Gwyneth Jones’s stories typically, and at their best, begin with things already in motion. Characters have met and things have happened before the first page. As the story progresses, we may look back at these prior events, but they are recalled as fuzzily, as incompletely, as out of order as our memories commonly are. And the stories will, generally, build to a climax; but a climax is not an end. The lives and the stories continue beyond the last page.
What we are presented with is a transect, a fragment of some greater story. There is more going on here; we may get a sense of it, a taste, a fleeting whisper, but that is all. There are clues that might help us place these particular characters in these particular circumstances, we might get a hint that X and Y have a history without knowing anything more about the particulars of that history than we might about any other two random people we happen to meet. And if we are assured that a character is changed by the events we witness, we still don’t know what that change might be—because it takes place beyond the last page.
Since Jones’s characters often know each other, there is no need for pedantic description; we learn that someone is large because their size affects their behaviour, rather than having things like height and weight spelled out to us. Since the characters are already in the midst of events there is the confusion of immediacy, not the ordering of this then this then this, in which everything is explained, everything understood.
The effect, for the reader, is curious and contradictory. From Divine Endurance (1984) up through her triumphal Aleutian trilogy, there is a sense of having to work hard to grasp what exactly is going on in Jones’s books. Our information is incomplete, yet there is enough information to get a handle on the story and come to our own conclusions about what it is we have read. Yet at the same time, this incompleteness, this notion that there is more than we have been told, that the story stretches out beyond the pages in front of us, is reassuring, affirming, giving us confidence in a reality as knowable and as unknowable as what we see around us in our daily life. Gwyneth Jones doesn’t have to describe every last detail because each is ordinary and familiar within the greater context of which her story and characters are a part.
This, then, is typical and her best work. It is not always the case. The title story here, and the one that opens this new collection, “Big Cat,” is part of her Bold as Love sequence, and for once she seems to have lost confidence in not knowing everything, not telling us everything. It is as if she has to draw the boundaries of this world precisely, so that every character comes with a physical description, every incident is explained. This has the paradoxical effect of reducing our confidence in the story: we are aware that we are being told a tale, but we do not inhabit it. It doesn’t help that this ”Big Cat” is, by some way, the least convincing story here, muddling together the rock autocracy of her series with the legend of the Beast of Bodmin, all set within a narrative in which an entire community comes together (much as in The Wicker Man ) for a secret and unlikely pagan ritual. Any one of these scenarios might make a story; together, shall we say they tried the patience of this reader.
Coming right at the start of the collection, the experience of reading “Big Cat” feels like you’re being bounced out of the book before you’ve even started. It doesn’t really improve with the second story, “Stella and the Adventurous Roots,” the only previously unpublished piece in the collection. This story of a child who unwittingly nurtures a Triffid-like alien seed is not bad, but it’s not Gwyneth Jones firing on all cylinders.
Only with the third story, “The Flame is Roses,” does she really hit her stride, and from this point on everything in the collection is top notch. What may lie behind this is that many of these stories revolve around what she calls “Information Space,” a gradual merging and confusion of the human and the digital that allows her to explore the uncertainties of being human in a way that inevitably ties in with her naturally oblique style. Without necessarily stating the case, Information Space has been the setting for much of her best work, from Kairos (1988) to Spirit (2008), by way of much of her most memorable short fiction. She is at home here, which shows in the confidence with which these stories are told: she doesn’t have to lay on the detail, she doesn’t have to struggle to make us believe, we glimpse just enough of what is beyond the page to know we can trust the fragment of story we are being given.
Curiously, there is an introduction to each of the stories in this collection (not, I think, a practice in her earlier collections), and these are careful to point out the range of influences: T.S. Eliot in “The Flame is Roses,” M.R. James in “The Vicar of Mars,” H.P. Lovecraft in “The Old Schoolhouse.” Such influences are not obvious, though they add a texture to the work. What is most interesting is that, although all of the stories have an overtly rational, technophile, science fictional air (with the exception of “The Old Schoolhouse”), there is a persistent sense of horror, of spirits and ghosts and hauntings, which seems to stem from these particular influences. In “The Vicar of Mars,” for example, an alien priest finds himself disturbed to the point of being haunted by an old woman who has recently been released from a mental hospital, after being involved in an atrocity years before. It’s a story of spaceships and colonising Mars, but the overwhelming affect is one of dread.
“The Vicar of Mars” is also one of two stories set in the Aleutian universe. The other, “The Ki-Anna,” tells of a visitor to an alien world who is investigating the mysterious death of his sister, only to uncover a form of ritualized cannibalism. Again, it is a very technologically-oriented story, the sister having been involved in a massive engineering project to bring a world back to life, but it is the underlying dis-ease, the sense of threat, that lingers.
What is persistent in these stories, even in the least typical of them, “Big Cat,” is a sense of something from the past disrupting the present, so that there is always that hint of a haunting. In “The Flame is Roses,” an experiment in instantaneous person-to-person communication is also associated with an attempt to reach into the past at the site of a prehistoric tomb. In “The Old Schoolhouse,” a musician, clearing through the home of her recently dead mentor, finds a piece of strange music that unlocks a long-buried horror from the past. In “Emergence,” a long-lived inhabitant of a space habitat has to return to Earth for emergency medical treatment, only to encounter a figure from her past who may also be a harbinger of her future.
There are other forms of haunting, also. In what is, perhaps, one of the best of these stories, “Bricks, Sticks, Straw,” remote sensing outposts around Jupiter have absorbed the personalities of the people who control them. But when they are cut off from Earth by a solar storm, they become haunted by their memories of home, which becomes their means of re-establishing communication. In “The Seventh Gamer,” meanwhile, an anthropologist studying what goes on within an immersive game finds herself guided along her way by an additional player, who may be an alien.
The collection concludes with a piece from Jones’s alter ego, the children’s writer Ann Halam. Originally published as a short story, “Cheats” has been reconfigured to form the opening chapter of a new Ann Halam novel, a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island (2002). The story concerns two children, whose frustration with intruders into the digital game world they frequent leads them unexpectedly into a new reality. What is interesting is that although it is an Ann Halam story—although it is clearly written for young adults—it displays the oblique approach, the misdirection, the partial information that are characteristic of Jones’s more challenging adult fictions. This is the very DNA of her approach to fiction, and these stories are at their best when she gives it free rein.