
you want a downbeat view of the State of the Union, you should try some
of my US correspondents right now. Or I could provide a few links ...
such Common Dreams, or the Viridian Pope Emperor (that's Bruce Sterling),
or the Wildlife Trust, for heaven's sake. As for the right to bear arms
... well, you know, I'm writing about the future of now, and trying
to tell it, for better or for worse, the way it looks, not the way it
should be (I'm free of the straitjacket of sf). But you may have noticed,
at least one of my main characters is a little bit gun-crazy. I think
one out of three is fair.
© Iain Emsley 2003.
The mass market paperback of Castles Made of Sand and the hardback
of Midnight Lamp are published in the UK by Gollancz on 20 November 2003.
Order online using these links and infinity
plus will benefit:
Bold as Love: from
Amazon.com / from
Castles Made of Sand: from
Amazon.com / from
Midnight Lamp: from
Amazon.com / from
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the