The Universe of Things, by Gwyneth Jones


The Universe of Things is a difficult anthology to review, since it is populated by some very difficult writing, and I don’t mean the language is hard to understand. By this, I mean that the stories are very challenging, and not straightforward at all. Gwyneth Jones’ writing is unsettling, which can be interpreted as a sign of her skill as a writer.

Now, my personal taste leans towards stories that are written with poetry and warmth. Jones’ style, in my estimation, is dispassionate, matter-of-fact, reminding me of the hard scifi I read once which turned me off from the scifi genre for a long while.

“In The Forest of the Queen” follows Aymon and Viola Bock, a middle-aged married couple driving around France in search of a site for a new project. Aymon’s successful risk-taking ventures have left them decadently affluent, that there is no more challenge for them. Jones spends no time letting the reader come to this conclusion: this couple is suffering a mid-life crisis, and are driving around looking for a solution. It comes in the form of a beautiful stretch of forest, as yet untouched, it seems, by humans. Not only that, but it also seems to be particularly resistant stretch of forest against human—cellphones stop working; random wildlife swarm; confusing geography that makes them walk in circles, until they reach what appears to be a tourist information point. There, they experience bizarre, hallucinatory visions that make them happy until they tear themselves away back to what appears to be reality, both of them having completely different ideas of what they have just seen, until their bewildering experience does them in, destroying their relationship into an ultimate tragedy.

Aymon and Viola initially present as an ideal couple, coming together according to standard norms, even with Viola deciding never to go back to her career after having children. The first mention of this shows a little crack in the facade of the happy couple, and as the story progresses, more and more little cracks in the differences between the couple occur. Jones’ treatment of the illusion cracking is very subtle, but palpable. Just as intense is Aymon’s portrayal as ambitious, arrogant, and presumptuous, a kind of tourist attitude that seeks to take advantage of an experience without properly respecting it. Aymon’s lack of respect, his refusal to pay homage to his surroundings, drives the story.

“Total Internal Reflection” is the record of the first-person narrator’s interview with an immortal, Tamsin, in a distant future where a drug, Rem, has been discovered that could prolong life, to the point of immortality, it seems, and from this chain of events, reveal the existence of immortals who have lived among humans for centuries. And now the immortals are leaving. The interview is a vehicle for the narrator to contemplate the changes that have come about due to the Rem drug: what effect does longevity have on a population that does not stop growing? This is the shortest story in the anthology, and is only a glimpse into a universe of its own.

The format of the story is what’s most interesting: it reads like a journalistic piece, like something one might read in an editorial, or in a lifestyle magazine. The in media res approach might be a bit unnerving for readers unused to straight-up narration, but in explicating the universe, it works in giving readers exposition. You know how some writers become total bores when they start describing their universe to you, without bothering to tell you the plot of the story (because it’s just not as important)? This storytelling approach allows Jones to do that without being the writerly bore.

“Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland” came at a strange moment for me, as I read it around the time of Julian Assange being charged with sexual assault, Sady Doyle’s #mooreandme campaign and the off-shoot #prataomdet conversation where Sweden had a national conversation on rape, consent, and the negotiation of gray areas that leave people confused. In this universe, people with socializing issues hook themselves up into a virtual reality system, where they act out specific characters and storylines. There are negotiations of etiquette and behaviour surrounding being in character and acting out of it within what should be an agreed-upon storyline. While many people do use it as a method for sexual gratification, Red Sonja (her real name is never said) is one of a group using it as a way of dealing with the fact that she sees sex as a problem. But what happens when someone within what should have been an agreed scenario acts outside her expectations, as Lessingham does? When she faces a therapist who, essentially, says it’s her fault for continuing with the scenario instead of stopping? The story is problematic on several levels, and I’m not sure if Jones is playing to violent gender stereotypes or subverting them by making them so obvious. As problematic as it is, however, it does raise several questions on what constitutes consent, even in Dreamland.

“The Universe of Things”, which lends its title to the anthology, is, at face-value, about an alien who visits a mechanic for minimal car repair, because the alien is about to sell the car. Rather, a mechanic and his reactions when he gets an alien client. The world is still reeling from contact with extra-terrestrials, creating copious literature about them. From the third-person limited perspective, the mechanic’s fascination with his alien customer is obvious, belying the exoticization and Other-izing underneath the attempt for a cosmopolitan veneer. The fake politesse hides a desperation to own the alien customer’s presence. Through the mechanic come contemplations on sentience and being alive, what it means to belong to another world, and an underlying frustration at the failure to connect with the Other.

While interesting in terms of portraying what it means to be a member of the dominant population fascinated by a member of the marginalized population, I find it discomfiting to see the alien=minority trope. There’s certainly a faintly damning judgement on the mechanic, which serves as a useful critique of dominant population’s views on and treatment of minorities, but using an extra-terrestrial as a metaphor for a racial minority is problematic, overall, because it just isn’t enough, and is part of a long tradition of erasing actual minorities in media.

“Blue Clay Blues” is another of those “which is it?” stories in the anthology, resisting straightforwardness in every which way. Johnny is traveling beyond the comfort of the city with his little daughter Bella, ostensibly as an engineer-journalist investigating a possible vein of “blue clay”, the remnants of nuclear meltdowns. The story explores the tensions between the haves and have-nots, evident in the interaction between Johnny and the residents of the town he is visiting, as well as the the hope and desperation to have a better life, a more equal community that has to work underground away from the scrutiny. When he tricks Cambridge, a desk clerk, to inform him about where the “blue clay” is, their dialog reveals his position as neutral observer as unjust, unwilling to change the status quo that keeps her community as ragged as it is, brutally stripping class issues and hierarchies. The resistance towards an easy narrative might make this a frustrating read for some readers, but folks who enjoy a challenge will enjoy the pervading unease running through the story.

On a completely different note, I’m not sure I buy that “blue clay” plot device, either, but this is science fiction.

“Grazing the Long Acre” has a more straightforward theme. The title refers to the highway side sex workers in the story, looking for work. The first-person narrator is a young woman “having an adventure” in Eastern Europe, having earned “jet set money” to run away from college life for a while to travel, with an older lover, around Poland. When her lover tries to pass her on, she moves on by herself to travel with a mysterious woman who tends to the highway prostitutes. In the backdrop is the knowledge that the prostitutes are dying, preyed upon, but the silence and stigma prevents the authorities from finding out who. Through the charmed life and privileged viewpoint of the narrator, Jones presents a subculture of sex workers who live the best they can, provoking questions: how does society consider sex work and what does it do to attend to the needs of the women who work in it? What does it mean to comfort the marginalized, along the long acre?

Despite being written in 1997, the issues are no less complex nor relevant. Jones’ main characters (who don’t have names) offer a narrative of women working in solidarity–it might weird some people out to read about a young woman just asking a stranger if she can get a ride to ditch her boyfriend before the boyfriend ditches her, but it is a daring account to provide, even in progressive circles. It’s certainly a story whereby the judgement of the story reveals more about the reader than it does about the writer.

“Collision” is difficult to analyze, due to the complex world-building, much of which Jones doesn’t even bother explaining. Malin is a data field analyst, but someone without a scientific backfield is not likely to understand what’s going on in this story. I certainly don’t, so I won’t pretend to. The best I can garner out of it is that a gateway to other planets has been found, but it is still in an experimental stage, and when Dr. Skodlodowska arrives to take charge of operations, Malin is defensive of the work she and her colleagues do. As their wary relationship develops into a partnership, they embark on a series of experiments in an alternate reality, learning more about each other, until the abrupt ending.

Again, Jones provides characters who defy stereotypes (then and now!) in Malin and Dr. Skodlowska, (and a third, indirectly) working together. Their final goals are different, but their immediate goals are the same, and their negotiation is tense and thus, interesting to watch.

“One of Sandy’s Dreams” is a quick poem about Sandy’s quick exchange with a talking dog that claims to be an alien escaping the destruction of its planet. A smart and snappy little narrative, it contains a large ethical question of elitism and sentience. Read this to a kid someday; afterwards, they, too, might watch lampposts carefully.

“Gravegoods” is a tragedy of five scientists whose social awkwardness make them ideal for a mission that renders them electronic data aboard an exploration ship. Tensions of race and gender run high on board as they alternately antagonize each other in various ways, unwittingly and knowingly. The conflict grows as they set foot on a peaceful planet and live among the inhabitants for a while, until disturbingly, they realize that they are becoming real again, not just data packets in  suits. Alongside concerns for the inhabitants of the planet who will be colonized, the five of them splinter, among and inside themselves.

The most interesting scifi element lies in how it begins with them as futuristic brains in a vat, and finishes with them being corporeal. It brings up questions on what living really means. If they were experiencing sensations and emotions with each other while being digital packets, their sensory desires catered to by the ship’s computer, what does it say about the fact that they don’t even notice when they first become corporeal? It’s hard to decide whether it’s something Jones cooked up at the last minute to further complicate the plot, or whether she’s purposefully making the point that we are brains in a vat, and corporeal embodiment is significant only insofar as interacting with embodied Others occurs.

“La Cenerentola” is an unsettling story of desire for perfection, the imperfect real, with a side order of child abuse, told from the perspective of Thea Lalande, on holiday in Europe with her wife Suze and their daughter Bobbi. They meet a family of a mother, her two perfectly beautiful twin daughter-clones, and her third, more ‘natural-born’ and unattractive daughter. Thea is unsettled by the youngest daughter, the Cenerentola, Cinderella of the lot, seemingly unloved and growing wild as a result. Hints of gossip with local staff give Thea even more reason to be alarmed of and for the girl. Although Thea attempts to move her family to different vacation spots to escape Cenerentola’s family, they seem to appear everywhere they go, until Thea sees the crack in the perfect existence of the twin daughters. What is the price of vanity parenting in a world of reproductive technology? Adding another layer, what is the relationship between a woman getting tired of her perfect daughters, and her weed-wild daughter? At what point does desire stretch to thinness in an age of mass production and simulacra?

It is perhaps the undercurrent behind those questions that would be of greatest difficulty for any reader–early on in the story, there are innuendos and hints of a possible kind of abuse by the mother and her Cenerentola, which hint to the relationship between them that Thea cannot grok. It is a kind of relationship that is dangerous to say out loud because then it might sound like an accusation. Yet the mood behind it is menacing, threatening to Thea’s sense of family, which might transfer to the reader.

“Grandmother’s Footsteps” is the story of a young family moving into an old house, which is haunted by a musty smell and the ghost of an old grandmother. Filled with an unsettling creepiness of haunting that never jumps out directly (much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper), the relationship of the young couple begins to deteriorate, the young mother feeling the drudgery of women’s work, and their young child losing her vivacity. Is it the humdrum of routine that dampens their family life? Or is it the old grandmother spirit of the house that affects them psychically, rubbing down their spirits until they settle into a normalized discomfort?

Keeping to the theme of haunting, I feel it’s important to keep in mind how the young mother’s attempts to negotiate a career for herself writing kids’ cartoons (idealistically hoping to educate through pop media), even while juggling a child and renovating a house, echoes the energy-sapping trials of many feminists, then and now. In this protagonist we get a reflection of the many people who, though working for a better future on a larger scale, eventually burn out, unable to combat the miasma of microaggressive oppression that occurs on  day-to-day basis. We are haunted by histories of society that refuses to support women who want to change the world, expecting them to be tamed, quietened, shut down, by maternal duty. And often, by the specters of our own mothers and grandmothers. It’s a bleak ending, which either quashes any dream you might have for using your work to make the world better for your child, or makes you angry that this is true for so many people.

“The Early Crossing” is a straightforward, very short story of, well, someone crossing over from life into death. The language and description is poetical, but it captures the moment of unsettling realization. Nothing new about the theme, though. Moving on.

“The Eastern Succession” was the hardest story for me to read, as it is set in a secondary world inspired by Jones’ time in Southeast Asia. Although certain words are familiar, much of it is not, and what is made hybrid is truly disturbing to me. The narrator, Endang, is on a mission to observe the politics of the succession for Timur Kering (Malay for “Dry East”), amid the petty rivalries of various factors who align themselves with one of the three candidates. Navigating in a socially matriarchal, politically patriarchal, Endang meets Derveet, a higher-cast woman who appears to have some power over the small group of bandits she associates with. The world-building is excellent, with intrigues aplenty, between the bandits, the women of the Dapur (kitchen), the bureaucratic Koperasi and the criminal organization Fan, Paper, Cloth. It’s the latter which disturbs me the most—although Kipas, Kertas, Kain does have alliteration, the implied parallel with a real-life KKK is incredibly unsettling, because there is no such history in the region. Moreover, such an alliteration—and Jones does use “KKK” within the story itself—assumes a linguistic Anglo-centrism, which is understandable in a primary alternate-history Southeast Asia (as colonialism effectively installed the English alphabet in the region as the default alphabet, replacing the Arabic-inspired Jawi), but not in what reads as a secondary world setting, which gives no background as to why High Inggris is even a dialect in the region. The reliance upon Anglo words to derive specific terms comes across as lazy and inconsistent with the rest of the world-building which uses actual words from the various languages of the SEAsian region. Much like the more recent Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, The Eastern Succession reads as clumsy exoticization to me, although it acquits itself far better than Windup Girl did.

“The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle” is a bizarre story that layers on two stories with the same cast: a self-loathing young woman / princess, a similarly unconfident young man / thief who stole his brother’s place to become a wizard’s apprentice, and their punishment to live together, with him as her bloodsucking shadow living off her self-mutilation habit. Princess Jennifer takes up the burden here as she learns to live in a way that weans her off self-injury, until both she and Rayfe/Ralph learn, in a bizarre fairy-tale way, to love each other. If you ever wanted a bedtime story to introduce Cartesian logic to your child with, this is the story for you. Your child may not thank you, but brain breaking is rarely appreciated.


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