Jones' works are mostly science fiction and near future high fantasy with strong themes of gender and feminism. She is the winner of two World Fantasy Awards, BSFA short story award, Children of the Night Award from the Dracula Society, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Philip K. Dick Award and co-winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. She is generally well-reviewed critically and, as a feminist science fiction writer, is often compared to Ursula K. Le Guin, though the two authors are very much distinct in both content and style of work.
Gwyneth Jones lives in Brighton, England, with her husband and son.
The titles of all the novels in the Bold as Love series are taken from songs by or works related to Jimi Hendrix. The books of the series have won or been nominated for several awards. The first volume, Bold As Love, won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Castles Made of Sand was shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association award and Midnight Lamp was shortlisted for an Arthur C. Clarke Award.
The setting is "near-future" England and the novel combines elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror, while dealing with issues of gender, politics, and environmental concerns. The subject matter refers heavily to popular music and to utopian politics. These themes are referred to throughout the sequence. The “Bold As Love” website, a compendium of the books’ sources, always including a “set list” of music tracks for each novel, designed and mainly executed by the author, has become increasingly sophisticated and is now an extraordinary creation it its own right.
Ax Preston, mixed race guitarist from Taunton, having survived a government-organised massacre of the official Green Party (under cover of a pop-culture reception à la “Cool Britannia” in Hyde Park), emerges from the ensuing chaos as the true leader England desperately needs. He and his friends, also Indie musicians, tackle an outrageous series of disasters, including a minor war with the Islamic Separatists in Yorkshire, and a hippie President who turns out to be a murdering paedophile. In the background the whole of Europe is falling apart, in the foreground there are rock festivals, street-fighting; a rampage of “Green” destruction (led and moderated by Preston) leaving a trail of burned-out hypermarkets, wrecked fast food outlets, and vast expanses of napalmed intensive farming. Ax Preston’s triumph is that he brings his country through the crisis —by guile, self-sacrifice, stubborn goodwill and of course the power of the music— more or less intact. In England, the revolution never descends into a terror. By labelling the book “a near-future fantasy” Jones puzzled and divided the critics. Perhaps “a once and future fantasy” would have been more informative, because this is an Arthur story remapped for the twenty first century. Instead of the cult of glory of mediaeval romance, the preoccupation is Utopian. How to build the Good State, in the grip of a global economic crash and an eco-revolution? Determined not to take over the government, Ax institutes free education to reclaim the illiterate children of the hippie hordes; the “Volunteer Initiative” that gets people cleaning hospital floors alongside the celebrities; and an ingenious system of “trading in surpluses”, to feed the newly destitute. Ax is aware that what he’s attempting would be impossible, were it not for the spectre of bloody anarchy on one hand, and on the other the glamour and the orgiastic release of the great “Crisis Management” concerts. But “people will do any thing, no limit, if it’s seen to be normal, and the role-models say it's okay...”. If he can keep his Utopian programme going, somehow, just for a few years, something will survive.
Aside from the breakneck pace and a playful, audacious style, the novel’s strength (as many critics have observed) is the characterisation of the principals: Ax Preston, Sage Pender, and especially Fiorinda (real name, Frances), the teenage “rock and roll princess” with a hideous past. These three, a triad straight from genre fantasy, are marvellously brought to life, illuminating a rather formal, fiercely intelligent novel with joyous power.
As in Bold As Love on “Massacre Night” there is a revelatory gestalt flip, here mediated by the Irishman, Fergal Kearney, (shades of Shane McGowan) one of Jones’s fascinating and engaging secondary characters: a “bridge” after which everything developed in the first chapters takes on a different meaning. Readers are wrest from the canonisation of Thom Yorke and Led Zeppelin, and the highly plausible trials of a country wrecked by global warming and social unrest, into the darkest of adult fairytales. It seems that Jones, unable to contain the problem of evil realistically in the “pantomime” format of Bold As Love, (her own description) has chosen to depict the horrors, that must attend a future such as she describes, in terms of the supernatural. Parted by the manipulation of a truly horrible, thoroughly enjoyable pantomime villain, each member of the Triumvirate suffers the trials and tests of fairytale, updated for the 21st Century: Ax, far away, as the hostage of a vicious drug cartel, Sage in his struggle to achieve the “Holy Grail” of Bold As Love fantasy neuroscience; and Fiorinda as a different and uglier kind of hostage, laying down her life for her people. A rich fusion of legend and folklore, science and fantasy, ancient and modern, brings the story to a climax. By the time Aoxomoxoa sets sail for the castle of the Wounded King, in a futuristic yacht called the Lorien, with a mainframe computer in the jewel of a ring borrowed from the female Merlin, the re-imagining, re-vision of the Arthur cycle seems triumphantly complete.
Jimi Hendrix was a great fan of science fiction, though probably not as steeped in sf as Gwyneth Jones has proved to be in rock and roll. His lyrics and his music permeate Castles Made Of Sand, but here the ruin of treasured dreams (...and so castles made of sand, fall in the sea...) is not the end of the story; and the violent romanticism of Led Zeppelin is not the last phase of this rock and roll career. There is more of Jones’s “complicated optimism” to come. Few readers can have anticipated a sequel so different from Bold As Love, yet essentially the formula is the same: a Brechtian pantomime, neither fantasy, nor sf, nor mainstream, that manages to be both deadly serious, and thoroughly entertaining.
The third episode of Bold As Love opens on a cold beach in Mexico, where Ax and Sage are hesitantly renegotiating their relationship, while Fiorinda struggles on the brink of schizophrenic fugue. The rockstars, scarred by outrageous fortune, have dropped out, joined the masses, abandoned the centre stage: hoping to find peace. Their Avalon is invaded by Harry Lopez, the boy-wonder producer who wants to make a “virtual movie”about Ax Preston; who brings a summons from the US President. The secret behind the assassination of Rufus O’Niall is out. The Pentagon is openly embarked on developing the new “human superweapon”: but President Fred Eiffrich, who wants to stop the Neurobomb, believes the hawks are speeding the process by shocking, and extremely dangerous, means. He needs advice. With indecent haste the three decide that what they really need is the hair of the dog that bit them. Soon they are heading north to tackle the demons of the Republic of California, in an adventure where the West Coast music scene will be ignored, while Hollywood — the “virtual” movies, the stars, the agents, the players— takes the role that rock and roll played in England. In Midnight Lamp, the Bold As Love glamour is deconstructed by confrontation with the real world. A young woman raped by her father, and doomed by the crippling mental illness that is her heritage, featuring on the reality tv show hosted by Bollywood import, the truly wonderful “Puusi Meera” . A pop-icon warlord, latest darling of the Hollywood fame machine, admits to dirty secrets behind the romance of the Rock and Roll Reich. A reformed bad boy, stripped of his wealth, status and physical prowess, finds that enlightenment is no protection from remorse. Secondary characters come to the fore, loyalties are strained. The Few —shipped over from a dreary post-Ax England— are thinking of solo projects. As the Pentagon thriller unfolds, against the backdrop of an uncannily believable day-after-tomorrow tinseltown, Gwyneth Jones returns to her long-time fascination with boundary events, moments of change. The “magic” of Bold As Love is conjured into science fictional reality (literally conjured, on stage at the Hollywood Bowl!) through the mediation of historical precedents: the sheer, limitless terror of the Atom Bomb when it was new; and the transition from “alchemy” into chemistry, myth into manufacture, in the midst of the French Revolution. And above all, there is the desert: Vireo Lake, Lavoisier, the “Cow Castle”—lyrical images of austerity and endurance, of human/nature, flayed to the point of death but undefeated. This is the lightest in tone of the Bold As Love books, despite some inventively gory crime scenes. Dissolution has gone global, there is no escape, but by the final credits the heroes have made their peace with the Burning World, the maelstrom in which they will live and die.Yet there is a darker undertow, an elegy for those who have no hope: for the Invisible People, fragments of human souls, digital fodder for virtual movies; for the self-immolation of the Gaian marytrs; and for the unsung queen of it all, Janelle Firdous. The addictions of fame, the addictions of power, are inescapable: but most dangerous, perhaps, those who have been cheated of the glittering prizes.
In the last pages of Midnight Lamp a secret military test of the Neurobomb went live, and the altered-brain neuronauts died in the act of wiping out the planet’s reserves of fossil fuel. Like the bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ‘A team event’ seemed both horrific and benign. The latest US/Islamic conflict was over at a stroke, the terminal sickness of post-peak-oil mercifully cut short. No way back to ‘business as usual’: now there must be a new world, a better world. Band of Gypsys opens, some months later, with a complete change of pace. Having failed to make terms with a corrupt and dangerous Westminster government, the Triumvirate are in Paris, conducting a mordant John and Yoko style, “bed-in”; in protest against conditions in English labour camps. Ax gets some bad news. US President Fred Eiffrich, the man who ‘Banned the Bomb’, is doomed: brought down by a cunningly manufactured scandal. The hour is getting late. The rescue of Ax’s family, held as hostages for his good behaviour, shows Ax and friends doing what they do best: extracting bloodless victory from a nasty situation. There’s a festival at Reading, there’s a clandestine ‘mind/matter tech’ space programme in the basement of the Heads’ Battersea HQ. But nothing is as it was. The ideals of the Rock and Roll Reich are alien to a new, post-Crisis generation.The leaders of fashion are neo-feudalist dandy Jack Vries MP (secret chief of the secret police), and Toby Starborn, sinister young virtual artist. Ax’n Sage’n Fiorinda are outdated icons, corpses in the mouths of the bourgeoisie, indeed. When Ax and Sage are engulfed in the “Lavoisier Massacre Scandal” a moment’s shocking loss of control precipitates disaster. The Triumvirate find themselves —like many English Royals before them— incarcerated. Once more they are forced to provide rockstar window-dressing for a reactionary and degenerate “Green” regime, but this time Ax Preston has no miraculous solutions. Locked away in the shadowy, haunted fortress of Wallingham House, the prisoners hear distant echoes of a new blitzkrieg. The Chinese, emerging from their own struggle with the Crisis years, are taking over in Central Asia. They are almost at the gates of Europe— Unlike previous episodes, Band Of Gypsys can’t easily be read as a stand alone. In Midnight Lamp the past, seen from a fresh angle, illuminated character and motivation. Now the past is all there is. A freezing garret in Montmartre, where the three enacted the miserable fate of England’s former hedonistic consumers, turns out to have been the last glimpse of open sky, a viable future. Fiorinda’s hopes of pregnancy fade, as she plods through the motions of her national sweetheart role. Ax and Sage see the life ahead of them as a dreadful imprisonment, long before Ax self-destructs. Finally we are facing the real, monstrous bulk of the evils Ax tried to combat, and it’s too late: it was always too late. England was never going to be saved. It’s relentless, claustrophobic stuff. Fans might have preferred the saga to end on the high note of Midnight Lamp. Yet this bleak downturn is as rich as ever in outrageous invention, black humour and acute social commentary — and true, on many levels, to what has gone before. Camelot moments do not endure, Ax told us at the start that he was bound to be defeated in the end. When a civilised country dies the first shocks may be exhilerating, even liberating, but then the grim symptoms appear in earnest, and there’s no more dancing in the streets. In 1969 Jimi Hendrix felt he’d reached a dead end, and embarked on a major career change. It did him no good. His new band, (Band Of Gypsys: the title of the novel honours Hendrix’s misspelling), didn’t last, and in a few months he was dead. The Rock and Roll Reich version ends differently, in passages of elegaic beauty and steely hope. An idealised England that never was cannot return, horror broods over the birth of a new world, but the Triumvirate are still standing, and la lutte continue.