It’s Women in SF week over at Torque Control, and they’re posting the top ten SF books written by women over the last decade. Coming in at #10 is Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones, which I read a few weeks ago and have been meaning to blog about… so it seems an opportune time.
This is the book that, infamously, Tansy threw across the room when she got to the end and discovered it wasn’t a standalone novel. And I can understand that; I was halfway through it before she told me it was this one, and I too had just assumed it would stand alone. Truthfully, I think it could: there’s a huge messy pile of unresolved issues by the end of the book, but it’s done in such a way that actually I don’t feel a burning need to go find the next FOUR BOOKS. Well… that’s kind of a lie. I really really want to know what happens to my guys, but it’s a delicious sense of anticipation, not a burning MUST HAVE RESOLUTION NOW GETOUTOFMYWAY feeling.
Anyway. I was amazed to discover the book was only written in 2001; I thought it would prove to be much older. As Torque Control point out, it feels like it’s rooted in 1971 – the music, the festivals, etc. At the same time there are definite aspects that make it very modern – and those are mostly the same aspects which, when I thought about them carefully, contribute to the science fictional feel. (More on that later.) So it’s set at some time in the near future when the United Kingdom is splintering into separate countries, and a music festival has been organised to mark Dissolution. From this, essentially, come the main players in the novel – all musicians of one stripe or another – who end up being involved in politics. This seemingly-natural transition was, for me, the one aspect that didn’t sit comfortably. Perhaps it’s because I’m not very aware of the counter-culture movement in the UK (or Australia for that matter), and maybe they have, or could be imagined in the near future to have, this sort of political clout. It’s a minor quibble, though; after all, it’s sf/fantasy, and sometimes they require a bit of a leap.
Sf/fantasy? Well. Yes. When Tansy mentioned that it’s part of a series, she also mentioned that the fantastic elements become more pronounced over the series, and I can already see areas in which that can happen. But it is also definitely science fictional: there’s advanced technology in some areas, for example, and anyway it’s set in the future. I know that’s not a hard&fast guarantee of sf – just look at Michael Chadbourn – but it’s still there. In fact I think it’s one of the most fascinating meta-aspects of the book: it’s so genre, but… why does it have that feel? I don’t know, and I’m slowly coming to the realisation that actually, I don’t care about classifications so much. It’s a GOOD BOOK.
The plot, then, revolves around what happens to England (mostly) after Dissolution. There are social issues – such as the impact of a large Muslim minority; environmental issues – mostly around sustainability – which also tie into technological ideas; political issues – exactly what would happen if you put a bunch of counter-cultural musicians in a position of power? – and lots&lots of personal issues. After all, even when society is collapsing around you, in reality the thing that’s most likely to concern individuals is Does s/he like me? Who are my friends? What’s going to happen to me?
This is actually the first Gwyneth Jones book I’ve managed to get through, of two attempted: I gave up on Escape Plans pretty early on. And she is nasty to her characters! I don’t think there’s a single undamaged person in the entire ensemble. Thing is, the damage doesn’t make you want to cry for them, usually; instead, it turns them into quite hard characters, who would be utterly contemptuous of anyone even thinking of being sympathetic. Fiorinda is the sort of woman (girl, really, she’s a teenager – at least in years) who would fascinate me in real life but probably repel at the same time: she’s cynical and hard, and I’d be way too soft for her. She makes for an intriguing, and contradictory, main character. The main two male characters essentially revolve around her. I love Sage: he’s totally anarchic and narcissistic, while also being tender and considerate and generally awesome – plus his stage shows sound like they’d blow your head off. And Ax… well. He’s Mick Jagger and Jim Morrisson and David Bowie. And Bono and Bob Geldof too. I really really liked him, but I think Sage is still my favourite because he’s a bit more… human. And he’d hate me for saying it.
It’s a marvellous book. It deals with gender issues, social issues, and political issues. It wraps all of those things into the equivalent of the most awesome three-day music festival in the mud; you can’t let go, you can’t go home, you have to see it through. I have two copies (by accident) and I’m seriously thinking about keeping both of them.
One of the most interesting things about this book as an object is that nowhere (that I could find) does it mention that James Tiptree Jr is actually Alice Sheldon. Neither, though, is there any personal pronoun used for the author. This is really only interesting when you know something about the history of Tiptree, I guess, but it is revealing. It came out in 1985, which puts it only a couple of years before Tiptree’s death and several after s/he had been ‘outed’ as Alice Sheldon. So was the publisher trying to cash in on the Tiptree name and people now knowing the ‘truth’? Was it Sheldon/Tiptree’s decision? I’d be fascinated to know.
Going in, I thought this would have some of the terribly interesting gender discussions that many of Tiptree’s short stories have, and that – combined of course with the reality of Tiptree’s life – led to the Wiscon award for gender-bending in SF/fantasy being named after her. However, it’s not there. This isn’t to say anything against the story itself, which I’ll get to, but it was something of a surprise for me. There are awesome female characters; a female in command of a base, who is never questioned by the males under her, and a bunch of other women playing vastly different roles from one another – very few of the female characters or their dialogue had me cringing, which is laudable. There’s a homosexual relationship that’s neither more nor less obvious than the hetero ones… and everyone is referred to by the same honorific…. hmm. Ok. Maybe it actually is quite gender-subversive, or at least was for 1985.
There is a certain attitude in books and films that I – no doubt derivatively – refer to as the Agatha Christie Vibe. A group of people get together somewhere nice, mostly unknown to each other, and you just know that something very bad is going to happen. Brightness Falls from the Air, by James Tiptree Jr, is strong in that vibe. A planet where few humans live in order to monitor (in a good way) the indigenous sentients is about to experience a phenomenal cosmic event, and a select few tourists get to land for the show. Hello, sinister vibe.
I’ll admit, somewhat guiltily now, that I went into this book not entirely sure that I was going to enjoy it, but figuring it would be worthwhile because yo, it’s Tiptree, right? Yes, well. This is one of the best action-SF books I’ve read in a long, long time. The characters are awesome, the plot is skilfully drawn and brilliantly brought together, the worldbuilding is exquisite, and the issues it addresses – because there are some – are relevant and not overdone. Also, the writing: I could Not. Put. It. Down.
Whoever would have thought that a book which includes kiddie p0rn could have me waxing so lyrical?
Yeh. Kiddie p0rn. When I realised what was going on I was initially horrified – and, honestly, still am. It’s not a major focus of the book, but I have to put it out there, as I imagine it was picked up by contemporary reviewers. So: there’s a group of four teenagers who, with their manager, are among the tourists who arrive on the planet. It’s clear from the outset that they are TV-equivalent stars. But it’s only maybe a third of the way through that you discover there’s a sexual element to their stardom, and that there has been for a number of years. There are a number of fascinating things about this element, which account for why it didn’t immediately make me want to throw the book across the room. For a start, the manager is not the one exploiting them – he’s sympathetic, and looks after them as well as he can. For another, they’re mostly doing p0rn with each other; there’s a vague suggestion that they have been in such situations with adults, but it’s unclear. The main thing that makes this… not acceptable, because it is still horrendous, and Tiptree never suggests that it’s a good thing, but… easier to read about, is the adolescents themselves. They don’t suggest it’s a wonderful life; they’re pragmatic about their careers; and it’s never actually a central element of the story. I don’t think I’ve explained this at all well, to be honest, but all I can say is: despite its presence, I am not hesitating to recommend the book.
So, the characters. They’re marvellously entertaining. There’s an aloof one, a slightly crazy one, the teens, an on-the-surface pleasant one, sensible and earnest ones – and all of them, basically, are given interesting backgrounds, sound motives for all of their actions, complex and intriguing interactions with everyone else, and individuality. Seriously, Tiptree was a master at characterisation. There’s maybe one character who doesn’t get much explanation overall, but that’s not bad in such a large ensemble.
The plot? As I said, there’s an Agatha Christie vibe: something is clearly going to go disastrously wrong. And it does… in fact, several things do. I anticipated one of them, but the other major plot point was totally unexpected – in a good way: it made perfect sense, and upon revelation I could see where Tiptree had been leading up to it by stealth. And the two disasters weave around one another, without tripping the other up. One is an intensely personal disaster, while the other is on a more mercenary level, which is really nice; they deal with different issues and allow Tiptree to explore different reactions, emotions, and all that stuff.
Finally, there’s a really interesting element of, essentially, post-colonial critique, particularly at the very end. I have no idea whether Tiptree was into literary theory – I should hurry up and read that bio I guess – but I know post-colonialism was starting to be discussed at around the time the book was published. There are aliens on this planet, and they were terribly abused by humans in the past. Now, humans have taken it on themselves to try and rectify that… but of course, that’s still a colonial, paternalistic attitude, assuming the aliens are completely incapable of looking after themselves. Towards the end, then, there’s a suggestion of how this could change. It’s neat.
It should be clear that I adored this book, of course. It’s brilliantly paced, full of awesome characters, deals with meaty issues without getting moralistic, ponderous, or annoying, and the plot is just wonderful.