It's fitting that the first puff on the back of the Bold As Love hardback is Bruce Sterling's, because Gwyneth Jones's novel is a very English version of what Sterling does so well for the US. In Sterling’s Heavy Weather, Holy Fire and Distraction, he has taken one element of American fringe culture and extrapolated like mad to depict a convincing near-future. And so too has Gwyneth Jones for the UK in Bold As Love. She has taken all the fringe cultural groups that accrete around festivals like Glastonbury and Reading, borrowed the media-friendly label "countercultural" for them, and built a future for England from it. I write "England" because central to Bold As Love is the dissolution of the Union — Scotland and Wales get to go their own way, Northern Ireland becomes someone else’s problem.
Some five years from now, an ambitious government minister decides to form a think tank of countercultural celebrities, with an aim to popularising an unpopular government. He tells them he wants ideas, but it’s nothing more than "bread and circuses", a phrase which crops up quite often in Jones’s novel. But then Bold As Love is as much a political satire as it is science fiction, so the phrase is apt. At the first meeting of this think tank are the central trio of Fiorinda, daughter of a Big Name rock star, carving out a name for herself as the vocalist and lead guitar of a feminist post-grunge band; Ax Preston, guitar god from a seventies-style heavy rock band; and Aoxomoxoa/Sage, front man for a techno-dance band, which seems part-Prodigy and part-Nine Inch Nails.
Things go wrong very quickly. Pigsty, the lead singer of a popular punk band, violently seizes power and proclaims himself president. (The Windsors, incidentally, had abdicated long before — Britain on the brink of Dissolution is republican.) Bold As Love then follows Fiorinda, Ax and Sage as they try to usher England into a new era, in spite of the dissolution, in spite of President Pigsty's Nero-esque rule, in spite of the surviving government bureaucracy.
It’s a convincing portrait of the near-future Jones has built in the details, but unconvincing as a picture in and of itself. The novel is subtitled "A Near Future Fantasy", and this it is, despite singing along to the tune of science fiction. But it’s a catchy melody, so accepting that one big initial key change is no real hurdle. The novel has its verses, the various incidents or scenarios involving the central trio which tell the story; and its refrain, the developing relationship between the three. All three are damaged goods: Fiorinda psychologically (after the incident which was published as 'The Salt Box' in Interzone, and saw that issue of the magazine seized by the authorities); Sage physically; and Ax in his relationships with family and friends. It is Ax, however, who takes the lead in Pigsty’s countercultural revolution — he sees it as his responsibility to temper the punk president’s excesses, to ease the country's change to a new mode of a living.
It is not entirely convincing that a series of rock concerts, a tour, is the best means for such a political and social objective, but Jones makes it work — the tune is all, so who can quibble over the odd badly-forced rhyme in the lyrics? However, it's not all arenas full of screaming fans: the tour includes various violent demonstrations of green power, and later devolves into war with Islamic separatists in Yorkshire. Sage and Ax turn soldier, but it is Ax's grand gesture of conversion to Islam that ends the war.
The real strength of the novel, however, lies not in its invented future but in the relationship between Fiorinda, Ax and Sage, which is beautifully handled. And the fact that Jones handles three so very different characters so well is impressive. But then Jones’s strength has always lain more in her characterisation than in her plotting. It’s a forgivable weakness given that strong characters can carry a weak story but weak characters cannot carry a strong story. Add to this her skill at world-building — or rather, the verisimilitude of the details she invents — and prose that is a joy to read, and it’s no surprise Jones is one of the best writers of science fiction currently being published. Recommended.
Links to the book review pages
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