Rainbow Bridge is the fifth and final book in Gwyneth Jones's Bold as Love series, the continuing adventures of rock-stars-turned-politicians Ax Preston, Sage Pender, and Fiorinda Slater. The series began in 2001 with Bold As Love, which was quickly followed by Castles Made of Sand (2002), Midnight Lamp (2004), and Band of Gypsies (2005). Variously described as fantasy and science fiction—with various books in the series being nominated for awards in either category—this series of books is best understood as a thoughtful and thorough meditation on the political options facing us in the 21st century. Jones is at her intellectual and enigmatic best in these works, offering both a compelling and absorbing personal saga and an astute and engaging political analysis. The series is never short on intrigue and difficult personal choices, but at the same time never collapses into sentimentality, insisting instead on an often painful pragmatism.
The major limitation of the novel is that it is probably impenetrable to anyone who has not already followed events in the earlier novels. The drama flows from and relies on previous events, particularly the crucial bonds formed between the main characters. The series as a whole traces the political vicissitudes of Britain in the near future, beginning with a planned dissolution of the Union which leads to a variety of dictatorships and social experiments, including "the Rock'n'Roll Reich" lead by Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda. Jones explores some of the same territory covered by Ken MacLeod in his Fall Revolution books, focusing on the choice of "socialism or barbarism" for a world destroyed by capital's expansion, but also brings an environmentally-aware sensibility about to her work, putting her in the company of writers such as Karen Traviss and Sheri S. Tepper. Where these writers focus on issues of relationships between species and the policies needed to halt our destruction of the world, Jones focuses on the various human power struggles which result from panicked responses to our growing realization that the planet is a finite, fragile, and already seriously compromised resource. In this sense, her work might be compared to Kim Stanley Robinson's political fictions, particularly the Mars books which follow shifting government strategies and their consequences.
Such parallels should not be overstated, however. Jones is and always has been an original, and even in such impressive company she is by far the superior writer. While the others wear their colours quite visibly on their sleeves, Jones is the more intriguing writer because she creates fictional worlds of much greater moral and social complexity. Like Robinson, she writes fiction that is deeply informed by historical, scientific, and cultural research, but she never sacrifices the momentum of the story for "explanatory lumps" of research data. She is closer to Traviss than to Tepper in her concern with the interactions between humans and between humans and other species, rarely falling into sentimentality, but similarly avoiding a heroic romanticism. Jones writes flawed characters who live in harsh worlds, and manages to make us retain our sympathy for them despite their flaws.
Perhaps most importantly, Jones avoids a didactic tone in her work—no small achievement for a writer who seems to sense a fearsome future should humans fail to change our ways. In the Bold as Love series, she is able to convey a sense of the utter brutality with which humans can treat one another, giving new and sinister meaning to the axiom about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. The series explores politics in an age of media stardom, the threatened return of Dark Ages sensibilities, and the hope that we still might save the world. Jones makes it clear, however, that such hope needs to be nurtured and carefully cultivated; for her, the default tendency of the human animal is toward grand gestures and overreactions that will make things worse rather than better. The chief target of her satire is those who respond to environmental and other crises by turning away from technology, trying to recapture some kind of agrarian utopia. The series demonstrates again and again that any hope we have lies in the responsible use of technology combined with social reform, not in naïve and ahistorical romanticism about a nature that never was.
That said, it is difficult to classify Rainbow Bridge and the rest of the series as either fantasy or science fiction because its action is as rooted in magic as it is in science and technology. Many of the political struggles over the course of the series are driven by competing efforts to control the power of neuroscience, an ability to manipulate the mind/matter split and alter reality that is a power emerging in some people through genetic mutation. Neuroscience is treated as magic by most characters within the novel, although it seems clear that this desire to separate and purify the "natural" from the "supernatural" is one of the many cultural divisions being problematized. Neuroscience or magic is just another evolved ability and, like any other, it can be used for good or ill. Some, like Fiorinda, manifest this ability, but others can duplicate its effects through neurological immersion technology, which is the basis of some rock performances in early books.
Over the course of the first four novels in the series, we have seen the main characters meet as rock performers, become icons touring a nation in a time of strife, develop a personal three-way relationship, and become acclaimed as the new royalty of England in the transformed political order. True to her sardonic perception, Jones does not tell this story of imperiled princesses and heroic princes without irony. Instead, her treatment of their royalty is steeped with an awareness of the often bloody history of English royalty, and they are as often hiding from their "subjects" or performing as puppets under house arrest as they are exercising their own policies.
The motif of royalty points to Jones's detailed research, and one of the features that I most enjoy in the series, her tongue-in-cheek treatment of the way such motifs are often treated in fiction. Jones uses the full force of history to make us reconsider our romanticized views of things such as wars of succession, and connects this medievalist sensibility—characteristic of much fantasy—to a revisionist engagement with both this history (emphasizing, for example, in Castles Made of Sand the consequences to women left as "chattel" when a new lord took over a manor) and also to political struggles more contemporary to us (the continuing use of rape as a tool of warfare). In Rainbow Bridge, the various forms of English government following the dissolution have all collapsed in the face of invasion by the Chinese. Jones uses this event to explore various responses to occupation, from collaboration to opportunism to resistance, narratives which reflect as much upon stories about the 1066 conquest as they do on the current U.S. occupation of Iraq. The series is not just deeply engaged with contemporary politics and our future prospects, but also acutely aware of history's tendency to repeat.
There is also a clear allusion to Arthurian myth in the series, expressed mainly through the myth that the King will return when England needs him and also in the treatment of the three-way political and sexual relationships between Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda. Her use of Arthurian material demonstrates another of the strengths of Jones's writing: she draws upon well-known motifs and scenarios in science fiction and fantasy literature, but she always reproduces them with some sort of ironic twist which makes visible underlying assumptions and ideals embodied in the more typical narratives. In this case, Ax does function in many ways as the leader who "arises" when England is in peril, but it is also clear that his political manoeuvres are a product of pragmatic compromise, intentional manipulation, and just plan old contingency; this is not a novel of destiny. Similarly, the relationship between Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda rewrites the typical Arthurian tragedy of a woman disrupting the social bond between two men and thereby destroying the kingdom; instead, all three are lovers, friends, and partners and without their various strengths, they would not have succeeded.
Another of the series's main pleasures is its connection to rock and roll music, which is so pervasive that I would say it is impossible to understand and enjoy these novels fully without some understanding of music history. The major political uprisings in the novel are connected to concerts, and the original appearance of neurological immersion technology is also related to musical performance. The power of Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda comes from their performance as musicians, and many scenes in the novel evoke the importance of music and musical gatherings as a site of political protest, particularly during the punk period. The series is supported by a web site which includes examples of the lyrics for the songs all the various bands within them perform, and finally a "playlist" for each chapter, music which expresses its thematic concern or theme. The research material covered for Rainbow Bridge includes a lot of background on Chinese culture and history, such as the intriguing detail that Colonel Jin Xing, the leader of the invasion, is not only rooted in the female warrior tradition familiar to those who know Chinese culture, but is actually based on a real person.
A common concern expressed in reviews of earlier books in the series is that they are very "British" and that those not familiar with UK history and cultural traditions will therefore often find themselves lost. This concern does have some merit, but I would encourage readers not to let it discourage them from engaging with Jones's work. Although not British, I did not find myself overwhelmed by dialect or other "in" aspects of the series and while I'm sure there are things I've missed, for the most part context provides sufficient clues to meaning. The greater barrier to understanding, I fear, is that Jones is a subtle and complex writer, and her work must be savoured and contemplated rather than consumed at a fast pace. It is true that most of the series features Fiorinda in some kind of peril—often involving sexual abuse or exploitation—awaiting rescue by her two male paramours, for example, a pattern that would not on the surface recommend the series to feminist readers. However, Jones presents such scenarios in a profoundly self-conscious way, and thereby ably critiques patriarchal literary and cultural traditions. Jones does not play such clichés without parody, and if she lets us have the emotional reward of familiar rescue fantasies, she also insists upon the men also needing rescue at times, and on reminding us that whatever else she might be, Fiorinda is also the most powerful person known to this world.
The series's subtlety is like the subtlety of the political intrigue it narrates. It is difficult to say much more about the specific novel, Rainbow Bridge, without giving away the suspense which drives its plot. I will conclude by saying this. Rainbow Bridge provides an emotionally gratifying resolution to the Bold as Love series, rewarding faithful readers with last glimpses of all the characters, resolving the political fates of Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda in a way that does provide closure, and leaving us with hope that a better future, a better world, might be built. It is not, however, an American novel that repels the invaders and reaffirms the values of democracy, patriotism, and kicking ass with which we are familiar from so many American works of this type. Instead, this is a British story, with less obvious and more restrained ways of responding to invaders, undoing rather than reinforcing binaries about invader/native, primitive/civilized, technology/magic, and self/world.
Sherryl Vint is an Assistant Professor at St. Francis Xavier University. She is currently working on a project about the intersections of science studies and science fiction.