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Life
Gwyneth Jones
Aqueduct Press, 376 pages

Life
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 Interview: Gwyneth Jones
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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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Anna Senoz is a genetics research scientist whose preliminary findings have controversial and surprising socio-biological implications for the evolution of the species and concepts of gender. Limited resources with which to further prove her theory, as well as a glass ceiling in which senior male researchers have the unquestioning power to maintain the comfortable status quo, impair not only her research, but her career. A career that is further hampered by family obligations and the need to take on a series of "day jobs" which, while beneath her qualifications, help pay the bills. Various personal crises -- including her rape by a well-regarded, if less-skilled student colleague, an uneasy marriage, a stillborn daughter (heavy symbolism there), an attraction to an unbalanced college friend celebrated for her radical feminism and an inclination for S&M who gets caught up in an act of terrorism -- dictate the meanderings of Anna's professional and personal trials. Also, since you're reading this review here, there are such science fictional elements of an advanced AI that is more friend and mentor to Anna than her male colleagues and a decimating virus.

The book appeared well before the now infamous comments of Harvard President Lawrence Summer regarding the significant lack of women in leading scientific positions. However ill-constructed, and perhaps misinterpreted, the remarks made by Summer, Gwyneth Jones's eleventh novel more eloquently addresses the reality of women in high-pressure careers in which the gatekeepers to advancement are largely male. But it's not just a polemic about the professional discrimination against women in the sciences. It is about, well as the title says, Life -- both the biological and cultural determinants and the various accidents, tragedies, stupid mistakes as well as the overriding accomplishments and lasting relationships human beings might experience over the course of their existence.

It accomplishes this despite the fact that the three main characters are generally unlikable sorts. Anna, at times, is unbelievably timid (though I fully realize it is the author's intent to portray the social situations as to why a woman brighter than her male peers nevertheless feels compelled to compromise herself, even when she herself is physically compromised); Ramone, the insecure radical lesbian feminist with a fetish that subverts her intellectual pretensions (but, again, yeah I get the metaphor) and Spence who, in a role reversal, plays the neglected spouse. However close it flirts, though, the characterization is never outright caricature. There was a point, for example, when I got irritated at the implication that even when a man provides the supportive role as house-husband and primary child care-giver, the dumb insensitive male ego still expects the wife to do the dishes (and, okay I got pissed because, I've been a house-husband myself, and I did to the dishes -- still do). But just when you think Jones is taking pot shots at the other gender (however much the gender might at times deserve it), she steps back with a much more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of a man for whom, in another role reversal, romantic affections are not returned. For Anna, marriage is more a case of convenience and companionship than spiritual co-existence. Irony there, eh?

Simply, put, Life is one of the best things Jones has written. You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you'll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn't get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can't read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves. The fact is, with a few adjustments, the SFnal elements could be removed and you'd have a solidly mainstream book of substantial sophistication in depicting the darker complexities ad ambiguities of modern existence as good as anything, if not better, than, say, well, Atwood. But Jones is a genre writer, the SFnal elements serve to underscore her themes, so instead of getting front page reviews on the Sunday New York Times Book Review, she has to settle for honorable mention in Gerald Jonas's ghetto column.

Life is tough and often unfair. It certainly is to Anna Senoz (though it doesn't necessarily make her any more likeable a character). And it's easy enough to read into Anna's ostracism by the scientific establishment how Jones might feel about being shunned by the literary establishment.

That said, my guess is Jones most likely doesn't give a damn. Or, at least, like Anna at the end of the novel, has come to terms with the way the deck is dealt. In an afterword, Jones says that:

"The story of Anna Senoz is not my life story (the scruffy and pugnacious Ramone, Anna's shadow girl, is more like me, if I could imagine myself a feminist media-star). But in ways it's the story of my life as a writer: the experiences that shaped me, the changes that swept over my world, the ideas that made me write the novels I've written, the people who have inspired me, the future I imagine."
That future is not necessarily a happy one, but then this is not the fantasy of happily ever after. It is simply what it is, what the title proclaims: "Life"... in all its complexities, absurdities, frustrations and compromises that, nonetheless, can lead to greater self-awareness and perhaps new possibilities.

Copyright © 2005 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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