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.
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.