I’ve been reading Gwenyth Jones Life (Aqueduct Press 2004.) She won the Tiptree for White Queen and Life is another gender exploration book. I really like gender exploration books so that’s all right by me. It’s the story of a woman, Anna, who studies biology. It starts in college with Anna in college and follows her, and many of her college friends, through jobs and Anna’s discovery of a genetic process that gives evidence that could change our understanding of evolution and alter our gender. There is, in many ways, nothing science fictional about it, except that it starts in the present and goes into the future a few years. It’s a book about five minutes from now.
What I like best about the book are its very literary virtues. The prose is really good, the characters are complex and feel real. We get just enough of their backstory to have a sense of them as members of a social class and culture. At the same time, Jones is too much of a pro not to have her science good and her extrapolation knowing. In an early exchange between Anna and a complicated little piece of work, a problem girl-child named Ramone, Anna and Ramone are squaring off in a good natured pissing contest about liberal arts versus science. Ramone makes the observation that Biology is second class, and that guys all go for Physics, which is where the glamor is. Girls gravitate towards Biols.
“Shows how much you know about science,” retorted Anna. “Do you call Biology second class? That’s ridiculous. you’re living in the past. So you really think people are going to be worried, a hundred years from now, about missing Z particles and up and down quarks? It’ll be like phlogistron or something, people will laugh. Just look at the board, look at the evidence. They have big money, but that alphabet soup is dead in more ways than one. The boys go for Physics because they’re conformists. I mean, really, doesn’t it remind you of Alfonso of Castile?”
“You know. King of Castile in the fifteenth century. When they showed him the latest cat’s cradle of celestial spheres that was supposed to reconcile astronmer’s observations with the stationary earth. He said, 'If God had consulted me, I would have suggested something simpler.' Haven’t you read The Sleepwalkers?”
“I couldn’t give a shit about Alfonso of Castile—“
The book is very British, and one of its rare failings is Spence, the American Exchange Student who is described as being very witty and American, but who speaks pretty pure British English. He snogs. He talks about making some easy dosh. Okay, it’s a failing of the book, but grit your teeth and ignore it. The rest of the book is worth it. I suspect it’s the very Birtishness of this book that hurt it when it came time to find a US publisher. White Queen and the two other volumes of that trilogy, North Wind and Phoenix Café (smart books about first encounters and, of course, gender politics) were published by Tor.
It’s not getting a lot of attention. That’s not entirely because it’s British. China Mieville, and Ian McDonald are doing all right in the U.S. People talk about Jones as being difficult, but if I had to describe this novel I’d say it was domestic—as much about life, marriage and childrearing as about huge social changes and biology. It takes a lot of pages, almost half the book, before the implications of Anna’s research become plain to her (and to us.) It could be that it’s pleasures are not entirely the pleasures that people look for when they go to the science fiction section of their Borders.
It is, to me, another case of science fiction that doesn’t meet genre expectations, and I wonder what Jones career would be like if she had started publishing in the last couple of years rather than in the early nineties. White Queen and, as I understand it, the series she is working on now (including Bold As Love) which I haven’t read, are very much the kind of work that demands a lot from a science fiction savvy reader. But Life could very easily sit next to Oryx and Crake, and is a much better book.