Updates

Vector

Thanks to the assistance of yet another layout volunteer, Vector 271, the last issue of 2012, will be coming out in January 2013, along with a guest-edited version of Focus. Vector 272 should follow a month or two later, along with the BSFA Award Booklet.

BSFA Awards Nominations

The deadline for the BSFA Awards Nominations is January 13, 2013. BSFA members should nominate early and often!  Works currently nominated are available to peruse here. Don’t take for granted that if your favourite sf book, short story, work of non-fiction, or artwork is on that list that it will receive enough nominations to make the shortlists. Equally, if a work worthy of nomination isn’t on that list, consider it your personal responsibility to nominate it so that it is.

Divine Endurance: Flowerdust Edition

Gwyneth Jones has revised her first sf novel, Divine Endurance, collating it with its companion novel Flowerdust. Divine Endurance was the first novel published under her own name, in 1984. The edited pair are available and, more specifically, available for free today on Amazon.co.uk!

Spirit, Part 1: Take One

I started Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit at the wrong time, or at least in the wrong headspace. The plot was a Lego patchwork of interlinked episodes, and it didn’t seem to have enough momentum to take me much of anywhere plot-wise, even as it spanned a barely-known universe in its events. I hadn’t read any of Jones’ other Aleutian novels, had no greater context thus far into which to slot it. I didn’t feel lost, but it wasn’t a universe to which I had any existing commitment.

It didn’t help that I knew there was a rape scene coming, somewhere in its expansive, multi-volumesque middle. With that looming, somewhere, I read more and more episodically, which did nothing to help the volume’s flow. Doom, gloom, and stuckness overwhelmed the characters and I, seeing no hope for them and fearing what I knew was coming, went adrift. I stopped reading.

Despite that unpromising beginning, I always meant to go back to it. My intentions were good. The SFX blurb promised me a take on The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel I remembered fondly and whose plot I’d happily revisit. Nearly halfway through the book, I was barely halfway through the lavishly extensive blurb on the back of the book when I failed to keep reading.

It really is quite a blurb. As Martin Lewis observed in his discussion of the novel last week, it synopsizes up to page 255 out of 472 pages. At the time, however, it was a token framework for me, a checklist of events which the plot had gotten around to, rather than any real roadmap of structure. (Which raises the question: is it still really a spoiler once it’s mentioned in the blurb?) It really was the wrong time and headspace for me to be reading the novel.

Fortunately, Martin suggested I have another go at the novel this March, complete the task I set myself last year when I undertook to write – or host writing on – the eleven best science fiction novels by women from the first decade of this millennium.

I’m glad he did. The second time around, the book was good.

Life: Recap

(Isn’t that a fantastic title for a post?)

Over the last few weeks, Nic has posted a series of thought-provoking explorations of Gwyneth Jones’ Life, looking at its relationship with institutions and attitudes towards scientific practice; its self-consciousness as feminist sf, as a commentary on the role of women in a science fictional world; the core of the relationships which define the plot of the book; and the fictional scientific discovery at the heart of the story and how it affects gender.

Life, the seventh book we’ve examined in the Future Classics series here on Torque Control, is our last book from 2004, the end of the first half of the decade this book list covers.  The remaining four books cover the rest of the decade. For planning ahead, those are

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (in late September)
  • Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North (October)
  • Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia (November)
  • Gwyneth Jones, Spirit (December)

My thanks to Nic for joining us for this discussion (and perhaps more in the future?), and to those of you who read along and participated in the discussion. It’s never too late to come back to these posts and do so.

Discussion: Part 1 – Science and Sensibilities; Part 2 – Feminisms; Part 3 – Roles and Relationships; Part 4 – Gender and Conclusion

A recent, related post:

bookgazing asks for insights into what new things cis-gendered women could become “in the middle of a pre-existing world full of pre-conceptions about gender and behaviour?”

August: Life

It’s the eighth month of the year already* and we’re still back in 2004 in reading the Future Classics here on Torque Control.

August’s book is Gwyneth Jones’ Life. It is the second of two books from 2004 (the other was City of Pearl) and one of three by Jones on our list this year. It did very well for itself, winning the Philip K Dick award for that year and being shortlisted for the Tiptree Award.

Nic of Eve’s Alexandria, a new poster on Torque Control, should be joining us to discuss the book before the end of the month. I hope you will join us in reading and discussing it!

* It’s almost still the first half of the month, right?

Woman’s Hour: Women and SF

The following is a transcript of the recent (25/05/11) Woman’s Hour segment on women and sf, for those who can’t listen and in case it vanishes from the BBC website. Of related interest, given recent discussion elsewhere, is the most recent Guardian Books Podcast in which Nicola Griffiths is, as she points out, identified as a “sharp-eyed blogger in Seattle”, rather than as a novelist.

Jenni Murray: Now, the British Library has just opened an exhibition, called “Out of This World: Science Fiction, but Not as You Know It”. It’s a genre that’s generally perceived to be of interest to young children — think Doctor Who — or to men — think HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne. But the exhibition includes Mary Shelley, the Brontes, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Gwyneth Jones, so is the perception of science fiction as a male-dominated form a complete misrepresentation? Well, Karen Traviss is a New York Times bestselling writer, Farah Mendlesohn is reader in science fiction and fantasy literature at Middlesex University, and Gwyneth Jones has won the Philip K Dick and Arthur C Clarke Awards for her science fiction. Gwyneth, what was it about sci-fi that appealed to you?

Gwyneth Jones: The science. I’m a thwarted scientist and when I was a little girl it was — I can’t remember the name of the writer because writers’ names mean very little to children, or they did mean … it was either Asimov or Heinlein who told me that the universe was like unto a rubber sheet and that planets and other bodies deform this rubber sheet, and that’s the way spacetime functions; I was hooked. I just love stuff like that.

Jenni Murray: And Karen, what was its appeal for you when you began writing?

Karen Traviss: Well, I actually set it up as a business, it was something … I’m not a reader, it’s a terrible thing to say and people will probably come and stone my house, but I absolutely hate reading, but I like writing. I was far more influenced by TV, and by films, I absolutely loved science fiction series, I like science fiction movies. But my reason for writing science fiction was a sort of business decision because I actually specialise in military science fiction and also mainstream military fiction, and I set out to have a business, I had a five year business plan, I stuck to it. There was no sort of motivation from love of the art, I’m afraid, and the sort of picture that I see of science fiction being painted here doesn’t bear any resemblance to my working world. I mean, let me just put a caveat on that — I might live in the UK, I pay my taxes here, but I work in the USA. I work solely for US publishers, US game studios, that sort of thing. It’s a very different world.

Jenni Murray: Let me just bring Farah in for the moment, Karen. What about the audience, Farah? Who is interested in reading sci-fi?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well, the entry age I found was somewhere between about 10 and 12, which is younger than we used to think. Slightly younger for boys, they seem to come in around 9, girls around 11. After that, these days it’s about 45% female and 55% male, and people stick with the genre once they’re there. The audiences for gaming, for tie-ins, for films — they’re slightly different, they lean towards male, but I’ll be honest, I think it’s just a matter of time, I think it’s changing very rapidly. The idea of science fiction being for men has never been true, if you look at the early magazines there are always letters from women. Now I know it’s biased, because the editors are choosing the letters, but it’s actually quite interesting that someone like Hugo Gernsback, one of the earliest of the editors, wanted to represent women in the magazines by choosing those letters. About 1 in every 10 letters in the thirties, by the sixties we’re up to 1 in 3; it keeps spiralling.

Jenni Murray: And yet, Gwyneth, I know you have said, because you said it to our producer, that you wish you’d used a male pseudonym as a writer. Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Ah. That’s because I started writing science fiction in 1984 and I wrote feminist science fiction and I wrote science fiction for at least a decade, and I wish now that I had used a male pseudonym for my feminist books.

Jenni Murray: Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Because, if you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.

Jenni Murray: You’d have sold better.

Gwyneth Jones: Well, not only that. My later books, which are in my reading not at all feminist science fiction, although they have female characters — it would be strange if they didn’t — are now feminist. And I find that a disadvantage on two counts. First, because I know what feminist science fiction was about, it was about disentangling the battle of the sexes and I’m not doing that, and I don’t want my books to be read as feminist when they’re not addressing that agenda and second, yes, because the word feminist is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience. And that’s a shame.

Jenni Murray: There was, Farah –

Gwyneth Jones: Sorry, I was –

Jenni Murray: No, it’s all right, I just wanted to continue the point with Farah, because there was a famous science fiction writer, James Tiptree Jr, who came out in the seventies as Alice Sheldon, so he actually was a she. What was the reaction when that happened?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well actually, Gwyneth’s summary is perfect, because first of all what had happened was that Tiptree had withdrawn a story that was nominated I think for the Nebulas, on the grounds it had been nominated because it was a feminist story by a man. And he withdrew it. Robert Silverberg had actually written an introduction to one of the books which he’s lived to regret, in which he described Tiptree as “ineluctably male”, So there was actually quite some controversy. Joanna Russ, one of our most famous authors is the person who outed Tiptree [Note: actually Jeffrey Smith; see comments and Julie Phillips' biography of Alice Sheldon for details], and it rippled. But I think that Gwyneth is absolutely right, both because Tiptree’s work was then received very differently, but because what I see in critical accounts of the genre from male academics is they forget women when they’re writing about space opera, and then have a token chapter about feminist writers. And I see that over and over again. There’s a book by Istvan Csicery-Ronay Jr that has a whole chapter on linguistics. The most famous science fiction writer of linguistics, who’s a professor of linguistics, is Suzette Haden Elgin. She’s not in that chapter. She is in the chapter on feminism. So often it’s that inability to see a female writer as anything other than a feminist writer — and this is where you might want to bring Karen back in, because she’s often seen that way by critics and herself would find that, I think I’m right in saying, would find that a problematic label.

Jenni Murray: You anticipated my next move. Karen?

Karen Traviss: Well, I’m sort of struggling to recognise this landscape, because it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the world I work in. I think it’s very easy to try and see science fiction, one, as a sort of separate walled garden, but also as something defined by critics. I like to deal direct with my customer, basically, and if I go round a huge bookstore in the States and I stop someone who’s browsing in the isles and say, “why have you picked up that book?”, none of them have heard of the Hugo awards, none of them read book reviews, none of them care what critics think; they pick up books because they like the cover, or because they like the blurb on the back, or they like the author, or their friends said, “you really should try that book” — and I mean perhaps I’ve lead a charmed life, but given the very macho nature of what I like and the fact that most of my characters are male, I have never been pigeonholed as a female writer. You know, the sort of novelty for the States is that I’m English, that always comes as a shock to them.

Jenni Murray: Karen, you’ve very deliberately published in the States, why? Is it because it’s different here?

Karen Traviss: Much much bigger market and much more money. Sorry, it’s really that crude. But that was my first port of call, because that was where I saw the industry as being. This is the entertainment industry, you know, I am there to entertain people primarily, but also to make them think; I’m a former journalist, I’m not there to set an agenda for feminism or anything else, I’m there to say, these are people, male and female, in a very challenging situation; and one thing that science fiction offers you, speculative fiction generally, is that you can push the boundaries and say, what if this happened? What would happen? And all I do is sort of shine that light and say, how would you react in this situation? I’m not going to send some feminist message.

Jenni Murray: Farah?

Farah Mendlesohn: I want to agree with Karen, but with a caveat. I started looking at what was on the shelves in Britain and in british libraries, both in bookshops and libraries, and couldn’t find any women writers, including a really big selling writer like Lois McMaster Bujold. So I’d say Karen has made the right decision, the market in the States is far better, but the market here is problematic. Forbidden Planet has just produced a list of its 50 favourite writers with three female writers. there’s something odd going on at the marketing level here.

Jenni Murray: Gwyneth, how much are you conscious of the fact that there may be something odd going on at the marketing level?

Gwyneth Jones: I think, for one thing I think the US market is a far broader church; it’s far easier, it’s much easier for an outsider to survive. But I am conscious that I have always been regarded as an outsider by my publishers of science fiction. it’s an assumption which is a self-fulfilling prophecy, if there is a list of books that are going to be promoted, well, probably a woman writer is an outside choice so we won’t have a woman writer. That does happen.

Jenni Murray: But you’ve won the big awards — you’ve won the Philip K Dick award, the Arthur C Clarke award. what difference does that make to you? Do they not say, this woman is a great writer?

Gwyneth Jones: I find it very strange. There’s no heavy lifting, I don’t have to be six foot six, and in fact even to write action fantasy you don’t have to be a large muscular man to do that, but I think it starts with the publishers and I think it also it ripples through to the fans.

Jenni Murray: Women fantasy writers seem to do very well, Farah, JK Rowling I suppose being the best known. Why? What’s the difference between the sci-fi and the fantasy?

Farah Mendlesohn: That’s a very difficult one to put your fingers on. I think there is a sense that it’s more appropriate for women to write about dragons than to write about guns — and I do wonder, to come briefly back to Karen if the more mixed army in the united States makes a difference, they have a fully integrated military — but otherwise it’s not that straightforward. the biggest names in fantasy, the ones who receive the most publicity, are still the men. And I think there is a bias there. but I would agree with Karen, in that I don’t think the bias is necessarily among the fans.

Jenni Murray: Farah Mendlesohn, Karen Traviss and Gwyneth Jones, thank you all very much.

Playlists, Soundtracks, and Science Fiction

The first chapter of Justina Robson’s Natural History is structured around the Don McLean song, “American Pie”. The lyrics help to structure fraught events, both in our world and in that of the dying Isol. The book (about which more discussion  next week) begins, in effect, with music, with a theme song. It’s not a whole soundtrack for the book, but it’s why I noticed a coincidence or a trend – I don’t have enough data to know which.

Our first book of this year’s TC reading project didn’t have one theme song. It had an entire discography, listed out on the final pages of the paperback and a page of the accompanying website. Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love is about a rock band, so it’s not surprising that it might come with music. Plenty of books about bands don’t, however. This one recommends hours of previously-existing albums, plumbed for their vibe, their synergies, their influence on the book’s musical interactions. Its concerts are major plot points.

The second book didn’t have a discography listed out as an appendix, but it didn’t need one. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is suffused with soundtrack, carefully orchestrated by its main character to match the needs of his life. Lou uses symphonic music to overlay sequences in his life with imposed structure, a device which makes it easier for him to cope with various scenarios, from the gym to the drive home. It need not even be recorded: he has a wealth of classical music stored in his memory for summoning up when he needs it as counterbalance. A mention – name, composer – may be enough to summon up the tunes for some readers as well. In only one instance does Lou recommend to us specific versions of the music he thinks through: in all other cases, we can pick our own symphonies, our own soloists.

I’ve read a couple of other books in the past year or so which came with the songs or albums listed to which the author wrote the book. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books do. Linnea Sinclair’s last novel, Rebels and Lovers, does. Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland has an entire purchasable album which was compiled around it. So does her currently Clarke Award-nominated Zoo City.

The only book soundtracks I’m particularly aware of from previous decades are filk. Mercedes Lackey has written and produced a slew of albums to accompany her Valedemar novels. Anne McCaffrey approved an official album in part comprising tunes to lyrics she’d provided in her Pern novels. Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue came with poignant alternative spacefaring lyrics to known tunes, used as chapter intros.

The CD singles charts may be in commercial freefall, as far as any given song’s success is concerned, but I am certain that, more broadly, the singles market has never been more healthy. Download a song as ringtone. Download a single at a click. In the ‘80s it became feasible to make mix tapes, with the advent of the cassette tape. Now, a book’s soundtrack need not even be prepackaged if the tunes are mainstream enough: they can be individually downloaded and reassembled into the unified album that a playlist had the potential to be on one’s own music playing device.

As evidence goes, this is scanty. These are the works of science fiction and fantasy I can name off of the top of my head which come with soundtracks.

So – the three books so far for the best science fiction novels written by women in the last decade. Will more of this year’s TC reading project feature theme songs or downloadable soundtracks?

Are female authors more likely to include that bit of extra real-world tie-in world-building than male ones are, or is this an accident of what I’ve been reading that I’ve only noticed soundtracks in books which happen to be written by women?

Regardless of gender, is this a trend or a coincidental cluster?

Bold as Love: Recap

So that was 2001.

Bold as Love is a high-paced meander through several years of England’s potential future after the dissolution of the UK, as shaped by rock n’ roll. It’s not quite quest, and it’s not quite romance. It’s a thought experiment, it’s a tour of England, it’s about the messiness of change. It’s not a book which put me in the main characters’ heads: they might have known how the rest of the world was getting on, but they only shared in the ways it impinged directly on them. It’s not nearly as much Arthuriana as I feared, based on reading reviews. (It’s not that I dislike Arthuriana per se. It’s that I’m a medievalist, so it makes me picky.)

Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love was the first of the poll-topping best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years that we’ll be discussing here at Torque Control over the course of this year. It was the only one of them published in 2001.

Niall hosted the discussion February discussion, and, speaking of 2001, he noted that the book could not really have been written any later than it likely was. After 9/11 that year, “terrorism” could no longer be conceived of the way it is in this book. But that’s not much of a distraction in the scope of such rich, intense, focused world-building. Much of the intensity it has is in the music, the festivals, the performances. Music is a central focus because, in this book, “what’s significant is the potential of music to be a vehicle for belief, at a moment when belief in all other systems of the world has been shattered by catastrophic cynicism.” Ax Preston, the guitarist/leader of the book and cultural icon, curates concerts as a means to his end of making the best of a difficult political situation. I can’t quite bring myself to call him Counter-Cultural, as the movement within the book is called because, cynical as the book is, it knows full well that this is just a label, and that the Counter-Culture are mainstream cultural avatars, in effect.

My thanks to Niall for hosting the discussion, and to all the commenters who joined in reading (or re-reading) the book.

Niall’s Discussion: Part I: Context, Part II: Characters, Part III: Music, Part IV: Utopia
Overview of Bold as Love and some of its reviews from December
Abigail Nussbaum on Bold as Love and other of Jones’ books.

Bold as Love: IV

Bold as Love cover

(previously.)

A confession: I actually came to the Bold as Love series backwards. As part of my Clarke judge duties I had to read the final volume, Rainbow Bridge (2006), and at the time I had no experience of its predecessors. Truth to tell I don’t remember all that much about it, and that which I do remember I should not speak of, but what does seem worth mentioning here is the lingering elegiac impression the book left, crystallised in a self-description by one of the triumverate, that they are “veterans of utopia.”

And so I came to Bold as Love on the lookout for the possibility of utopia, and was a little surprised by the novel’s darkness. Not the darkness in the stories of its characters — I’d read “The Salt Box” in Interzone — but in its ambience and events. Bold as Love opens in a period of near-crisis, with the authorities struggling to maintain an orderly dissolution against a backdrop of economic and ecological collapse, and the trials don’t let up: an influx of migrants, a failing electronic infrastructure, a small war in Yorkshire. It seems astonishing that this world will ever progress far enough to look back on utopia.

But there is a utopian desire present in Bold as Love, refracted by the triumverate, and in particular by Ax and Fiorinda. The latter is profoundly pessimistic — the combination of youth and experience, perhaps — and sees no good in the way the world is turning. More than once she comments that everything is going up in smoke, that it’s the end of the world. And on the role of Ax himself, when pestered, she says:

“I think he’s the Lord’s anointed. I think he has the mandate of heaven. I think he is rightwise king born over all England. But still–“
“But still you are the cat who walks by herself, green-eyed Fiorinda–“
“But still nothing’s changed.”

What does that “nothing” denote? Manifestly things are changing through the novel, dramatically so. But we know what Fiorinda means, of course, we kow she means that there are still winners and losers and — in the novel’s terms — suits with power. Sage, similarly, is a sceptic. For him, the cross-demographic appeal of the triumverate, as evidenced by the diversity of their gig audiences, does not seem like a compliment; it seems “like a deeply, deeply mistaken confidence” (243).

It’s left to Ax to lead: the only character to deliberately articulate any vision of utopia. In the aftermath of the coup, he rallies his countercultural comrades to that vision, speaking of the potential for something new in history, “a genuine human civilisation. For everyone”, enabled by technology. His goal is “To make this turning point the beginning of civilisation, instead of a fall into the dark ages”; but it’s tempered with pragmatism:

And yeah, before anyone says it, I know it won’t work. If I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, it’ll be partial, fucked-up and temporary. Partial, fucked-up and temporary will be fine. If we can get that going, for just a few years, just here in England, we’ll have made our mark. Something will survive. (82)

The grandest of visions an the most modest of terms: that’s the tension that defines Ax, seen later as dedicated to the art of the possible over the good, and seen from inside his head as one who endures. In the warzone, he recognises “a reason for Fiorinda’s mourning, the end of a world, an unbearable loss”, but “he had to bear it. Accept” (118); or, later, more than once, he thinks, “If we can just get through this part …” (I started to think of the catchphrase of Kim Stanley Robinson’s much sunnier Phil Chase: “I’ll see what I can do!”) The fragility of it all, the provisionality, is exhausting for Ax, and we sometimes feel that exhaustion. But between the three leads we also scent the elusive spirit of change, the muscular belief that things can get better, slowly.

All of which leads to the curious ending note. Superficially Bold as Love closes on a not entirely unexpected moment of grace, a pause that sees the triumverate together and comfortable. Stubborn stuff, this world; hard not to retreat from it sometimes. At the same time, Ax’s thoughts, on the final page — “I was not perfectly happy, but now I am, and if I had the power this is where I would make time stop, this is where I’d stay forever. This is it, this moment. This, now” (307-8) — make it seem coldly plausible that this is the utopia of which they become veterans: a limited, individual utopia, an impression of the world around them shaped entirely by their personal emotional circumstances. But on reflection, it’s hard to imagine another ending for this quixotic, thorny book.

Bold as Love: III

Bold as Love cover

(previously.)

”They’re both very brave men and very good officers,” says Richard Kent, ex-regular CCM army commander, with whom they served in that little English pocket-war in Yorkshire last year. “And that’s what counts today: leadership and vision. I don’t know where the rock music comes in.” (271-2)

It is Bold as Love’s central strangeness: that it asks us to believe rock stars could really be revolutionaries. It’s not, I think, the exchange of celebrity for political power that’s problematic – not in a post-Governator era, at least; not until after the initial off-screen hand-wave that brings the musicians into politics in the first place, anyway – but the idea that such individuals might make the transition yet retain principles. Even Ax is forced to comment on the implausibility of that.

It’s a potent notion, this belief in the power of music, with enough juice to often obscure the fact that Jones is at her weakest when writing about it, when creating a musical world. She displays an absolute tin ear for band names and song titles, her made-up music journalism is cringeworthy, and there is little sense of the wonder and transformative power of music itself. What she can convey is the ambience of musical events: her gigs are all jagged energy and aftermath, her festivals true worlds unto themselves, right from the start, when Fiorinda stands outside Reading seeking “the mere will to cross that boundary and join that fair field full of folk” (2). To enter faerie, with its customs and denizens and magical ways.

Bold as Love is, as Francis Spufford puts it in his review, a novel in which a festival swallows up the whole country. The answer to “where the rock music comes in” is “everywhere”; it has to, to give the idea of the Counterculture some gravitas, to make it a political force, a movement with sufficient cohesion and will to drive events. Ax, with his sixties Real Year, is merely the purest expression of the Counterculture. usic brings him security, and enables him to lead: to inspire, and occasionally placate the masses. And yet despite its pervasiveness, I don’t know that Bold as Love actually presents rock itself as revolutionary. Ax is as much a revolutionary who happens to be a rock star as the other way around, and the meaningfulness of the rockstar part of his identity is constantly challenged, from the quote at the head of this post to a sharp awareness of the sinister side of cultural conformity, to the simple, heavy irony of Sage and Ax’s repeated “Hey rockstar” / “Hey, other rockstar” greeting. Fiorinda certainly sees no glory:

From a distance she could see it happening: Ax’s future, the rock and roll lifestyle written over everything, the nomadic idleness, the emotional excess, the tantrums … she saw no hope in the development. A certain model of human life becomes accepted: once we were manufacturing workers, then we were venture capitalists, now we’re rockstars. The world stays the same. (91)

It’s perhaps useful to consider the “we” in this statement. Manufacturing workers, venture capitalists and rockstars are not equivalent classes – each is smaller than the previous – nor can Fiorinda meaningfully lay claim to have ever been the first two. (She is literally born to her position.) It’s tempting to take it as a premonition of the all-famous-now YouTube future, but I think that would be mistaken; I think Fiorinda is imposing a narrative on history whereby power has travelled from the many to the few. A false narrative, mainly, but that’s not the point; what matters is that she can’t believe any of the power is meaningful. Ax, meanwhile, doesn’t know whether he believes the power of rock is meaningful, but puts his finger on the real strength of his government:

Had the country been about the split in two, collapse into civil war, until the situation was saved by rock and roll? This morning the idea seemed absurd. We will never know, he thought. Maybe we made a difference, maybe we didn’t.

It didn’t hurt for the future, however, that a heavy proportion of the forty million seemed quite convinced that the Rock and Roll Reich had saved everyone’s bacon. Again. (255)

This, I think, is the closest to a definitive understanding of the role of music that the novel offers, a viewpoint that downplays the importance of music as music. Rather, what’s significant is the potential of music to be a vehicle for belief, at a moment when belief in all other systems of the world has been shattered by catastrophic cynicism.

(next.)

Bold as Love: II

Bold as Love cover

(previously.)

There is a current in the novel that snakes outside the 1997-2001 moment; or at least a character who seems out of step with his surroundings. Ax Preston, guitarist with The Chosen Few, destined (it seems) leader of England, the nearest thing to a hero we’re going to get, “bit old fashioned, bit left wing” (23), and most importantly:

Ax would continue to come and go as he pleased. [...] Go on living his fearfully public life in this fearfully changed world as if he were a private person with no enemies, and the date some mythical year in the nineteen sixties. (206)

The aptness of his particular nostalgia in a novel which springs partially from the nostalgic Britpop moment aside, this is what makes Ax special: this ability to preserve his own private Real Year in the face of the progressive isolation of England, first politically, through dissolution and an ongoing economic and ecological collapse, then culturally and digitally as their internet is collapsed by a virus. This new England is an island England, cut adrift (it seems) from the main line of history (I gather later volumes in the Bold as Love sequence get around a bit more). And Ax is both the moral leader we might wish for England, and a literal dictator: military, temporary, populist.

Ax is also Arthur returned (and updated), although I don’t feel qualified to do very much more than just note the fact. Accompanying him are Sage, the skull-masked “brilliantly commercial techno-wizard” to Ax’s “pure musician with critical and political cred” (27) and, I gather from Tanya Brown’s extremely lucid reading of the novel in The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, Lancelot with a hint of Merlin. I find him the novel’s bedrock, the wall off which other characters can bounce. (I find him a little dull.) Decoding the third of the triumverate, Fiorinda, takes longer, because she’s loaded down with more symbolism. Guinevere, says Tanya; rock royalty, precocious teen, Titania, virgin queen, says the novel; “a phenomenon,” thinks Ax, “where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?” (40-1). Fiorinda sees her position more clearly than either of her companions, as when Sage tries to protect her from the darkness of war: “I’m not built to play Red Sonja, so I have to be the lickle princess. There aren’t any parts for me as a human being in this movie” (161). Perils of being in a mythic story while female.

Everything real the trio does is also symbolic, and everything symbolic they do is also real. Ax is a soldier, and carries his guitar like an assault rifle as a reminder of that power. In his conversion to Islam midway through the novel, in the fetishization of Fiorinda, in Sage’s abusive past, in their varied class and ethnic backgrounds, and most of all in their shifting relationships with each other, they represent their country in more ways than one, a polymorphousness condensed by an artist, late in the book:

He grinned, envisaging Sage as the big strong mother of the tribe, Ax the father of his people, Fiorinda their shining prince. But any permutation of the roles would be equally valid. (282)

Ax nags like a mother, Sage is headstrong like a prince, Fiorinda negotiates like a father. And so on. The self-consciousness of it all could get wearing — seems to get wearing for many readers — but for me the novel’s centre of gravity was elsewhere. The role of the triumverate is to be a prism: to ensure that Fiorinda is telling the truth when, to buck up her band, she insists: “This is England. This is how it feels” (244).

(next.)

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