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Playing the Power Chords of SF: A Conversation With Gwyneth Jones
Part 2 of an interview with David Soyka
January 2004

© Gwyneth Jones
Gwyneth Jones
Gwyneth Jones
Born in Manchester, Gwyneth Jones is a winner of both the World Fantasy Award and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. As well, she is a two-time nominee for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her other books include Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. Before moving back to England, she lived in Singapore, with her travels in Southern India and parts of Southeast Asia providing her with inspiration for several of her books.

Bold as Love Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dr. Franklin's Island by Ann Halam
SF Site Review: Bold as Love
SF Site Review: Phoenix Café
SF Site Review: Phoenix Café
SF Site Review: North Wind
Phoenix Café Interview
The Literary Criticism of Gwyneth Jones
Another Review of North Wind
Midnight Lamp Web Site
Gwyneth Jones Books for Sale

Bold as Love
Castles Made of Sand
Midnight Lamp
White Queen
North Wind
Phoenix Café
Seven Tales and a Fable
Divine Endurance
Deconstructing the Starship
Dr. Franklin's Island

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |


The latest novel from Gwyneth Jones is Midnight Lamp, third in the Bold As Love series of a near-future of technological mayhem, political upheaval and magical conflict in which a triumvirate of rock stars -- Fiorinda Slater, Ax Preston and Sage Pender -- leverage their popular images towards achieving social and civic change while fending off forces of darkness. The novels are infused with themes of Arthurian romance, Celtic lore, mysticism, neuroscience, the Hollywood star machine, and, rock 'n roll (the novel titles are all taken from Jimi Hendrix songs), among other tropes that cross genre boundaries, from science fiction, fantasy and horror to the detective and road novel. Jones is also the author of James Tiptree Memorial Award co-winner White Queen, and sequels North Wind and Phoenix Café; Divine Endurance, Escape Plans, Kairos, and Flowerdust. Bold as Love won the Arthur C.Clarke Award; the story collection Seven Tales and a Fable won two World Fantasy awards. As Ann Halam, she has written a number of young adult novels, the latest being Dr. Franklin's Island, a retelling of the H.G. Wells classic Island of Dr. Moreau. A collection of SF criticism and reviews is contained in Deconstructing the Starships. New out in the US this year is Life, a novel about a woman scientist who makes a weird discovery, published by Timmi Duchamp and Kathryn Willham of Aqueduct Press.

Your literary references are multi-media, encompassing not just rock music, but movies, classical literature, politics, and pop culture in general. You also go to some pains to provide readers with your source material, which is extensive. Why do you feel the need to do that, as opposed to making the English majors out there chase the allusions down on their own? Do you perhaps imagine a young reader who maybe hasn't heard much Hendrix, or read Rimbaud, using your stories as a springboard to explore your inspirations?

It started with the maniacally detailed Acknowledgments, and then it snowballed. I've always been interested in hypertexting my sources the old fashioned way, by giving people the references so they could look it up for themselves. Maybe it's because long ago I probably would have made an academic or a teacher, except I took the wrong turning... Maybe it's because SF/F is so patently a work of copying and developing: transforming older material and material from other disciplines.

It's my observation that while some people find stories, songs, or poems full of opaque cultural references unproblematic, others feel dissatisfied. I'm definitely in the latter group, I want to know what the words mean, and I believe that goes for many SF/F fans. All of my references will be opaque to some people, especially younger readers, (Claude Shannon, anybody?). Some of my references will be opaque to all the people, (the scene at the Saigon hospital in The Deer Hunter, and how it connects with one of the last scenes in Castles Made of Sand); so I do helpful links. It's random, it's scratching the surface, but it breaks a barrier to do this, it demonstrates that the novel is not a sealed, black box, it has connections and innards.

Continuing with the notion of multimedia, despite much talk about the death of paper and hyper-text, your website is much more than the typical short author interview and bio with a where do you buy this book link. It's a place to find more about the above mentioned references, even get song lyrics and other bits and pieces that don't appear in the book but extend the story a bit. Why do use the website in this way and why do you think most other authors, even those in the SF biz who'd you'd think would embrace it, don't.
When the internet came along, and web publishing got to be idiot-proof, doing the hypertexting on a webpage was a natural progression. It was very useful for the Aleutian Trilogy, where I was often invoking art works; very visual. I could say (this is still posted, on the SF page of the Gwyneth Jones site), you know that Renoir picture on p217 of Phoenix Café, so illuminating for Clavel/Catherine's alien view of human culture? Well, here it is (click). The Bold As Love pages started as a spoof rock band site, a kind of promotion idea -- with fake band profiles, real merchandising and impossible quizzes, sorry pop-pickers. Plus it was a place to display the character portraits Bryan Talbot had done for me. I don't think anybody took any notice of the promotion aspect; except, a few people actually ordered the tee shirts (at which I had to slash the prices). But the site's become an end in itself since then. I do it for art. It's my hobby, the only handicraft I've ever discovered that is forgiving enough for my abysmal handicraft skills. I think of it as a kind of digital quilting.

I can't bear the thought of someone else writing or designing my web pages for me; but then, there isn't a horde of Gwyneth Jones geeks making the offer, so it's an easy choice. A good reason why most other writers don't do what I do would be that web sites are fiddly, frustrating and they eat your spare time. You have to be fairly obsessive by nature.

While all three books in your current could be read as standalones, Midnight Lamp is most obviously a link to a future volume, much like the second bridging book in a trilogy. But this being the third in the sequence, do you have the number of book and story arc already planned, or are you thinking about it as you go along?
Funny you should say that: other people have found the ending of the latest one more ambiguous, and wondered if they were just going to ride off into the sunset. (Which is a nice idea, in a way). The reviewer in The Guardian (UK newspaper), convinced Midnight Lamp was the last book in a trilogy, complimented the witty ending. No, there's more. I know how many books and where it's going. But also yes, I'm thinking it out as I go along, feeding responses I get back into the story; adding to it, changing the angles. But there's an old hand-written document, circa 1998, which I recently rediscovered, that gives the original plan. I was surprised to find how much of the whole thing was apparently mapped out right back then.

Given the length of the series, you regularly provide "bookmark summaries" to remind or inform readers of what's happened in previous installments. On the one hand, it may be necessary to keep a reader "up-to-date" who is not following the sequence, and, given that at least a year has passed between volumes, even the "experienced" reader might need a reminder or two of what's previously happened. Still, it can at times be a bit "clunky." Is this device something urged upon you by editors, or is it just something you feel can't be avoided? In what ways is it preferable to an introductory "The Story So Far" summary?
Clunky. Oooh, you think? Now I'm mortified. Ah well, it can't be helped: maybe I'll improve in time. I do it because my editor asks me to, because it's traditional in serial fantasy, and also because I've grown to like the idea. It's the way people's minds work in real life, after all. We all recapitulate things, going over things that were important in our lives, it's how we maintain our idea of ourselves. Plus, you can present the same events from a different angle, from someone else's point of view, or show how the significance has changed over the passage of time. At their best, catch-up passages should be like repetition in music (music is based on repetition, did you ever notice that?: repetition, resolution, and variation, which is another form of repetition). But essentially they're there for use, above ornament. I've come to feel they should be very straightforward. It's like those dialogue verbs, the desperate struggle for variety that most writers abandon in the end. Plain "he said"; "she said" is practical, easy to grasp, and more stylish.

I once heard a chastened young writer say, "it is impossible to underestimate the amount of attention the average reader gives to your book", (Simon Ings, actually); and this is a true word. Tho' people may vaguely notice the overall, pleasing effect of attentive writing, they rarely read with attention. I've known SF/F reviewers even complain, naïvely, about a book -- such as White Queen -- where you can't skip, you actually have to read every page or you won't get it. It's a question of Mohammed and the mountain. I don't want to give up the pleasure of writing every page with care, and making every sentence matter, so I try to be generous to the readers in reminding them of bits they might have skipped, or where they might have been drifting off.

You've presumably written some of the lyrics for songs from the Rock Triumvirate. Any thoughts of strapping on a guitar yourself and being a rock star? Any possibility of a performer who might be interested in assuming one -- or all -- of your rock star persona's for a musical version of the books?
You mean on the website? Of course I wrote them, who did you think? Me, Emily Bronte: making up the love songs of Gondal. I use scraps of my stars' lyrics very sparingly in the text, for obvious reasons, but they have to exist... You read them? And I thought I was the obsessive. No, I do not see myself donning a guitar, tho' I can find a chord or two. As for the performer, actually I had an e-mail from Dido last week, she wants to record 'Love Is Like Water'. Or was it 'Pain'? I dunno though. The woman's an MOR chanteuse if there ever was one. I'm thinking about it.

Only kidding.

What about a movie? Do you think these, or any of your novels, could be adapted to the properly and respectfully adapted to the big screen?
I see the Bold As Love books more as TV material, a long-running TV serial, say a series per volume. That would be very nice, though I can't pretend it's likely. Sometimes our UK serials are wonderful. I don't see the books as translating well into movies: too many strands. But in a way, secretly, I think Bold As Love (the first volume) is already a movie. The legend of the Dissolution, Hollywood version, with great chunks of the story left out or simplified and a bewildering thunder of terrible events smoothed into the classic boy-meets-destiny arc. I've played around with that idea a little in Midnight Lamp, where certain events in the first book are revealed in a different light, and contrasted with the prospective "feel-good" movie.

Properly and respectfully? Now you're having a laugh, as we say in my country.

In Midnight Lamp, the Rock Triumvirate "audition" for a movie about their lives -- a movie the would-be actors already know will be inaccurate, but they could use the cash -- which involves the creation of avatars that will do the actual acting. They're just licensing their likenesses to be used as the studio feels fit. While this is perhaps a metaphor for the typical "by-the-numbers" Hollywood blockbuster, it's interesting to note that Frank Sinatra recently played Radio City Hall via holographic projection. Stranger than fiction? Do you think this is the type of science fiction that could become fact, or are you presenting a metaphorical critique of the state of the medium?
It's nice that "hologram shadows" of megastars should have been on the stage in real life almost before Bold As Love was on the stacks, but it was on the cards, a recorded voice, a recorded image... The way the virtual movies work (the huge hangar of "Inventory C" where the artificers build things like full size fake oak trees, so they can be zapped into digital form) is supposed to be about the preposterous days of Hollywood, the bizarre, perverse fakery of those giant back lot sets. But real virtual movies are certainly on their way. My SF writer educated guess would be that there will be "avatars" of the stars, and the stars will hang on to their share of the pie; but there won't be any tanks of goo. And ordinary mortal movie actors will be in a bad fix.

The neuroscience/applications of the immix effects is probably the metaphorical critique part. But it's also a serious -- metaphorical -- suggestion about where the union of information space science (I didn't make up that part, of course), and digital technology, might really be heading.

In Midnight Lamp, the auteur Janelle has an unfulfilled movie project about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, and on your website you say she is the American you most admire. Why so?
No, that's not what it says on the website. The site has a quote from Midnight Lamp where Janelle is saying Eleanor Roosevelt was the greatest American who ever lived. (Ax, on the other hand, seems to think that was her husband). There's a difference: I'm not Janelle, or Ax. I'm just the author. But the reason why Janelle, Black American woman who's a movie auteur, hungering and thirsting after freedom to excel, should admire Eleanor Roosevelt is not far to seek; and it's true she did have a great deal to do with founding the UN; among other useful public works. And however cynical one may be about that great US organization, and its role in the world, it's still (so far) a sight better than no UN at all.

In your fantasy, the mix between politics and celebrityhood is, for the most part, a positive one. Yet in real-life, the emphasis on celebrity in politics at the expense of substantive issues arguably retards a robust and meaningful political process. Do you see the mass media and those who inhabit that space as more political manipulation than political empowerment?
The love affair of today between politics and celebrityhood is what happens to David Sale (the Prime Minister in Bold As Love and Castles Made of Sand). It's the poisoned apple, it leads a good man, flawed visionary, into shameful corruption (real world parallels, any Brits out there?). The crucial thing about my rock stars is that they come to leadership in politics from the other direction. For them, celebrity, their need to be loved, is located somewhere else. They don't want to be making these hateful decisions, they want to be making records. Only people who don't want it or need it should be trusted with political "celebrity". It's not a new idea, and it has its own train of abuses. My rock stars are not immune to some kinds of corruption. But to an extent, it works.

I suppose booksellers are in a quandary whether to shelf the Bold As Love series in fantasy or science fiction -- on the one hand you've got Sage Pender journeying in information space (and a good way to excuse the use of hard drugs) and Ax Preston with a direct brain link to computing power, on the other hand, magic is afoot in the realm. I'm sure you and probably most authors don't sit down and spend a lot of time deliberating whether you're writing one or the other, or if the distinction matters to plot construction. It does seem to matter to readers and, moreover, critics. What's the big deal? Is it just an anal fixation with needing to classify fiction by theme or genre, or are these useful differentiations that deepen understanding?
I didn't sit down and say to myself, "now I'm going to write a very weird serial fantasy. It's going to be set in a world like the world we live in, not in fancy dress, and I'm going to write it like 90s radical SF, with closely reasoned extrapolation of the tech and politics, and novel-of-character production values..." That's the way I write, I can't help it. I didn't know it was going to cause such consternation, I just wrote my story. But I called the books "fantasy" because to me they have the character of serial fantasy -- crucially, though there are other signs, the book is NOT a controlled mental experiment, it's about these people and their world; and I think I was right. Then again, of course many, many alleged "hard SF" books have the character of serial fantasy (just a different style of fancy dress); either that or they are thrillers. The exceptions, where the science is the actual subject, are rare. In the end, I don't see how you avoid "mixing genres" in any SF/F novel; or why it would be a good idea.

Science fiction used to have the credibility, even a slight amount of credibility (J.G. Ballard, Christopher Priest, e.g., in the UK) in the literary mainstream. Obviously that feeling is still around -- otherwise why would China Miéville be working so hard to get fantasy, or Fantasy, up on the marquee with the letters the same size as SF? Bold As Love isn't a "weird tale". On the contrary it's a very un-weird tale, with a very low unexplained-phenomena quotient. But I suppose it could be counted as part of a change, a shift in weighting that might even be long-lasting -- because 21st century "hard SF" is in full retreat from the real world and the real future at the moment; whereas fantasy is speculating all over the place. A classic tale of population dynamics! (But it's all fashion. The situation could look very different this time next year)

Do the definitions matter? I think it's like this: if you are the ordinary citizen with roses growing in your yard, you probably remember the names of them, suppose you bought them yourself… But there's someone, in a lab or nursery somewhere, who couldn't possibly forget the name of that pinky-orange one; and who knows to a calcium ion exchange exactly why she's resistant to aphids, but vulnerable to sulfur-starvation, etc. The nit-picking details truly exist, and they made the rose what she is (Er, sorry, or he), but you don't need to know them to appreciate the flower. The definitions are real, and they're important. Just not to most people.

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Copyright © 2004 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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