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Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics by Gwyneth Jones
Review by Ernest Lilley
Aqueduct Press Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1933500328
Date: 23 November 2009 List Price $19.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Not only is Gwyneth Jones a brilliant author, she's a fabulous essayist, and though the cover blurb of Imagination Space says that this is a must read for anyone that cares about feminism, science fiction, or both, it misses the mark. This is a must read if you care about, both, either, genre literature in any form, the exploration of self through literature, or a host of other topics. In fact, it's just plain worth a look.

I've always enjoyed Gwyneth Jone's writing, but Imagination Space introduces me to the author as a literary critic and essayist, and I'm pleased to make the acquaintance. The essays in this collection are clear and lucid, insightful as all get out, and totally accessible. Probably more so than this paragraph.

Gwyneth looks at lots of topics that have been murky to me, and suddenly they become clear. For instance:

  • What is science fiction?

    By looking at the elements of different forms of fiction that had emerged over the past two hundred years, and seeing it as a patchwork creature worth of kinship with Frankenstein's creation, i feel that it's more than whatever Gardner Dozois is pointing" at when he say's something is SF.

    (Though the latter test still holds, of course.)

    or

  • Why do readers of "real" literature look down on SF readers?

    Because they are basically readers of serials, and the application of the serial formula is more important to its fans than the artistry of its prose. "The reader reads the story...not to find out what happens, but to find out how it happens this time.(25)"

Not, she goes on to explain, that putting the prose before the plot necessarily makes a superior work. Genre fiction is however inherently commercial, and in many ways follows the model of narcotic sales, which comes as no surprise to anyone hooked on the stuff.

In her discussion of icons in SF, she talks about the role of women in golden age books. While they do appear on the cover with swelling bosom and spandex space suits, she notes that "the classic writers were often -- according to their own lights -- positive and generous toward women.(41)"

I think she's got that exactly right. Given the culture they were part of, classic SF authors often gave women pretty good roles. Nonetheless, as Jones points out about the genre in general, it "could do better."

One of the things that I've always liked about Jones, who accurately regards herself as a feminist writer, is that she gives the reader an understanding that women are not the only victims of patriarchy. That men too lose something in this paradigm, and that "not all the bones in that valley are women's bones."

In her writing, she often asks, "what will men of goodwill have to lose, in order to become human?(57)" But she also looks at what they have to gain.

The essays in this book do not all concern themselves with feminist issues. Actually only about a third of them devote themselves to the topic. The others range far and wide over genre issues from the insightful discussion of Mil-SF, "Wild Hearts in Uniform: Romance of Militarism in Popular SF" to "The End of Oil (In Three Acts)" a brilliant little short story that hammers home some interesting points about energy and technology.

As a non-academic, I often bounce off critical works scratching my head. Gwyneth Jones' mastery of her subjects and engaging writing pulls me in time and again, leaving me struck by how much more comprehensible the tangled web of speculative fiction is when seen through her eyes.

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