No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Interview: Gwyneth Jones, August 2008

This interview took place in August 2008, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #260, July 2009), the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: You have a new novel coming soon. Why's it called Spirit?
GJ: Because Gollancz didn't like The Princess of Bois Dormant -- maybe they thought it was difficult to pronounce. I'd just finished reviewing Iain Banks's Matter so I immediately suggested Spirit. And it just so happens that there is an Aleutian pod in this book, which is called the Spirit of '89, and so it gets called Spirit for short. As some of you may vaguely remember, Aleutian artifacts are sentient, so it's a person. And so Spirit it is, though I shall try to rescue The Princess of Bois Dormant when I get to proofs.
TB: Perhaps Gollancz thought that title sounded like a fantasy novel -- but this is SF, isn't it?
GJ: Yes, I think so. It's got spaceships, starfighters ...
TB: A princess?
GJ: It's certainly got a princess.
TB: And Aleutians: what are the Aleutians doing here?
GJ: Not to mention Li Xi-Feng. Ever since I wrote Escape Plans, a bit more than 20 years ago, I've been thinking about the problem of getting out of here. It's a common science fictional theme, and I do not believe that conventional space travel can do it. If you have a lot of money and thousands and thousands of years, maybe you can terraform Mars. So I've been thinking about how to traverse those ridiculous distances, and trying to come up with a fantasy mechanism, that would do that, and a series of events that would explain why and that would cover the how: how do we get there from here. I was brought up by cyberpunks, and cyberpunks taught me that you must not write science fiction that does not have a conceivable backstory. So I had to think of a way. I started in Escape Plans and then I worked on it through the Aleutian trilogy, White Queen and North Wind and Phoenix Cafe, figuring out the ideas of instantaneous transit which are invented by somebody called Peenemunde Buonarotti. Having figured out how it would operate, I wrote Bold as Love. In the Bold as Love sequence, I track through all five books the development of mind/matter tech. The main scientific idea in that sequence is breaking the mind/matter barrier. After writing the Aleutian trilogy, I'd always intended to go on and describe the world after the Buonarotti transit, but I didn't actually have to make it continuous with the previous books. It could have been some completely different future with instantaneous transit that was the Buonarotti transit under another name.

There are many things that have from time to time annoyed me about space opera, but the one thing that has always got me down as a reader and as a prospective writer is that gap. It's not the foreseeable future, it's way over the horizon: hundreds of years away, sometimes thousands of years away. There's this massive discontinuity, and I can't pretend it's not there. You could invent a potted history -- this is the Dune solution, pages and pages of italics explaining what happened in the 300 years between here and there. I didn't like that, and neither did I like the thing where there's a discontinuity but nobody in the book recognises it: they're all quoting Bob Dylan and A level physics from the 20th century.

So when I came to write the Buonarotti book, after having done a little suite of Buonarotti stories to get myself into the frame, I decided that hell, I've got this backstory, I'll use it. Nobody who hasn't read the Aleutian books or the Bold as Love books will even notice. they'll just get a few names which are unfamiliar to them because they're the history of these people. But I'll know and it'll save me from falling into that gap or getting niggled by having to quote Bob Dylan. So when you read Spirit (or The Princess of Bois Dormant) you will find that the history of the Aleutians ruling Earth, the human renaissance and how humans first invented the Buonarotti transit and then 300 years later rediscovered it. You'll find that far back in the distant past the Earth -- which is known as the Blue planet for obvious reasons -- was united by the first emperor, a woman called Li Xi-Feng who is possibly still living at the time of Bibi's adventures. And that's why the Aleutians are in the book.

TB: You mentioned the suite of stories: one of those generated a certain amount of controversy.

GJ: 'The Fulcrum', yes. 'The Fulcrum' is set on the Kuiper Belt station called the Panhandle, which will eventually become Speranza. It hasn't got Aleutians in it, because I decided that was too much weight for a short story, but it's set at the changeover between conventional spacers who have been struggling along -- asteroid miners, B-movie actors doing virtual avatar stuff on Mars -- they've been struggling along through the Aleutian empire and the Aleutians' disinterest, and now the Buonarotti transit is being developed and all the conventional spacers are doomed. They're slaves of microgravity, they can't afford to go back to Earth because they can't afford the hospital fees to get them up and running again. 'The Fulcrum' is the story of that tradition. I think of it as a Hemingway sort of story but I also think of it as a Light sort of story. If I had the nerve I would have dedicated it to Mr Harrison, because I read Light and I thought of 'The Fulcrum'. The story was quite popular and it appeared in lots of venues. And one day I found a review of it on a site called Guns and Gangstas, which is a UK gun lobby site, which spooked me considerably. (There was another review on a porn site, but the review was all about oral sex and I didn't think it was that offensive.) But the Guns and Gangstas review was tearing into 'The Fulcrum' because it didn't have any guns in it. It kind of spooked me because I thought, 'this has to be a science fiction fan who is also a gun lobbyist and who got annoyed enough at my story -- which isn't exactly non-violent -- that they reviewed it at length on this non-SF site': and so, as I said in my blog, I took to sleeping with my water pistol under my pillow. And after I wrote that blog post the review disappeared.
TB: That leads us on to a more expansive question about the new space opera: whether or not space opera does support the big military machine. It's something you discussed in your review of Iain M. Banks' Matter.
GJ: As I said in the review of Matter, people now think that Iain Banks' Culture novels were an immediate critical and popular hit. They were not. They were unfashionable. But the thing about space opera coming back into fashion is that I saw it as very much a retrograde step. The conventional space opera certainly takes as its premise, in most cases, an environment of permanent warfare. The characters are either military or mercenary, or they are on the fringes of the military / mercenary world. I didn't like that view of the distant future. I'd previously concentrated on the near future; I didn't want science fiction to return to the Gernsback continuum.
For a while I didn't take to it and then, y'know, everybody's doing it. It's like miniskirts. When miniskirts first came out I thought 'never in a million years', and then, y'know, the hem of your skirt starts creeping upwards because everybody's doing it. In the end, I was thinking, 'I'd quite like to write space opera'. And of course the Buonarotti device meant that eventually I would have to write a space opera, but it wouldn't be such a full-on space opera if space opera had not become fashionable in the meantime. If you should come to read Spirit (or The Princess of Bois Dormant) you'll find out what I mean. There's no pretending that it's anything else.
TB: OK, so you're addressing the inherent themes of space opera in Spirit, but you're also reinterpreting them, approaching them from the non-fiction side as a critic. This year the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) recognised your criticism by conferring the Pilgrim Award. Congratulations! As you said on your blog, you hadn't really expected any sort of critical acclaim for your criticism.
GJ: I don't know when I became a respected critic!
TB: Do you see the fiction and the criticism as two ways of addressing issues in science fiction? What's the relation between the two?
GJ: In a recent SFX poll I was described as a hippie, and I think that's the politest thing they could think of to say about what I am. What I am is an intellectual. Whatever I was doing I would be thinking about it, thinking hard and getting into it. So naturally since I write science fiction, I also think about science fiction, and occasionally I write about what I'm thinking about. I didn't ever set out to write criticism, it was always triggered by something. I've often wanted to be a fly on the wall at conferences where things interesting to science fiction are happening, and a good way to do that is to present a paper. So I've presented papers at a Computers and Writing conference; at a conference about the governance of cyberspace; at a conference about biopolitics. This is the way you get to sit there and listen, and if you're lucky you get to hear the corridor talk as well. There was always something like that behind my critical work: somebody gave me a nudge and I wrote something.
When I reviewed Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, as I said in my Pilgrim acceptance speech, I didn't know that I was breaking any boundaries. It would be impossible now, but when I wrote that review in 1994 I didn't know what I was supposed to think. It would nowadays be well-nigh impossible for a science fiction writer to pick up a significant new novel and not know what they were supposed to think about it. That's the internet explosion for you. You can turn off your broadband and shut down your email and be pure, but if you're living in the internet world you're bound to know what other people think because, to a great extent, that's where science fiction and the science fiction community happens now -- on the internet. My review of Snow Crash may have poked fun at it a little, and it was a cat among the pigeons review.
TB: You've said that criticism and fiction come from exploring the same areas. What do you think is the difference between criticism and reviewing?
GJ: Reviewing is part of the publishing machine. It's a means of promoting and selling books. That's what publishers believe, that's what a great many writers believe, and that's what the public tacitly accepts. Criticism is a disinterested commentary on the genre. It lives in the chinks of the reviewing machine.
Reviewing books is a shockingly corrupt business: it always has been and it always will be. You can't blame the publishers and the writers. The gateway to success is very narrow and many writers and many publishers take it for granted that schmoozing the reviewer, trashing the opposition, c'est la guerre. You can try to be as honest as you possibly can. You try to be clean. I think to try and see yourself as cleaning the Augean stables, that's an error. Reviewing will go on being corrupt whatever people do. Some people love writing critical studies of novels, and they will be honest because it's what they enjoy. If you've got a reviewer or a critic who really likes the sound of their own voice then they're going to have more respect for the integrity of their own writing than they have for the commercial interests involved.
All reviewers are biased. If you are a person who likes to read reviews then you soon discover a person's bias by reading a few of their reviews.
TB: There's fiction and there's criticism: there's also a strong thread in your work of science.
GJ: I've been a long-time science groupie. If I'd been able to pass my Maths 'O' level I would probably have gone into plant biology. That's the trade I gave my scientist heroine in Life, because I knew something about it and I could lead her through the first steps of it without killing myself with research. I'd have been a scientist, and by now I'd probably be some sort of administrator, pushing paper around. I'm good at it. Since I didn't go into science I remained a groupie, and I like reading scientific papers and books, like thinking about the next big thing: and this is where I have a disagreement with Geoff Ryman and his Mundane SF because I think anybody who has the slightest acquaintance with modern beliefs about cosmology ... I mean, mundane just does not cover it. The things that people believe about how the universe was formed, whether it was formed, are just completely bizarre. As I tried to discuss in the Bold as Love books, new science gets buried in the applied technology and we never think about it. If you actually thought about what a transistor is and does, you'd be spooked, because it's weird. Unimaginable strangeness seems to me to be unavoidable in science. Of course you don't have to think about it. You can just use it as cookery; put the ingredients, shake 'em around, see whether you've got the right kind of particles. But if you actually think about it then it's very bizarre. I like science for that reason, and I like trying to think about things like mind/matter tech. The state of high-energy physics at the moment is ludicrous, it seems likely that it's ripe for a revolution. My imaginary version of this revolution is breaking the mind/matter barrier, getting to a point where there's some kind of experiment that will prove that our perception of the universe and the material universe itself are on some level continuous.
TB: Can you say a bit about the 'When It Changed' project?
GJ: I don't actually know much about it yet myself. Geoff Ryman works for Manchester University now, and this summer he started a project: the net result is supposed to be an anthology of stories which are triggered by several different science fiction writers shadowing several different scientists. I can't remember who else in it apart from Geoff himself. If you picked up anything about how the Buonarotti transit works, you'll see it makes sense for me to have picked on the chap that does particle accelerators. Whether he'll think it makes sense is a very big part of the question! You couldn't really expect the scientists to choose their science fiction writers -- most of them may have read Asimov, and they may like Doctor Who, but modern print science fiction would be a totally closed book to them. Each of the writers picked a scientist we liked (Geoff moderated somehow so that nobody got scrappy) and the idea is that you study your scientist's work insofar as your tiny brain allows you to do so, you take a trip to visit your scientist and then you write a story. Your scientist in some way moderates this story -- I don't know how that's going to work -- and then it goes into this anthology. That's all I know so far. I haven't actually made second contact with my particle accelerator chap. He's got a lot of stuff, PowerPoint presentations, on the web, and I am going to look at them and see if I can make anything of them, see if I can pick up a few key words before I go and see him. And then we'll see what happens. I haven't got a story in mind. I feel that in this instance it would be a mistake to have a story in mind, especially since I don't know why Geoff called the anthology 'When It Changed'. 'When It Changed' is a highly significant ancient feminist science fiction story. (When I say ancient, more than five years ago.)
I don't usually write short stories: usually it takes me a year to write a short story. But I'll think of something: a wing and a prayer.
TB: What else do you have in progress?

GJ: There's Spirit, which is allegedly being published 29th December. I've also got a short story collection called Grazing the Long Acre with PS Publishing. Grazing the Long Acre is the title of a story which was in Interzone about 20 years ago, and it involves whores on the roadsides of one of the great roads of Europe. 'Grazing the long acre' is a term which I know from Ireland, but it's also known in pretty much the same words -- Polish words -- in Poland, which is where the story is set. What it means is, if you've got a cow and you ain't got a field then you take her out to graze the long acre, the verges of the road. It's like living in the chinks of the world's machine only different, less whiny. I was going to call the collection Gravegoods because that was the most ancient Buonarotti device story, but Gravegoods is such a conventional name it started to annoy me, so I changed it to Grazing the Long Acre. That's supposed to come out at the end of 2008.
TB: What about non-fiction, and critical works?
GJ: I keep a blog intermittently. It isn't a proper blog, it doesn't have anything remotely blog-like about it, it's just occasional diary entries. Occasionally I'm accepting books for review from Strange Horizons, and that's about it. As far as I can remember I haven't got any non-fiction I'm working on at the moment. I'm working on an Ann Halam novel, a Gothic novel with a spooky house and happenings which may be supernatural but really they aren't.
[Audience] You referred to an extraordinary novel you wrote a few years back, Life, which had a bit of a problem finding a UK publisher despite winning awards in America. Yet suddenly you're releasing a space opera which seems very far removed from what you normally write.
GJ: I haven't found a UK publisher for Light and I think it's too late now, it'll never be published here. Writing a space opera is ... what can I say, it's all the same to me. I have to come to like the idea of writing a space opera so I wrote one. My last project was a rock'n'roll fantasy: before that it was the Aleutian trilogy, and I don't know what you'd call that: then Kairos, Escape Plans, Divine Endurance. All my books are different, I don't have a specialism: I suppose in some ways I'm a dedicated follower of fashion. Space opera's fashionable, write space opera.
[Audience] One of the things I like about the Aleutian trilogy and the Bold as Love sequence was how tightly bound they were to the present, to this planet Earth now, the ways people think and live on this planet now. Are you trying to escape from that in Spirit?
GJ: The second book I wrote was called Escape Plans: I'm always trying to escape! But I spoke earlier about establishing continuity. To be comfortable writing Spirit I needed social continuity. When you read it, you will or should find it mentally continous with the worlds that I'd imagined, with the futures I'd imagined in the Aleutian trilogy and in the Bold as Love sequence -- in reverse order of course.
[Audience] Some scientists believe there isn't a continuity, that we can't get there from here
GJ: I've made myself more comfortable as a writer by using my previous fiction to give myself a fictional continuity.
[Audience] When you were last here talking about Bold as Love, you admitted committing trilogy or worse. Are you doing the same for Spirit, or is it a one-off?
GJ: It won't necessarily be a one-off. This is a space opera. There won't be a sequel to Spirit but there could easily be books set in the same universe. It's got legs, it's an experiment. There's five central worlds: I could write a book set on each. I could do Culture-novel continuity.
TB: Are you planning on writing any more stories in the Bold as Love series?

GJ: Originally I thought that I would write a four-volume novel and the fifth volume would be long afterwards. As it happened, it ended up a five-volume novel and I don't know if I'll ever get the chance to write the 'long afterwards' story. But there's a long short story that I probably will write called 'Stone Free' and featuring the same characters and some new ones.
[Audience] How independent is Ann Halam from Gwyneth Jones?
GJ: Not really independent at all. I can't tell the difference between the books. I know one way in which they are very different. I get very little editorial assistance with Gwyneth Jones books, and I never have since Rainer Unwin and I spent a really long time -- before some of you were born -- duking it out over the body of Divine Endurance. Since then the Gwyneth Jones books haven't had much editorial input. The Ann Halam books are committee books. It's a cooperative venture. I pitch an idea, and we go to and fro with it, and at every turn I'm saying 'what d'you think, shall I do this?' and my editor, my American editor, my agent -- on one occasion my American editor's cleaning lady, I tell no lie -- say 'but why don't do you do this?' and I say 'I'll think about it'. I'm very happy writing that way, it's very interesting, but that's the difference, and if the difference between the voice of Ann Halam and that of Gwyneth Jones is small then maybe it's because I have multiple personality disorder and all my books are written by committee anyway, I'm just not aware of it except with the Ann Halam ones.
[Audience] Back in 2003 you said you thought SF was 'claustrophobic': do you still believe that?
GJ: I certainly can't remember saying it. Science fiction can be claustrophobic because it's such a small world. 'Sci-fi' is a major part of mainstream culture. Everybody loves 'sci-fi'. But SF is a very small world and it's got this oppositional relationship with sci-fi, and I think that's probably what I meant: it's a ghetto mentality. Writing the Bold as Love books I didn't feel claustrophobic as a writer. I didn't feel I was constrained by the difference between science fiction and fantasy, or the rules about writing about the near future, and writing Spirit -- there *is* something, I hate to have to admit it, about those wide open spaces between the stars that's very liberating. People flying around ... not really all over the galaxy, much less all over the universe, but there's a lot of space, and space opera is a place where you can play and not feel constrained.
[Audience] One of your talents as a writer is showing other ways of looking at what's happening.
GJ: This is something that has dogged my footsteps or my typewritten words since White Queen, at least, when I decided that I would make the Aleutians speak with my voice, and I found them called the most alien beings that had graced science fiction in years. So that maybe answers your question: I don't make it up, I do see the world differently, and asking me how to calibrate how exactly I see the world differently -- well, that's why I write the novels, to try and find out for myself.

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