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The Universe of Things
Gwyneth Jones
Aqueduct Press, 279 pages

The Universe of Things
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: Rainbow Bridge
SF Site Review: Band of Gypsys
SF Site Review: Life
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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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I am generally in favour of critical introductions to collections of stories. Except when it's a book I'm reviewing. Then I tend to feel that I am being told how to read the book; especially if the critic picks up on an aspect of the work that I might otherwise have built my review around. Which is the case here. It's quite a good introduction by Steven Shaviro, he talks about experiences of difference, which is pretty much inescapable when you're writing about Gwyneth Jones, then goes on to say that "the characters are forced into some sort of accommodation. But they are also left with the lingering sense that this accommodation is unjust and unsatisfying" (v). To which the obvious answer is: I was going to say that.

So I will say it, if in slightly different terms, from a slightly different angle. Towards the end of "Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland", one of the more frequently anthologised stories in this collection, Dr Hamilton says: "Any interaction with another person involves some kind of jockeying for power, dickering over control" (45). In other words, Jones is making explicit what Shaviro has drawn from her fictions: that relationships involve accommodation, and all accommodations are inherently unsatisfactory. It is why so many of the stories in this collection remain unresolved: they reach an ending, but not a resolution, because life can never reach such a situation. We are always making do, accepting that things drift on without reaching any satisfactory tidying away, any neat tying off of knots. One of the things that makes Jones's stories so interesting and so frustrating is that sense that there is always more to come.

Take "Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland" as an almost textbook example: the story concerns two broken people who have each chosen the wild fantasy realms of E.R. Eddison as the setting within which to play out their psychological cure. Our viewpoint character, who takes on the personality of robust, aggressive, hyper-competent Sonja, is, of course, none of these things. She both desires and shies away from sexual contact, but as we learn from Dr. Hamilton, the psychologist who is conducting her virtual reality sessions, there is really nothing wrong with her, or at least nothing that makes her very different from the vast majority of people. But there is security in considering yourself ill, and there is an addictive quality to inhabiting the other that is Red Sonja. Until Lessingham -- a role taken on by another damaged individual who is, we may infer, as different from this persona as she is -- rapes Sonja. Or, so she interprets it: all takes place in virtual reality, where Sonja seems to have been more actively engaged than her real life persona may be able to accept. But however we see it, it was messy, it required both parties to make accommodations, there was nothing orderly or fully explicable about it; it was more like real life than the patient can wholly accept.

By the end of the story, she has come to see herself not as sick but as a consumer making a choice: "Virtual sex is easier, that's all." Okay, it's convenience food ... [b]ut when a product comes along that is cheaper, easier, and more fun to use than the original version, of course people are going to buy it" (47). Her inability to make the accommodations of daily life has not changed, nothing has been resolved, we are not at an end of things. The story may have reached its last full stop, but everything else goes on. And as readers, we know that, we know that we are seeing nothing more than a portion, a slice taken out of the midst of life. That slice may not really make sense, we'd need to see what came before and what came after for a full explanation; but life is like that, most of what we see is unresolved and unexplained. And since Jones's stories are almost invariably about the way we interact with others, what is left hanging at the end is precisely the nature of the relationship, how it will continue, how it might survive or falter. We get to know these people, but only for a moment, and so the one thing we never learn in a Gwyneth Jones story is where things go from here.

"In the Forest of the Queen," for example, tells of an American couple in Europe. They are, as Americans are so often painted by Europeans, brash, mis-matched and unaware of what is around them. In this instance they venture into a wood in which they seem to encounter something primeval, magical, a glimpse of a faerie realm that is both appealing and antagonistic (a familiar combination in these stories; the several stories that are pendants to The Aleutian Trilogy (White Queen, Phoenix Cafe, North Wind), for instance, are full of this sense of being drawn to and pushed away from at the same time). They die at the end, the inevitable cost of encountering something to which you haven't paid sufficient attention, of not making the appropriate accommodations. But then a coda changes our perspective on what has gone before, and shows that we are simply in the midst of something else, something that long predates and will continue long beyond this brief interlude.

The Aleutian Trilogy was, perhaps, the most complete expression of this sense of needing to make accommodations without ever fully understanding what it is that you are accommodating, or what the cost might be on either side. As Jones says at one point: "The Aleutians had never been very good at explaining themselves" (106), though a better way of putting it might have been: humans were never very good at understanding the explanations. The ambiguity at the heart of these novels is vividly represented in the stories linked to that sequence that appear in this volume. In "The Universe of Things," in which a garage mechanic is asked to fix the car of one of the aliens, we learn that "He didn't want to capture it. He didn't want to turn it out, either" (54); this ambivalence runs throughout the entire collection. Every relationship is a relationship with the unknown, and it is because of the simple mystery of being that every relationship is therefore marked by simultaneous desire and repulsion. "Identifying the Object" takes us back to the very arrival of the aliens. There's something very reminiscent of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in the journey up-river towards the horror; but the horror here is in the human reaction, and again one cannot help feeling that the last words of the story should be not "the end" but "the beginning." Which is almost how the third of the Aleutian stories does end. "Collision" occurs after the Aleutians have gone; set in the Kuiper Belt among a group of scientists tending the Buonarotti Torus, it concerns the arrival of a fact-finding mission from a new government known to be antagonistic towards science. As ever, the failure to understand, to fully appreciate the other person, runs right through the story, but one of the scientists and one of the inspectors do arrive at a sort of equilibrium, one that proves productive. It ends with a vision of the future, the birth of human interstellar travel, but a vision marked by regret: "She saw, with a pang of loss, that the strangeness of the universe was her birthright; but there was another world, of brittle illusions and imaginary limits, that was forever beyond her reach" (120). These two worlds co-exist and contradict each other as a matter of course, there can be no achievement without loss, and the story ends, a few lines later, with the simple and powerful word: "Return" (120).

If there is a sense that all her stories have something of the same affect, still she manages to bring out this chilling regretfulness, this reaching for and failing in relationships, in a wide range of stories. There's the haunted house horror of "Grandmother's Footsteps" and the comic high fantasy of "The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle." "The Eastern Succession" takes us back to the sort of world we saw in Divine Endurance, where we learn that politics is only human relationships writ large, and failings in human understanding can doom a nation. In contrast, "La Cenerentola" looks at how we try to manufacture love, and how, in the end, human relationships depend on how much we can bear to be with each other. Inevitably, the auguries are not good: "We walk hand in hand, Suze and Bobbi and I, and suddenly I suspect that we're taking up more space than three people should" (169).

Perhaps the most affecting of these stories is also the most nearly mainstream: "Grazing the Long Acre." A student hitch-hiking in Eastern Europe may or may not witness divine intervention in the lives of prostitutes working and dying along an impersonal road. We don't really know, how we interpret our narrator's experiences will determine whether we read the story as fantasy or mainstream. But there is little doubt about what the student felt she saw: "I saw the gateway between creation and the uncreated. I saw the immaculate void of all our desire" (104). And the immaculate void of all our desire lies at the heart of every relationship that Gwyneth Jones explores; it is what makes the stories so memorable and necessarily incomplete.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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