Grazing the Long Acre by Gwyneth Jones
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
05 October 2009
In King Death's Garden (1986), one of her "Ann Halam" novels for children, Gwyneth Jones wrote one of the finest modern ghost stories in the M. R. James tradition, in which the lonely self-centred Maurice needs to cling to the idea of "chemical patterns. Images from the past, somehow regenerated" despite all the evidence that what he has encountered in the cemetery behind his great-aunt's house is, in fact, ghosts, and that the "wild girl" Moth is in fact some kind of elemental sprite.
The power of the story is not that it has somehow "resolved" into a ghost story from one which might well have had a "scientific" explanation, or even that it allows the reader to hesitate between explanations, but that the author is quite assuredly reminding us that different kinds of stories have different "grammars." Many of the stories in Grazing the Long Acre achieve their effect from this refusal to take the easy generic route. Gwyneth Jones is very much a hard science fiction writer, in the sense that she researches and utilises various aspects of science in her work (such as citing the proceedings of the Eleventh International Conference on Comparative Physiology for the thinking she does on gender for her Aleutian trilogy). But as a storyteller she uses whatever motifs and techniques are appropriate (or startling); and as a science fiction writer she is open to the utter weirdness of science. In Bold as Love (2001), for instance, opening what some call the "Rock and Roll Reich" sequence, Fiorinda and her grandmother have what may be paranormal powers—but does "paranormal" mean "magic"? And after all, this is the counterculture, with all its woozy appropriations of magic and fantasy. Likewise, in several of the stories in this marvellous and innovative collection (surprisingly, the first collection of her short fiction published in the UK although there have been other selections of her work in the USA, most recently The Buonarotti Quartet, which includes four of the stories featured here), our preconceptions about what kind of story is being told are always being held to account by Jones's clever use of storytelling conventions.
"La Cenerentola" (1998), for instance, is a retelling of the "Cinderella" fairy tale, set in a near-future in which reproduction has been divorced from the body, uncompromisingly bringing us up against what we are actually doing when we speak of our world-changing technologies as "magical." In a recent interview in Vector, Jones says that "Strangeness seems to me to be unavoidable in science. Of course you don't have to think about it. You can just use quantum mechanics or whatever as cookery . . . but if you actually think about it then it's very bizarre" ("Other Views: Gwyneth Jones interviewed by Tanya Brown," Vector 260: Summer 2009, p. 23). Gwyneth Jones is asking us to "think about it", both the subject matter of her stories and how they are told; and to think about it again to consider how her characters appear in their worlds and what implications this has for reading our world. From the moment Johnny Guglioli is asked, in "Blue Clay Blues" (1992), whether he is taking his daughter Bella with him as "cover" or really looking after her "like a woman" ("No," he replies: "I look after her like a man"), or when Anna in "Balinese Dancer" (1997) meditates on a feminist text she is reading, we know we are being faced with some uncomfortable thoughts about gender, no matter what "line" on that complex subject we may take. (Two other stories achieve similar effects simply by the way they employ the word "wife.") Elsewhere, stories like "The Eastern Succession" (1988) and "Saving Tiaamat" (2007) consider political diplomacy and colonialism in ways which far too many SF stories don't. The former is sent in the "Peninsula" of Divine Endurance (1984), allowing the voice of the story to be not the Western default; the latter is narrated by a member of what could be the colonial power, but expresses uncomfortable suggestions about power relationships between cultures even as its narrator Debra kickstarts a solution to a horrific near-genocide through a questionably ethical exploitation of her ability to "change the information." In "La Cenerentola," again, part of the strange dislocating effect of the story comes not only from the fairy-tale vocabulary but from the double dislocation of its engagement with futurity. The narrator is confronting the emergence of a future in which, as I've noted above, technology creates the spooky effects of magic. But this is a person existing in a future already estranged from our present by the presence of "spooky" technology, and her response when she engages with her own transition into a future that is increasingly hard to understand mirrors and emphasises ours when we confront her present, which of course is our ineffable and mysterious future.
In the quantum regions inhabited by the space-travelling characters of "Gravegoods" (1989), "The Tomb Wife" (2007), "The Voyage Out" (2008), "Saving Tiaamat," and other stories which utilise the Buonarotti instantaneous-transit device that first appeared in the Aleutian trilogy, reality is not stable. "Is this a dream? " asks one of the characters in "Saving Tiaamat," to be told, "Not quite. It's a confabulation. It's what happens when you stay conscious in transit. The mind invents a series of environments . . ." (p. 254). Similarly, "Gravegoods" talks about the "consensual reality" created by the minds of passengers engaged in travelling through space-time using technology that crosses "the mind/matter barrier." These stories, and her new space-opera novel Spirit, are set against a backdrop of the "Diaspora" of humanlike beings throughout the universe and in conjunction with several of her other novels form a loose future history; but in keeping with Jones's quantum slipperiness, it is extremely loose. The two Johnny Guglioli stories, "Blue Clay Blues" and "Identifying the Object" (1990, as "Forward Echoes"), which predate the chronology of the first "Aleutian" book White Queen (1991), are not always consistent with what we are told there: but this is story, not reality. Certainly the latter story can only be read as oblique to, rather than a prequel of, White Queen, and while it is becoming possible to read novels with futures as apparently diverse as Divine Endurance (1984), White Queen, Bold as Love, and Spirit as in some way sharing a historical thread, it is perhaps best to think of this as obliqueness rather than a common "future history" in the Heinleinian manner. Or, perhaps, if we think back to Bold as Love and its sequels, as riffs and improvisations rather than a musical score.
Reading these stories gathered as a collection, you realise how many of Jones's characters are on journeys, or travelling. Not just the "Buonarotti device" stories, where space travellers are in flux in a weird limbo between "here" and "there," but in stories such as "Balinese Dancer", in which Anna Senoz, later of Life (2004), and her husband and son are driving around Northern France, cut off from home by something which may be a science fiction-like catastrophe or simply mundane industrial/social disruptions; or in the title story, in which an American dropout is cruising the motorways of Poland observing the prostitutes whose life is a much more squalid (and dangerous) analogue of hers. In the final story, "In the Forest of the Queen" (2007), a couple about to establish a foundation that would shape the future into a "beacon in the storm" (or an "eco-technology fantasy") are travelling about rural France. They experience something in a wood which is part of that future. Once more, the language of fairy tale becomes the only appropriate measure for the story. These are all very different stories—one involves a murder, the second what may be a spiritual awakening, the third a bizarre literalization of folk-tale symbols—but they share a sense of physical and emotional restlessness. Perhaps the most relentlessly restless story, despite its claustrophobic focus, is "Destroyer of Worlds" (2000), in which the narrator replays the moments leading up to the disappearance of her child and what might have happened afterwards in an attempt to focus on the heart of the moment of horror: that even her memories of that last moment, which are all she has of her child, may not be reliable.
"Destroyer of Worlds" is a horror story, although the appearance of the horrific is constantly deferred (or there right from the start, because what can be more horrific in anyone's life than the unexplained disappearance of a child?). Gwyneth Jones's refusal to allow us the cosiness of genre is to the fore through all these stories, as is her command of how to use generic conventions. "The Fulcrum" (2005), for instance, brilliantly reflects the early pioneering days of the rediscovery of "Buonarotti" space travel through its hard-boiled tone. But perhaps "The Tomb Wife" is the most appropriate example to take more time to think about. A "Diaspora" story, it is clearly a science fiction story with a bat-winged humanoid alien and a spaceship (on board which the story takes place: this is another story of voyage, of transition). It is also a ghost story—and one of the interesting questions we might ask is how far its "explanation" of what this particular "ghost" is follows the same pattern as the kind of "mundane" ghost story which collapses the "ghost" into something rational. The "Lar'sz" (Sigurt's alien culture) are alien beings—in our language the object which is signified by "ghost" is not quite the same as in theirs. As Sigurt explains:
"In my world we believe that people can, how can I put it, leave themselves behind at certain junctures, life events. Someone else goes on. When we speak of a haunting, that's our derivation. Not the, er, spirit of someone physically dead." (p. 272)
Such an explanation is easier to accept from the point of view of a human in the "Diaspora" culture, of course, because the entire action of the story takes place in the transit between worlds powered by a technology which is beyond our concept of "spaceships" but seems to involve some kind of quantum effect directed by specially modified human consciousness such as that of Elen, the "Navigator":
"The whole universe is a game, is it not? A puzzle-mass of tiny units of information, the pattern of which can be changed at will—given the torus, and the fabulous software implanted in a trained, numinous consciousness." (p. 272)
The torus is the equivalent of the ship's engine, if the Pirate Jenny (whose name is taken from a song in Brecht/Weill's Threpenny Opera) is actually physically a spaceship. If Elen's thought reflects reality, what seems to be happening is some form of hyper-mathematical transformation rather actual travel through space—
But we do not travel, she thought. Not a step. When the transcription is done -what does when mean, where there is no time?—we will make the crossing in almost zero extension. (p. 268)
We are reading the account of what happens during a voyage, which we learn during the story is "instantaneous." Time passes, duration does not. The Active Complement, in their state of transit, share consciousness to some extent, but exist in a "country of no duration," a dream, a "paradoxical moment."
"The Tomb Wife" is also—at least from the alien point of view and possibly from that of the human—a love story. Like most love stories, it focuses upon the act of communication between individuals, which is so often an act of miscommunication. The Active Complement of the Pirate Jenny are humans from the "Blue Planet" (Earth) who are first seen in debate with the alien Sigurt. In the course of this debate, particularly with Nadeen, the "Diaspora-denier" (we might think of the debate between Darwinians and Creationists here), we see different viewpoints about the universe and different viewpoints about Otherness. Elen's mapping of "Muslim graves" upon her imagined landscape of the Lar'sz culture, and her recollection of other customs such as suttee and the "sacrifices" of Pharaonic Egyptian and Incan cultures, is also relevant. Throughout the story are numerous references to clashes between cultures, and within cultures. We are told early on that the Lar'sz are among those—the cultivators and owners of the soil, the refugees the dispossessed—who "preserve old cultural features." Also relevant is the debate about gender, which the Lar'sz do not, biologically, have. In the growing relationship between Sigurt and Elen we also learn that there are similarities as well as differences between their cultures, but the final encounter suggests that she is only a piece of code in Sigurt's own equations. Between any two individuals, we might read from this story, communication is always a matter of translation, and "really there was only the blizzard" of chaos:
"It's different and it's the same, of course."
The constant cry of one numinously intelligent sentient biped to another. (p. 272)
The mixture of wisdom and sardonic humour there could be endlessly unpicked. Grazing the Long Acre is a rich, rewarding collection by a writer at the height of her powers.