Clew's Reviews, February 02, 2006
Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones
Oh, wow, this is great. It's completely over-the-top, plot developments are surprises because they've been spelled out in fireworks too big to look at all at once, it's all gloomy and it uses at least three of my least favorite tricks o' SF and I loved it anyway. All the sequels seem to be coming out in the US at once, joy.
The setting is the very-near-future ecological and social collapse of Britain, slow but sure; the characters mythic -- in fact, it's the Matter of Britain, especially if you think of the recently-fashionable setting in the end of the Roman age. Many other frameworks are thrown in, including a Gloriana that nods to history and to A. S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden. And yet, the characters aren't schematic. They're improbably talented in unrelated fields, which is one of my pet peeves, and they all hang together in a government-by-gang o' cool friends, which peeves me a lot more, but my disbelief was suspended in the course of the action.
Nor is it principally an action novel; specific scenes are set-pieces of war, riot, seduction, even a murder mystery, but I was most struck by the way Juggernaut events are grinding the characters into their mythic shapes, although they don't want to be ground and are conscious of how they're succumbing. Several sentences were excellently pointed commentaries on how one makes a bad decision in the face of worse ones.
It's obviously the sort of thing a Ken McLeod fan would like, but by the end the future history was also giving me the sense of fun-but-horrifying inevitability that Snow Crash did.
(this one's my top favourite:
I first read this on the 15th August 2003.
Drank my way through vodka martini, Champers and Tequila to finish this book. Bothered myself to put "Let It Bleed" on the B&O, then switched to mp3s and "I'm the Ocean" by Neil Young (one of the oldrock stars, had a electric fan on stage so his hair would blow in the wind to his signature song "Hurricane"), Nickelback, and Bonnie Pink (that's the Japanese rocker, not the over-exposed "Pink"). Oh blow me down with a feather, there's Dylan and "changing of The Guard" bursting forth now. Can't imagine from where I got this play-list.
Of course, it's pretty pointless if you've never enjoyed live music, never done the Festival thing. I'm happy to say that for all my slothfulness, I did indeed go to a few festivals including, a profoundly long time ago, the "Reading Rock Festival". Now there's a name to conjure with. My God, I remember Reading. I saw Yes, the rain storming down making the perfect backdrop for their laser light show, beams of light rolling across the sky, coruscating against the rain. Learnt a lot, thanks to planting a tent over a ditch, and learnt a lot more, thanks to the kind consideration of the police. Still the evening eventually rocked and rolled and the festival became, just as Gwyneth Jones portrays, a magical event.
So on to the book. Nope, it's gone. Can't remember a thing about it. It sure was good though.
Loaded on the 14th August 2005.
(And this one's from the Green Man, it's a bit long, sorry)
Gwyneth Jones (2 World Fantasy Awards, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the James Tiptree Award) is an accomplished wordsmith. Her prose is etched in silvered glass, with acid: it is hard and bright and sharp, and it smokes. In Bold As Love, she is cutting her script into a magic mirror, at that, and the images reach past the edge of the mortal world and into myth.
In some unspecified, but not very distant future year, Europe is sinking rapidly under a global recession. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Family has quit and walked away, and what is left of Parliament has declared a formal Dissolution Year. The pretense is that the Commonwealth is dissolving and all the kingdoms are returned to their original boundaries. The reality is that there is no social infrastructure left and the whole thing is falling apart anyway. The European Union is failing even faster than England, and the stubborn cold island on the edge of civilization is on its own.
I think one of the sillier media phenomena of our times is the celebrity who espouses a cause. All the Famous Person brings to that cause is fame, but the trick works because the dazzle draws attention away from whatever the disaster du jour is. Gwyneth Jones uses that scenario as the starting point for Bold As Love. In the Dissolution Year, the Home Secretary of England drafts a Counter Culture Think Tank: rock stars, artists, the glittering gods of popular culture. They are meant as a bread and circuses distraction, and also to demonstrate that the government is simply too cool to overthrow.
Some of the Think Tank members are chosen just because the Home Secretary can actually recognize them; others are added because his style-conscious girlfriend wants to improve the look of the Committee. A few wander in more or less by mistake from a nearby music festival. One the early strengths of the book is that Ms. Jones makes it horribly plausible that this is, yes, what passes for a sensible government policy -- and it all works for a while. Then one of the less enlightened rockers (recruited by the Suits because he looked stupid and controllable) shows up at a Cabinet meeting with friends and guns, and takes over what's left of the government ...
Post-Dissolution England is back where Her great grandmother was when the Roman Legions went home to protect Mater Roma: no economy, no allies, no central government, and the tame barbarians on the Saxon Shore have just decided they want the whole pie. This is the classic Matter of Britain.
It's also where Ms. Jones begins to reveal some of the other Think Tank members as Heroes. Most of them were drafted or joined in a moment of drug-addled hilarity, and all are more dangerous than the Prime Minister, or the new President Pigsty (yes, that's his name), or even they themselves suspect. A major triad emerges: Ax Preston, guitar lord with hidden knowledge: a database implant; Fiorinda Slater, child bride of rock and probably a witch; Sage Pender, techno knight in a living skull mask.
Ax, Fiorinda and Sage become the default leaders of the Few, the Think Tank members who survive Pigsty's bloody takeover. The rest of the book follows their battles to keep the country alive long enough to establish a viable economy. Ax, drafted as Dux Bellorum, assembles the rockers and their devotees as the work force for a boot-strap effort to keep England alive - hordes of rockers of all descriptions, manning nursing homes and recycling plants and organic farms. To keep them happy, Ax leads them as well in raids on scapegoat power plants and agribusinesses. Whenever there is space and time, the Think Tank holds a concert. They call it the Dissolution Tour, and issue T-shirts for the flamethrower crews.
Fiorinda is Ax's consort, a role she fights because she fears it diminishes her. But someone has to tend the home fires while Ax leads his "barmy army". Sage is Ax's right hand and rival, swooping between countryside and London, guarding Ax and comforting Fiorinda. These three are exquisitely detailed, larger than life in the mode of classical sacred drama: ordinary people will not do, we must have gods and kings. Ms. Jones goes right to the bedrock myth of Britain, and unabashedly gives us Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.
The supporting cast is just as beautifully drawn, if not so mythic. Post-Dissolution England is a fascinating mess, and wry, black humor pervades the tale. Technology is cheap,universal and astonishing: people wear digital masks as casually as T-shirts, and every public event and forum is enhanced with audio/video holograms. But there is also a ferocious backlash building against mechanization, and the Green movement has passed well over the border into violence. Online communities are ubiquitous - except where dedicated isolationists have deliberately retreated into 1960's hippie communes, or medieval farm manors, or Bronze Age villages. Hundreds of thousand of people drift on the roads in vehicles running on "green" fuels; at night, gangs of dedicated Luddites methodically vandalize cars that don't meet their standards of fuel economy or passenger density.
The Few fight and connive their way through a series of escalating disasters, growing in strength and potency. But no one is immune to midnight despair, not even the glittering gods; and this gives the story an invigorating blast of ruthless common sense. While they reach plateaus of success, there is no Happy Ever After. Not yet. (But there's a sequel! Castles Made of Sand, Gollancz, 2002.) By the end of the book, much has been accomplished but much has been lost forever, which shows that the Sorceress Gwyneth has her feet firmly planted in reality.
She also has them planted firmly in England. While I have no complaints at all about this book, I do have a couple of caveats, and this is one of them. This is an overwhelmingly English book. It almost need subtitles for the non-Anglophiles, like The Who's film Quadrophenia when it was first released in the US (1979). But the portrait is one of anguished love, in merciless sniper-scope detail, and it inevitably pulls one in. One of the better portrayals of an alien society I've read is its detailed description of Post-Dissolution England. Along the way, some of it is almost inadvertently funny: the cameo French are straight out of the War Propaganda Office of Henry 5th. The Islamic Insurgency in Yorkshire are Yorkshiremen first, Muslims second broad men in sensible waistcoats and braces, familiarly calling Ax "lad" as they negotiate a truce in a religious shooting war.
My second caveat is that the editing is just slightly off. This was originally published by Gollancz (an imprint of Orion Books, UK) in 2001. The American text is fine, even retaining the English spelling (great ambience) but there are a lot of feral hyphens all over: words nowhere near the end of a line, bravely hyph-en-ated in the middle of a paragraph. It's mildly distracting.
Other than that, Night Shade Books has done its usual stellar job of presentation. The Bibliography and Discography in the back invites one straight into the author's mind. The Mike Dringeberg cover is gorgeous and apt. Under the jacket is a baroquely beautiful volume in matte black, with a cover imprint in silver foil. It's the deadly, enchanting Fiorinda an inexplicable flame in her bare hand, gaudy and fragile in layers of silk and tulle, a guitar slung over her shoulder like an axe."[Kathleen Bartholomew]