It took me a long time to find a way into this review. That's due not to a paucity of interesting themes or angles from which to approach this selection of stories from Gwyneth Jones's career, but to their abundance; The Universe of Things—as its title implies—burgeons with things to talk about. This is due in no small part to Jones's style of storytelling, which tends to leave plenty of ambiguity and space into which the reader can project their own interpretations. Indeed, I found it to be something of a magic mirror, reflecting not only my own personal concerns but those of the wider world. That may be as much a function of my reading as Jones's writing, but I'd hazard to suggest that this ambiguity and openness may contribute to Jones's status as a critical darling with a regrettable lack of market penetration. The central channel of the genre delta seems, of late, to be retreating further into reassuring retroism and comfortable retellings of old metanarratives; if there's a single unifying theme to the stories collected in The Universe of Things, then it's surely Jones's outright refusal to deliver happy endings or validations of the cultural status quo. One should not read Jones without expecting to be made to think for oneself . . . and to be made to think uncomfortable things about one's own preconceptions.
What's striking about these stories is how clearly they speak to contemporary politics, and to the social and cultural concerns of the moment. Current events reflect a world where old certainties are being questioned even as they are clung to in desperation; "liberalism" is suffering from a postmodern identity crisis, in that it has become such a wide and misapplied label that no one can be sure what someone else means when they say it; progressive ideas are seemingly sidelined by the global financial crisis and the swing to the political hard right that began as a response the the tragedy of 9/11. A ripe moment for progressivism to put its own back yard in order, then . . . but any suggestion that the stories in The Universe of Things are surfing the Zeitgeist is kicked to touch by a look at the dates of initial publication, which stretch back as far as 1988. Indeed, only two of them—"In the Forest Of the Queen" and "Collision"—were published post-2001. Rather than responding to current events, then, The Universe of Things demonstrates that Jones has been thinking about the contemporary crises of progressive values long before those crises actually arrived . . . which is less my trying to label Jones as a prophet so much as it is trying to argue for a reading of her work that admits of a sort of post priori prolepsis. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, so they say; perhaps that's why it seems as if Jones's foresight was just as clear.
There are two axes of conflict that pass repeatedly through the stories collected here, and the first can be identified by starting, counterintuitively, at the back of the book, in the closing paragraphs of "Identifying the Object." This reads to me as a quasi-metafictional work, with its narrator Anna Jones (a conflation of the two pen-names, Ann Halam and Gwyneth Jones?) ideally placed to watch a clash between characters who act as avatars for two very different—and possibly irreconcilable—views of the world. Johnny Guglioli is a journalist, "a young American of a highly recognizable type: shrewd, naive, well-informed and passionate about the world’s ills and the possibility of curing them" (p. 245). Braemar Wilson, on the other hand, is a survivor of familial and domestic abuse, a woman of mixed-race heritage with an understandable but savage hatred for the world in general and men in particular. The snark hunt that provides the spine of the story is the framework on which Braemar's seduction and manipulation of Johnny is hung, a relationship that Anna describes as "that doomed encounter between self and otherness" (p. 278).
The encounter with otherness is, of course, an accepted SF staple, but Jones has a knack for making the metaphorical personal, and in some ways "Identifying the Object" is quite explicitly about SF itself, and the way SF conceptualizes the other. On their long African river journey—with plenty of nods to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which critic Paul Kincaid has claimed as an important and influential ur-text for British science fiction—the characters joke about the possibility that the natives or their military handlers are "pod people," and play a game wherein they imagine each other's chances of survival under the yoke of hostile invaders, should the event they are trying to reach turn out to be the alien landing that they hope/fear it might be. I can't recall reading another science fiction story that not only clearly admits to the existence of science fiction in its own fictional space, but which also uses that fictional science fiction to critique the science fiction within which it is contained. Here's Braemar, in conversation with Johnny shortly after quoting verbatim from the Diary Of a Surgeon with the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897:
The futuristic encounter with otherness has been our afterlife for as long as our culture can remember (which isn’t very long) . . . What we're doing here is enacting one of those stories where some champion unwisely takes on Death as an opponent. If the meeting that belongs on, that essentially is for us, the other side of things; if that event invades the world of experience—then what can happen next? (pp. 251-2)
The juxtaposition with the Benin diaries suggests to me that Jones is inviting us to make a direct comparison with the science fictional conception of otherness and the otherness that was used to justify the euphemistically named "punitive expeditions" in colonial Africa; given science fiction's lingering status as a genre dominated by white Western male viewpoints, it's not really that far a leap to make, sadly. But later on, Braemar quite explicitly tells Johnny that woman is otherness, too, while placing his hand on her genitals: "That's where you meet the alien” (p. 263). There are no pat answers or simple interpretations available for decoding this piece: it is recursively deep, an encounter with otherness as that otherness encounters other othernesses. Despite—or perhaps because of—its lack of traditional skiffy trappings, I'd be willing to claim it as one of the most densely science fictional stories I’ve ever read . . . and I couldn't tell you one way or the other whether there are actually any genuine extraterrestrials in it at all. (To steal a riff from the Bard: perhaps the universe is empty, and all the aliens are here.)
"Identifying the Object" ends with bitterness and ambiguity, as do many of the stories here: a lingering sense of unresolved (and possibly unresolvable) conflicts tapering out infinitely beyond the story’s temporal frame. Steven Shaviro sums up this tendency in his introduction as a "deep awareness of how provisional, and fragile, all of our reconciliations can be" (p. v), and in closing says that "Jones does not give us the answers to any of these questions. She leaves us in doubt, and perhaps also in wonder" (p. vii). It is the doubt, I suspect, that sets her aside from more populist writers of SF.
The majority of the stories collected here are equally fecund. The title story is probably the purest playing of the self-meets-other theme, as a motor mechanic meets an Aleutian, the titular aliens who feature in Jones's Aleutian trilogy (White Queen, 1991; North Wind, 1994; Phoenix Cafe, 1997), the more recent Spirit (2008), and numerous other stories set in the the same fictional timeline. Sexless, and seemingly devoid of the dualist view of the universe that dominates human thinking (at least in the West, or those places where its influence is strongest), the Aleutians are a baffling yet fascinating presence for Earthlings like our nameless mechanic. Yet it's the mechanic's reaction—and, by extension, that of humanity as a whole—to the presence of otherness that Jones wants to show us. And a strange mixture of morbid curiosity and fascination it is, levied here by the inner wranglings of the mechanic as he treats his unusual customer like a mix of honored guest and bug in a ar. He's trying hard not to other the Other, but simply by being aware he shouldn’t do so, he cannot avoid doing so. Wired deeply into us as it is by millennia of primate evolution and group cohesion psychology, good intentions will never defeat the human urge to identify the outsider; they can only ameliorate the expression of it. Shorter version: we can't truly transcend any binary of which we are aware, because to be aware of it is to be on one side of it.
I was surprised to find myself particularly enamored of "Grandmother’s Footsteps," because I've long harbored a prejudice against horror fiction (engendered by having read the wrong books at the wrong time, and being thoroughly put off an entire genre in the process). Here, Jones takes the hoary old haunted house trope and strips it of silly supernatural woo and cliché, leaving a chilling and poignant depiction of psychological breakdown. And here we find that other dominant axis of conflict in Jones's fiction: the tension between cultural traditions and progressive attempts to transcend them.
Our narrator Rose and her husband have scrimped and saved for years to buy their dream fixer-upper home, one of those tall decaying Victorian piles, and it becomes a concrete—or rather brickwork—metaphor for the progressive conception of the parental partnership, to connect with the traditions of the past without all the conservative cultural trappings: "We needed to live in a place that had its roots deep in the past, but cleared out and remodeled entirely to our specifications” (p. 171).
Or to have their cake and eat it, in other words. But the effort to restore the house, in particular the dry-rotted basement room, becomes a Sisyphean aspirational quest that drives a wedge between the couple, and between them and their baby daughter. The use of Victorian-era aphorisms ("Pride Comes Before a Fall"; "A Woman's Work Is Never Done") as scene-break titles reinforces the notion that the cultural past is haunting the building (and, by extension, the world); the basement room in a Victorian pile would have been the servant’s quarters, and as the source of the haunting this suggests a sublimated middle class guilt about the legacy of the working class, once hidden away underground, out of sight when they weren't needed. Indeed, the haunting sometimes manifests as a Victorian grandmama, and Rose is left in no doubt what the problem is: she has been "trying to placate an evil old goddess, whom [she] had offended with [her] life choices" (p. 187).
Interlaced with the class tensions and the hidden hand of history are the universal horror of the aging process, fueled by the creeping sense that all efforts to fend off the encroaching years actually hasten the inevitable; the house takes its toll, and ends up becoming the prison of traditional material urges and gender roles that Rose and her husband have spent their entire lives trying to escape. "I'd known all along this place was still rotten under our paint and polish" (p. 191). Jones's message is clear: for all our hopeful and naive progressive redecorations, our culture is built on the poorly buried rubble of the past, and that legacy will haunt us for many years to come.
A similar tension can be found in "Blue Clay Blues," which features none other than Johnny Guglioli, though further down his own personal fictional timeline than in "Identifying the Object." Johnny's back in a United States where the line between rich and poor is very directly mapped onto the split between rural and urban; he's out hunting a story in the postapocalyptic boondocks, which brings him into contact with the backwards crudities of the folk left outside the city domes. The apocalypse is clearly recent, and this symbolic geographization of the class gap seems to have been easily achieved. "They accepted, with chilling calm, that a certain way of life was over," Johnny tells us (p. 79).
That acceptance, Jones shows us, has evolved as a survival trait, and possibly as a legacy of the deterministic philosophies of monotheistic religions; perhaps it's easier to endure a suffering that you've always been told was preordained? But the real story here is that naive progressivism of Johnny's that Anna mentions in "Identifying the Object": he has the pious and progressive belief that life should be better for Them, and—by way of his doing a sort of guerrilla journalism in the badlands—that their plight should be highlighted. But he has no qualms about exploiting individuals in the name of getting the story, or considering the plucking-up and rescuing of those already most close to the urban ideal of what They could be like. And so Jones shows us that the barrier between the bleeding-heart left and the lumpen proles they long to save is unconsciously yet carefully maintained by the former, convinced that they're atoning for their privilege by reaching out across the wall. This is the dark flaw of compromise at the heart of progressivism-as-she-is-played: for all the good that's meant, and for all the good that (sometimes) gets achieved, it's a sop to guilt, and guilt is the cement in the wall of class.
These two thematic axes I refer to—the meeting between self and other, and the tension between progressivism and its hubris—both intersect in the bittersweet "Gravegoods," in which Jones takes on the uploaded-to-silicon space-travelers trope. The Cheops is a first-of-its-kind experiment, with a crew of simulated scientists picked for their "histor[ies] of mild mental illness" (p. 123). The reason for this choice is, so far as I noticed, never made explicit, which leaves the reader to ponder along with the characters as to whether it was a matter of expendability or PR pathos (“they traveled like fleas on a dog . . . Human interest stories help to raise funds" (p. 135)), or a hope that mildly schizoid personalities might cope better with the fundamentally schizoid state of existence that comes from knowing you’re not the corporeal being which you still feel as if you are.
That question alone would be more than enough to power most short stories, but Jones interlaces it with a First Contact riff as the crew of the Cheops encounter a guileless and innocent sentient species—the first such to be found. Jones being Jones—most interested in the aliens who aren't Aliens—we find out far more about the crew of the Cheops from the encounter than we do the sentient beings, who act predominantly as a mirror in which the crew can see themselves revealed, though also as an unattainable model for a human life less fraught (be that for individuals or whole societies). The slyly named "Ma'atians" also give Jones a way to put science fiction itself under the lens again, though not to the same degree as in "Identifying the Object."
Likewise, the opening story "In the Forest of the Queen" pits privileged progressives against another ambiguous encounter with otherness, as Aymon and Viola stumble into what I can only describe as an arboreality, a pocket of timeslipped utopian futurity hidden in a French forest. The experience rattles and invigorates them both in equal measure, but things end badly when talk turns to telling the story and building the dream. Ecotechnotopias are tainted by the glory of intention and hence unattainable, Jones is telling us . . . and an extant one would reach out to protect itself from such. Or, to put it in the vernacular: "this is why we can't have nice things."
And when we do get nice things, we do weird things with them, like the mysteriously perfect twins in "La Cenerentola." Springboarding from the usual questions of cloning/biotech stories—copyright, duplication, the economics of abundant or infinitely reproducible goods, what's in Pandora’s Box?—Jones plays class against otherness and finds them to be birds of a feather. Our narrator is largely unconcerned by the potential misuses of genetic engineering in the as yet unborn: "It helps, no doubt, that you have to be relatively rich, and therefore de facto responsible, before you can afford these techniques" (p. 154). Thus are the proles protected from themselves and their ignorance! But with a slipstreamish moment of revelation—or is it hallucination?—Thea bumps hard into a fractal node of othernesses, and is reminded that not everyone's ideas of responsibility are the same, even on the right side of the class barrier. Most chilling—or maybe simply saddening—is the ride-it-out wisdom of a hotel desk clerk, who reminds Thea of the way the less privileged deal with the transgressions of those who can afford to transgress with impunity: "These things happen, they happen more and more. It's best to simply accept them . . . and look the other way" (p. 165). And if we can't stomach that, there's always the example of Johnny Guglioli's missions of mercy to follow, perhaps.
All this analysis is not to sideline the aesthetics of Jones's writing, which—much like the themes she deals with—are challenging, deft, and powerful. Jones often deploys a sort of hybrid third-person narrative mode, shifting the reader's point of view from one character to another quite suddenly; it's certainly not a unique trick to Jones, but I see it rarely enough in my usual fiction diet to find it remarkable when it appears. Keeping the reader aware of exactly who the current point of view character is takes great skill when using this mode, but Jones never drops a beat, even when she—seemingly apropos of nothing—drops in a brief passage in another mode entirely: first person, perhaps, or even omniscient third.
And I’ve already mentioned the deftness and space left in Jones's stories, which always leave you slightly wanting; the gaps she’s left are tantalizing, sometimes even infuriating, like the last bit of table peeping mockingly through an unfinished picture-puzzle. It's a powerful play, and has to be handled just right; give too little, and the reader will feel justly cheated. But give just enough, and that missing piece will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned . . . to the point where one finds oneself hand-cutting puzzle pieces at 3 a.m., making minute adjustments to get them to slot into place, worrying at the hangnail question she's planted in your mind. Jones is resolutely anti-consolatory, staunchly contraPanglossian. She fits out every story with enough ideas to power a lesser writer's novel. She will break your heart, and she will make you think. She will challenge what you think science fiction is about, what it is for, and what it can do in the hands of an expert.
And it's a fucking travesty that she isn't currently under contract with a publisher, let alone read widely and praised highly as one of the finest writers in genre fiction, if not literature in general.
Paul Graham Raven has been selling bits of fiction and non-fiction of late, and leaves it to his editors to decide which is which; he'll be studying for a master's in Creative Writing at Middlesex University from the autumn of 2011. He's also editor in chief of the SF/futurist webzine Futurismic, a reviewer of books and music, a cack-handed post-rock guitarist, and in need of a proper haircut.