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Issue #131 - July 2006

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Butterflies on the Wheel

By Cheryl Morgan

And now, the end is near; and so they face the final curtain.

Time is up for the Rock Ďní Roll Reich. Gwyneth Jones has got to book five in the series (titled Rainbow Bridge). The end is not just nigh, it is a mere 360 pages or so away. Can peace, love and understanding save the world? Will Ax, Sage and Fiorinda find a way to guide the planet, or at least England, into some sort of sustainable future? Or are they just a bunch of dilettante rock stars playing at politics on a stage much too big for them?

You have to admit that things donít look good. At the end of Band of Gypsys, England was invaded by the Chinese. Gosh, yes, weíd forgotten about them. While most of the Western world was busy falling into economic and environmental chaos, closely followed by social collapse, they had experienced a few problems too. But being Chinese they had dealt with them and survived. OK, so it meant the loss of a few million citizens. There were plenty more where they came from. And now they are back on their feet again. They have nanotechnology. They are efficient and organized. Only one thing scares them: that pernicious Western technology called neuroscience (or "magic" by the ignorant masses). The one thing that could threaten Chinese world domination is the neurobomb. Fortunately the only people capable of creating one are genetic freaks, so all you have to do is seek them out and kill them.

Yes, it is another Fiorinda in peril story. It gets a little tiresome after a while. But then how can she be anything else. Fiorinda canít help her parentage, or her powers, and if she uses them to defend herself then sheís just as bad as her father, right?

Fortunately the Chinese are not quite sure who can do what. The danger could easily come from Sage and his Zen Self technology. He, after all, is the master of immix, the neurological immersion technology on which his bandís success is, at least in part, based. Or indeed the Triumvirate might just be telling the truth. They could just be a bunch of dilettante rock stars.

Then again, what are the real motives of the Chinese conquerors? Do they really want to save the world from the evils America almost unleashed? Or are they really after their own neurobomber? Their own secret weapon. If Ax is going to deal with them, he needs to know.

So much for the set-up, but five volumes in what I suspect you readers really want to know is not what I think of this book, but what I think of the series as a whole. Thatís hard. Gwyneth Jones is, after all, not exactly the easiest writer to understand, even when sheís mostly trying to be accessible as she is here. There will be academic essays written about this series. Perhaps even entire theses. And Iíve only had the chance to read the darn thing once. So what you are getting is a bunch of impressions.

Politics: for all of the starry-eyed optimism and radicalism of Dissolution Summer, Jones finally comes down firmly on the side of Realpolitik. Pragmatism is the name of the game. The old world was dying, and needed to be helped on its way. The new one will be formed through ruthlessness and compromise just the same. I opened this review by misquoting Frank Sinatra because one verse of "My Way" is very appropriate for Ax. By this time he has a whole bundle of regrets ó far too many to mention. But mostly he has done what he had to do, and seen it through. Thatís what successful leaders do.

Characters: As with any large series, there are lots of them. George Martin gets away with it by making sure that each of the major characters gets a storyline to themselves. They have whole chapters told from their viewpoint. The downside of this is a series of truly massive books. Jones spares us that, but as a result there are people I still feel I donít know. Rob Nelson and the Powerbabes? Chip and Verlaine? The Heads? I felt that I needed a dramatis personae.

Fanatics: Jones is only too aware how stupid and vicious human beings can get when in the grip of political or religious fanaticism. Even the most benign-sounding concepts can turn nasty. Here are some refugees telling Ax how they had lost their children.

"Itís thí Gaians, they hate families, breeders they call us."

Save the planet, kill babies. Yeah, right.

More fanatics: Extreme right wing utopians with a fascination for John Ruskin and Tolkien? Yeah, I can believe it.

Truthiness: The Chinese run their empire largely through ruthless control of information, through controlling what people believe. There is no magic. There never was a neurobomb. It is true, I heard it on TV.

"When China imposed control over the internet, at the birth of this century, we were reviled as barbarians. I think youíll agree that events have proved we were simply ahead of the game. We were the first to understand that the media of the information age could be used as an impenetrable screen, on which any kind of picture could be projected."

Donít believe Iím taken in
By stories I have heard
I just read the Daily News
And swear by every word.

- Barrytown, Steely Dan

Research: Jones has kept up on the current state of Somerset cricket, and knows how to spell Bridgwater. Iím impressed. (Compare Vernor Vingeís faux pas over soccer, or Neal Stephensonís strange version of the Monmouth Rebellion.) Also, if you are going to write about China, Jonathan Clements is an invaluable resource.

Science Fiction: If there is one single thing you can say abut the entire series, it is that it is a message of hope. No matter how messed up the world might be, while we have technology we still have a chance. Hugo Gernsback would be proud of Jones.

Gender: I still worry about Jonesí attitude to the transgendered. There are echoes of 1970ís feminism scattered here and there.

Invisible wind turbines? Nah! Then they really would be a danger to birds. No one would be taken in by that.

Rock Ďní Roll: It is meta-story, people. OK, so if you donít like music (or even just not as well listened as Jones) then things can go over your head. The same is true of movie references in a Kim Newman book. Of course if you despise rock stars then you are reading the wrong books. But think of what you can do. You have this scene to write about a complex relationship issue. You can spend a lot of time having the girl agonize over her problems, or you can use shorthand. One quick mention of a midnight train to Georgia and the job is done. Thank you Gladys. Easy.

Overall, a fascinating series. If you are allergic to rock music, or canít fathom British culture, then youíll have a problem. If you donít like having to work a bit to follow the story youíll get very annoyed. But if you enjoy intelligent, well written, thought-provoking books that address the state of the modern world, viewed through a science-fictional lens, you canít ask for much better than Gwyneth Jones.

Rainbow Bridge - Gwyneth Jones - Gollancz - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee