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Playing the Power Chords of SF: A Conversation With Gwyneth Jones
Part 1 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
Don't Open Your Eyes
Crying in the Dark
The Haunting of Jessica Raven

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.

In a review of Bold As Love, I half-facetiously commented that I found the underlying premise of rock stars as significant political forces a bit of a stretch, even in a work of fantasy, for which you took me to considerable task. Now that the Terminator is governor of California, I feel as if I owe you an apology. Not to dwell on the topic more than we've already discussed, there was a very brief moment -- maybe a couple of months in 1968 -- when politics and pop music dovetailed in a way some people thought was actually going to make a difference, before rock became just another jingle format to sell beer and cars. While there have always been activist fringes (Pete Seeger in folk music is the most obvious, but you could even argue Sinatra's connection with JFK), the sense, however ultimately illusory, of a mass movement that expressed ideology through pop lyrics seems to me an anachronism of the 60s (contemporary exceptions, e.g. Bono, notwithstanding). Which would explain how a near-future fiction is rife with references to an era that's forty years past. What's your take on the state of contemporary music? Do you find any artists today comparable to a Hendrix or a Dylan, anything that just generally excites you? And to what extent might an attitude that music used to be better back then have more to do with it being better because that's when we were younger?

You certainly do owe me an apology, Dave. You don't just have Arnie Schwarznegger at Governor of California. As I believe I pointed out last time round, you had a B-movie actor for President from 1981-1989. Moreover, after years of derision, current US pundit opinion seems to be trying to persuade me Reagan was a rather fine President... tho' that might turn out to be ultimately illusory. Of course, you were being facetious. Nobody could seriously argue that the entertainment industry and politics aren't bedfellows, or that it is somehow "illegal" to fantasize on that theme... But Reagan and Schwarznegger were movie stars not musicians, and maybe that's significant. My rock stars don't become politicians, hustling for office. They become leaders of society, for better or for worse -- as Fiorinda puts it, the Stone Age Royalty of a post-civilized world. I think this is, secretly, where the books are most true to the spirit of my 60s: when the high-living rock and roll stars -- like photographers, like kooky fashion models -- were underclass young people with a positively uncanny independence, who scared and fascinated the stuffy (those were the days) ruling caste of the UK. They could command MONEY and BIG NUMBERS, and therefore, my goodness, we might have to pay attention to them!1.

I don't remember the feelings you describe about 1968 and all that; or about US folkies admirable political activism. I was too young and it was too far away from me. The events that influenced Bold As Love, the "what if" idea of a Countercultural Revolution, come from a later date -- things that were happening in England in the early 90s. But a fantasy about rock and roll has to be rife with references to the 60s, if only for the enduring quality and the romance of that music. Take it from me, it's not just that you were younger, Jimi Hendrix was truly extraordinary, and not only for his utter mastery of his instrument. "Little Wing" is not a trivial piece of music. Keeping things in proportion, I wouldn't say any 60s rock'n'roll star was the equal of, say, the great Romantic piano composer/performers (who were certainly the rock stars of their day). But Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Hendrix, Lennon and McCartney were not trivial artists, and nor have they been discarded by the globalized culture of today. Hordes of teenagers the world over still worship at those shrines; and many music lovers who are not teenagers. The kids even still flock to see the big Metal bands of ancient vintage, and place a high value on them... I think I'm saying that music didn't stop because you walked out of the room, Dave. It's very much a living force.

Artists nowadays comparable to Dylan and Hendrix? Maybe this will surprise you, but top of my list has to be Noel and Liam Gallagher. They had the tunes, the lyrics, the physical talent, Noel can play guitar, and they have the star quality, without which any artist blushes unseen.

You've described this series as "an adult fairy tale about rock and roll music." I'm curious about the term "adult fairy tale." It was one of Tolkien's literary premises that popular perceptions of fairly tales were "dumbed down" and misperceived as mere children's stories (which critics said of his own fiction), when in fact they had the highest literary merit. Is that something similar to what you're getting at?
I don't really like the term "adult fairy tale", but it's been plaguing me all my life so I have to accept it's the way people see my work. The term "fairy" has an interesting provenance. Did you know the "fairy" in that term used to be "fata", i.e. fate? It seems that, originally, a fairy was a story about fated events, about someone's destiny working out, in noteworthy ways. (Read all about it in Marina Warner's book From the Beast To The Blonde; Chatto & Windus ISBN 0-7011-3530-1). I was very pleased with that discovery, it makes a lot more sense than the conventional reading about little people with butterfly wings -- who don't often feature even in the "dumbed down" versions of the traditional stories. I don't know about "the highest literary merit", but I think in a way fantasy, which includes ghost stories, fated tales, horror, science fiction, is the most natural form of fiction, because it doesn't just deal with external reality, it deals with things that happen in the mind, where all the stories come from -- nightmares, ghosts, visions of paradise; things that are no less "real" for belonging to the imagination. I was influenced in the way I mix destiny and magic with a clearly contemporary culture; problems, characters and dialogue, by the Arthurian romances. I think it's no accident that the authors of those amazingly successful novels took their inspiration from Celtic "fairy tales."

Speaking of Tolkien, you've written that you think of him as "crazy uncle," someone who impressed you immensely as a child, but whose faults you come to realize from more adult sensibilities. What's your reaction to the immensely successful celluloid version? Has the best -- or worst -- been successfully translated to the silver screen?
Ah, the great battle of our times, between the dialogue and the special effects, and lo, with a terrible and eerie cry, the dialogue goes plunging into the abyss... I didn't like Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings much. The battle scenes are terrific, tho' I thought it was pretty dumb when the bastions of Minas Tirith started falling apart like wet cake at the first artillery assault. But it's racist (and there's no excuse for that, when they were taking such ludicrous liberties otherwise); the Shire is dreadful, there are far too many stupid little bits of "business" replacing Tolkien's perfectly rational plot development, and I hated the way everything is ripped down to the picture-card characters. Possibly from motives of stinginess: in the last episode especially, many folk might as well have been carrying placards explaining, "If I say anything, they have to pay me a lot more money". Plus, according to his lights, Tolkien believed women were a big deal, (reverence played merry hell with the poor chap's sex life, I do believe) and this is reflected in The Lord of the Rings. I suppose the idea of women as the goddesses, and secret government, of the male world of action fantasy, is more threatening now, when it looks like real life, and not just a pious excuse for leaving 'em at home. In 2004, a woman might well be the CEO of the great corporation backing the military leader's attempt to reinstate himself... So out goes Galadriel, Arwen becomes the wimpy girlfriend who is at home feeling poorly, and we are left with a deeply unthreatening feisty tomboy. Bless!

Have you seen the animated version that was never completed? Much superior.

An excerpt from Bold As Love appeared in Interzone concerns the incestuous child rape that's key to Fiorinda's character. It resulted in a complaint that led to an obscenity investigation. Although it seems to have been a routine official response to a "crank call" about something that wasn't even overly graphic, it does raise the question to what extent today's "politically correct" and, moreover, litigious environment can lead to self-censorship. Do you worry much about whether readers will misconstrue your intentions? Has this incident made you consider it more?
For your readers: don't get your hopes up, folks. There's really no description of the rape of a child in the first chapter of Bold As Love, I have a letter that Dave Langford passed on to me, sent to him by Mr. Geoff Hough, scandalised of Cheshire, after a certain amount of derision and sarcasm in UK SF media. Mr. Hough explains he didn't really think the first chapter of Bold As Love was obscene. No, no, no. He thought the quality of writing in Interzone had been getting weaker and "The Saltbox" was scraping the barrel, so naturally he decided to call the cops. Who can figure those fans, eh?

Seriously though, no, Dave, I don't worry about getting misconstrued. I know what I'm doing when I write about horrors: I mean to shock people, I mean to frighten them, and I find it works better with as little explicit description as possible. I think it's quite likely that I did shock Mr. Hough. I hope so. I hope I chilled him to the bone. 21st century science fiction and fantasy abounds in lip-smacking, blow by blow scenes of torture and abusive sex, which are there purely for entertainment. I don't do that. I'm not averse to the thrill of mayhem (hey, I've played Grand Theft Auto...), I'm not above tugging at the heartstrings. But I want to make my readers think, and feel. If that sometimes leaves me open to malice and stupidity, so be it.

Keeping with the political correctness, typically you're identified as a feminist science fiction writer (as if there is a difference between just a feminist writer?). In Midnight Lamp, you have a scene in which you use the term "meat" to describe a woman's role in a ménage à trois, and the men are a carnivorous "wolf" and "tiger." It struck me that if a man wrote that description, some feminists would be raising hell that this objectified women and was typical of some sort of male sexual power fantasy. What were your reasons for using this specific kind of language for this scene?
I don't believe I'm seen as much of a feminist writer/science fiction writer these days, certainly not in the UK. My take on sexual politics is out of style. I don't mind. I've always felt the things I have to say might be better off without a label that tells a good part of the audience "this is none of your business", and I'm not into girl power. ("We demand the right to dominate men and wear spike heels!" Well, exactly who was ever trying to stop you, ladies??). Feminism isn't about dominance. It makes me mad when people ask, ooh, so where are the women of genius in the arts and sciences? Buried alive, that's where, and if you go looking, you can find their graves... The injustices women put up with in the "liberal" world are still real. But I've no time for gender warriors of either sex. A plague upon both your houses. I'm interested in the civil rights and human rights of a group of people, a group that happens to constitute half the human population, who suffer terrible abuses -- and do not kid yourself, it's getting worse, not better, in this century.

So, you asked me a question, didn't you? About the meat and the tiger and the wolf? Well, firstly, the characters in Bold As Love are not there to make a point about gender roles. I've written plenty of the kind of science fiction where the characters are really pieces of equipment in the mental experiment, with no independent existence. This project is different. The concept is that Ax and Sage and Fiorinda are, sort of, imaginary people, you may have heard of that? So, as a smart, sarcastically-inclined young woman in the post-feminist2 21st century, Fiorinda makes a note about her likely role in the minds of her boyfriends... Look at it another way, people have strange sexual fantasies all the time, and get a kick out of the oddest ideas, even being eaten. Look at it yet another way, in at least one of the world's major religions, God is the food of our souls, and our bodies too. You may have noticed, Fiorinda often gets identified as God: making Ax and Sage her animal-natured servants, demiurges who manage the world for her, and "eat" her in the sense that she's the source of their power. (NB, I wouldn't want to push the last one too hard: I'm just messing around, because you asked the question.)

You've presented a ménage à trois to "solve" the classic Arthurian triangle of what happens when a man loves the wife of not only his best friend, but his leader. While certainly not a new concept to the 60s, proponents of that era's sexual revolution were a little naïve about how this might actually work (cf., "Three" by David Crosby). You, however, don't make it look easy. Indeed, if it were, it wouldn't be much of a story. Was it always your intention to develop the relationship this way, or did it come to you after writing the opening book in the sequence.
Ax and Sage were going to be lovers from an early stage. It's not for the androgny of rock, nor the sexual experimentation, it's for the passion... Anyone who looks at rock and roll culture has to see that wildly emotional, long-enduring, stormy love affairs between talented young men are a vital part of the equation. Have you ever seen U2 on stage? I know nothing of their private life, I'm not a fan of the band, but watch one of those fiery pas-de-deux between Bono and The Edge and tell me you're not watching two men who are -- in some real sense -- physically in love.

I think the classic ménage à trois involves two straight men, who are close friends, sharing a girlfriend, probably not even in the same bed, and the story is about where this is going? I wanted to make the relationship real, so I gave its troubles space, but I had to cut to the chase, or cut the Gordion knot, or something, to make room for the fantasy adventure... Interesting that you see it from Sage's point of view. D'you think he was sneakily the instigator? Could be. He's a manipulative bastard.

In your criticism you've commented on the shortcomings of SF that presented women as fully capable as men, but still more or less as sidekicks. Yet, Fiorinda could be considered a sidekick. While she helps Sage defeat Rufus, it is in a support role. In Castles Made of Sand, she sees no course of action but to submit sexually and politically to a male oppressor. She also refuses to use her inherent (albeit magical) abilities to fight back. In Midnight Lamp, she has to be rescued by her male lovers. On the other hand, she could be viewed as a realistic metaphor for any woman of ability in what remains a patriarchal society. Is it more important to depict what a woman's role should be, or what it is? Or does that just depend upon the particular storyline you want to pursue?
Hey! Stop giving away my plot! ('S okay, I don't really mind: don't see how you can help it). You see, there's more than one way to approach this feminism thing. Plus, politically as in other respects SF/F takes its colouration from the state of the world around it. In the 90s, when I was writing the Aleutian Trilogy, the struggle for women's human rights and civil rights was a live issue. There was a UN Rapporteur on domestic violence, there was the battle for CEDAW -- remember that one? There was the Population Conference in Cairo in 1994, that made major headlines. (Not that the conferences have stopped, or the CEDAW treaty has gone away, but it was all real, with coverage, back then.) And this had opened a horrible can of worms, had made the extent of the secret holocaust visible: raising visions of gender riots, vicious reprisals, desperate Third World women turning to terrorism and getting good at it. So I wrote about a war, a cruelly destructive shooting war, between the "Traditionalists" (rich, male-dominated but with plenty of women supporters: militarist, shameless strip-mine capitalists; conservative; aggressive) and the "Reformers" (poor, female-ordered but with plenty of male supporters: progressive, utopian, environmentalist). Naturally, once the weapons are out, neither side wins and humanity loses. While the aliens (who, among other roles, stand for a future human race that has abandoned the gender divide) gain an empire.

I wrote about the "gender wars" because from where I stood then, obstinate failure to solve the problem of gender roles was the biggest challenge the world faced. But those were halcyon days. This is an age of deliberate war-mongering, of highly-coloured plots, hordes of feared and hated refugees, dire environmental problems ignored; the collapse of three hundred years of the Enlightenment project. The humanitarian, bleeding-heart issues have been relegated. (And I'm not saying Mr. Bush, Jr. is the Antichrist, Dave, but he surely isn't part of the solution.) That's why in Bold As Love we're heading for the dark ages at a gallop, and that's why Fiorinda, the young woman who is still a child of 20th century liberalism, keeps saying: this is not my world, and there's no part for me as a human being in this movie. In the dark-ages action-fantasy where she is doomed to spend her life young women are going to be chattels, at best closely guarded treasure. She's not built to play Red Sonja, but even tho' it turns out she does have power, she's trying to stick to her idea of normal behaviour. She's saying no, she won't kill anyone. She doesn't do things like that! Err... have you ever killed anyone, Dave? Well, who knows, maybe you have. But you see what I mean.

I'm an equal opportunities writer, I always have been. The men also try to protect and nurture people, and they get a rough deal too, including anal rape, remember. That's the dark ages for you. But I consider Fiorinda to have the starring role in Castles Made of Sand because she keeps her people alive and doesn't lose her head. She goes on thinking tactically, as if small gains matter, when her world has turned to hell, and to me that's heroism of a high order. But I don't think she's a martyr for "refusing" to use her magic in the Lavoisiens' camp. I think if he had the choice of exploding a very dirty nuclear device, with himself at ground zero, even Tom Cruise might think hard about waiting for the cavalry to come over the hill.

Although Rock music is often described as a "boys club," and to some extent you depict it as such, it certainly has its heroines. Who are your rock heroines, and what about their music particularly affects you?
I don't have any. There are too many victims in that closet, it's depressing. Lord knows I've tried to find the young bloods of today. I used to drag my long-suffering companions around the lesser tents at the Carling Weekend (that's the modern form of Reading Festival, by the way), struggling to admire lady guitar bands in torn jeans. It was no use, I preferred the Sugababes. That Avril Lavigne is a very touching kid and I wish her well, but I suspect Rock is still a dreadful place for a woman or a girl to be. Whatever she does, she can only EVER get to the second rank, and that's not what being a rock star is supposed to be about, is it? But I'm very old, and I am not an insider. I know nothing. There may be brilliant women in Rock, just about to smash thru' the glass ceiling.

All right then, a few personal heroines and never mind the genre... What do I look for? Same as I would in a man, of course. They've got to be truly musical, that's the sine qua non, and I'm a wordsmith so I like words. And then power, energy and generosity. It's ridiculous to ask a stage performer not to be self-regarding, but I have to feel they are giving as well as taking or I'll walk away. There was Grace Slick, terrific voice, perfect 60s freaky chick, and she never let the bastards grind her down. Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris for Country (I must look into that alt.Country stuff...) Mary J. Blige is a great vocal artist. Joni Mitchell is a case book study of Shakespeare's sister syndrome. I love Patti Smith's early records; couldn't get on with her after Easter. Cerys Matthews of Catatonia gave me part of the soundtrack for Bold As Love; I do not like Madonna. But Christina Aguillera, she's my girl. Go Christina!

1 But luckily for the status quo, most of them are always cattle. Just feed them.

2 Post-feminist doesn't mean we're living in a time "after feminism", as in, the game is over. Or that "feminism won"; or even "feminism lost." It means we're living in a time when you can't help knowing about feminism. Cf. "post-modernism."

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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