My first thought on seeing the back cover blurb explain that the new Gwyneth Jones novel, Spirit, is a science fiction re-working of The Count of Monte Cristo was that this might give too much away. “Oh noez,” I could hear people say, “spoilerz!” Well yes, it is. But you know there are only so many stories in the universe, and endless ways of re-telling them. Many supposedly “new” books actually telegraph much of the plot, and in many cases that is exactly what readers want. Predictability has market value in genre fiction. I find the whole spoiler panic scene a bit ridiculous. In what follows I am going to assume that all of you are familiar with the basic plot of Dumas’ classic novel. Because, you know, you really should be by now.
Our heroine is Gwibiwr, known as Bibi. She comes from a place called White Rock, which I suspect may be Maengwyn, the place that the English called Wrexham. Her parents were rebels who made themselves such a pain that the Government eventually had to wipe them out. Bibi got adopted, and was raised by the high status family of General Yu and Lady Nef. Not in England, of course. We are in a world somewhere in the far future of the Aleutian Trilogy. The aliens have come and gone, and the dominant culture on Earth is now Chinese. There is political conflict between Reformers and Traditionalists, between those who believe in a republic and those who believe in empire. It is, you may note, a clever parallel to the world of the Dumas novel, in which France is divided between supporters of the Revolution and supporters of Napoleon.
At some point or other I expect to see academic papers that study how Jones has adapted her source work to her purpose. There is plenty to study, and that’s the main issue I want to highlight in this review. I’m currently reading a YA novel. People occasionally claim that books intended for young people are not as “good” as books intended for adults. That’s not really accurate. A book written for young people can have just as good a plot, description and characterization as a book written for adults. But books written for young people are rarely deeply sophisticated, and sophistication is something that Spirit has in spades.
I’ve now gone to check dictionary definitions of “sophisticated”, because I’m sure some people will read it as meaning “snobbish”. I was pleased to find this: “altered by education, experience, etc., so as to be worldly-wise,” which is exactly what I mean. (Literally, of course, it means “with added wisdom.”) Young people have all sorts of good qualities, but two things that they tend to be short on are education and experience. You get those by living a long time. Just as a trivial example, I can’t imagine Jones quoting from a Kinks song in a book that she writes as Ann Hallam, but she has no qualms about doing so here.
There is, of course, much more to the book than that, and one area you will all be expecting is gender. After all, the original Aleutian series was a fascinating exploration of gender issues. Actually there isn’t a lot new in Spirit, but you are doubtless expecting me to highlight what there is so let’s get it out of the way.
As I said, the story is set many years after the events of the Aleutian Trilogy. Earth is apparently still reeling from the effects of the Gender Wars. These are not explained. Possibly Jones has written some short fiction about them. If she has, I’d be grateful if someone would point me at it, because I’d love to read it. By the time of Spirit, however, things are more or less back to normal. Traditionalist families still treat young women appallingly, and Jones has a good go at them on that count. That’s something we can all agree on.
The one change to the world is the presence of the “Undecided” – people who choose not to have a gender. Here’s one of them:
Navigator T’zi, Reformer by birth and conviction, explained the validity of the undecided gender to Lady Nef – who had always thought that there must be a better term.
‘You want to call us a third sex,’ said T’zi. ‘But Undecided means what it says: fluctuation, drift, mosaic sexuality that never “settles”. It is the will of God: In time all Blues will pass beyond the either/or. A process which the Fundamentalists of your party are trying to reverse by force-‘
It is an age-old battle. Those without an attachment to any particular gender are always in conflict with those who firmly believe that there should be two, and only two, into which all humans should fit. Some Traditionalists (for example the current Iranian government) are quite happy with transsexuals, as long as they confirm to their desired gender, but Traditionalists always hate the Undecided.
What about transsexuals? Does the book have them? Of course it does. Many of them are half-castes, and as usual they end up earning a living on the wrong side of the law because they can’t get jobs in polite society. Our heroes meet some.
They moved around the square, politely accosting illegal sex-workers – presenting as women, but actually male: for some reason this was the arrangement that half-castes preferred. Bibi and honesty kept making the ‘he’ mistake, they couldn’t help it. Mahmood never did.
What is this supposed to mean? Well, it is fairly vague, but the way I read it is as follows: “men are clueless creatures who go by appearances, but real women can always tell a fake.” I may be misjudging Jones here, but this is fairly typical of the arrogant despite with which many feminists view transsexuals.
That was the gender part of the book. Those two quotes pretty much summed it up. The politics is much more interesting. I’ve already written about one passage in which Jones talks about how ineffective people who are clueless about politics can be. What she is saying is that to people who are older and perhaps wiser, rebels are an annoying pain in the butt, even if their politics are correct. This is a lesson that a lot of people could do with taking on board, especially those who are determined to continue the fight until no one is even slightly Wrong on the Internet, and they have no friends left. Jones, however, is equally wary about reformers. Here’s Lady Nef (who is a Traditionalist):
‘I believe that the Reformers are right, and that they must always be defeated, because in power they are monsters. It’s a difficult position, but one learns to put up with it.’
That could be simply a disillusioned reaction to New Labour, but I think it is more generally applicable. Remember that The Count of Monte Cristo is set in France after the fall of Napoleon.
Which brings us back to the plot: Bibi, as I said, is raised in the household of General Yu and Lady Nef. She proves bright, and has a promising career ahead of her. But there is politics, and betrayal, and a long period in prison. That part of the book moves fairly slowly, but eventually Bibi escapes, armed with a secret that will make her fabulously wealthy. Instead of the Count of Monte Cristo we have the Princess of Bois Dormant — the princess of the sleeping wood, or Sleeping Beauty. Yes, it is a fairy tale reference. And at one point in the story we get a little bit of Celtic mythology. There are almost elves. There are lots of things in this book.
Before that there is the Princess. Earth society is dazzled by her wealth and charm (Bibi learned a lot from Lady Nef during their incarceration). Oh, but where do you go to, my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed? You dream of revenge, of course. Those who put you away are currently on top of the political pile, and can’t believe that they are on the eve of destruction. But they are.
Sorry about the music references, but the book has quite a few. Think of them as Easter eggs. They are fun to spot.
Music, however, is not the only thing that the book references. We are, after all, reading a science fiction novel that is based on a classic of world literature, written by one of the cleverest science fiction writers around. Is this book part of the ongoing conversation that is science fiction? You bet it is. It touches on a whole range of issues, from the origins of intelligent life in the universe to the future of humanity, and some of the best aliens ever written (the Aleutians).
So despite a little annoyance on the gender front, I really enjoyed this book. Possibly you have to be fairly well read, especially in science fiction, to appreciate it fully, but the story works as well. The prison section is a bit slow, but the second half of the book moves along very smoothly and the ending is thoroughly satisfying. I’m hoping that someone in the US decides to publish it.