Jones, Gwyneth (2017), Proof of Concept, Tor
So I am biased, I suppose. I love science fiction, and I love every Gwyneth Jones book I have ever read. Regrettably, that’s not a ton, because she hasn’t written that much. So coming across a new novel, however short, by this outstanding writer in the genre was a great delight for me, and I would have probably liked this book even had it been remarkably mediocre (see Williams, Tad). Thankfully, Proof of Concept is absolutely excellent. This is everything you want from science fiction: a riveting plot, plausible (to the layman) science, and most importantly, a brilliant literary mind using the unique narrative and tropological tools offered by SF to say something interesting, complex and maybe profound. Jones has done it before: in her novels about the Aleutians and their invasion she took the science fictional tradition about physicality, race and identity and ran with it, creating a meaningful literary discourse about these issues. If you have read any of her recent novels there can be no doubt she should be counted among the major British writers. Compare the Booker shortlist with her 2010 novel Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant. Using the language developed in earlier books she takes on James, Conrad, Greene and contemporary discourses of identity with an ease that puts the whole shortlist to shame (and I liked that Galgut novel). Proof of Concept is not on the same level as those novels, but it’s a smaller novella, anyway, working through its ideas on just over 100 pages. This is the closest that I can remember Jones coming to a technological thriller, and the best, most condensed example of an interrogation of that form itself that I can remember reading. The assumptions regarding knowledge, necessity and, again, identity are all put into play here, and a complete, complicated plot is introduced and seen through all the way to the end. If you like science fiction at all, you want to read this. I cannot vouch for a scientist’s view of the science here, but if you are an interested layman, proceed.
This will be one of my shorter reviews because I am loath to give away anything of the plot and the scientific concept, because the slow, precise unraveling of these two things is one of the major pleasures of reading the book in the first place. The novel is set in a future where earth has been horribly affected by climate change. Humans have colonized the nearby planets, but that’s not a solution in a situation where all of humanity is in danger of being wiped out. All humans live in so-called hives. They keep up the pretense of nationality, but really, they are all part of one of three distinct clusters of humanity, all three controlled by corporations. Outside the livable cluster is the Dead Zone. It’s not really “dead,” but the plant- and wildlife is largely poisonous to eat, and one cannot survive without gas masks, if survival is possible at all. The book itself explicitly connects the Dead Zone to Chernobyl, with all the attendant tropes and traditions. Here, as in other places, Gwyneth Jones gestures towards a genre and asks of us to follow and understand. There’s a specific discussion half way through the book that reads very metatextually, where a character, deprived of the main bulk of some important information, infers the majority of it through allusion and metainformation. Jones, in her fiction generally but in particular here, asks of us to do the same. The same applies to her vision of the future, dominated by corporations, and a dying earth. It’s not new, but very blatantly and carefully so: Jones relies on us seeing and understanding the trope so she can move on. The future of mankind hinges on getting everybody off the planet and far, far away. To achieve this, Dan Orsted, a populist, and Margrethe Patel, a scientist, pool their public funds and influence and embark on a year-long experiment underground called The Needle. The team consists partly of Orsted’s team, mostly young, virile people whose life is one big live-streamed social media feast, and Patel’s team, a group of younger and older scientists who will work on the actual engineering and science. Jones’ protagonist is the most essential member: a young woman named Kir, who was rescued from the Dead Zone as a child and had a quantum computer implanted in her head without her consent. Kir is brilliant, but as the book develops, she notices that the computer in her brain, an AI called Altair, has some doubts about the project. And then, people get murdered.
Doesn’t this sound like fun? And it really is! Having a suspense plot turn around an intellectual mystery and a murder is what moves this novella so forcefully into technothriller territory. I am very fond (see this review and this one) of comparing science fiction novels to the works of Michael Crichton, due to his outsize influence on the literature of suspense and (bad) science, and the way various ideologies come together in his books. Additionally, Crichton, no stranger to bending science to serve his ideology (see particularly the “climate change is a hoax by fat cat scientists” novel State of Fear) or plot (Timeline seems particularly worth noting here) always seemed curiously self-limiting in what he could say or show, keeping certain ontological assumptions close to the vest, and I feel, among the “technothriller” SF, you can distinguish hacks (Charles Stross) from real, intelligent writers (Jones or Scalzi) by the way they deal with the genre as coded. I think many of the good recent works of SF can be read with Giorgio Agamben’s work in mind. The idea of a state of exception and the way he explores, in his recent Stasis, how a civil war, for example, draws on the private and the public but is of neither, can, I think, be considered in connection with Jones’ novel and the way it deals with sexuality, identity and humanity. Also, after finishing it, I pulled Malthus from my shelf to look up some things, and wandered over to Deleuze and ideas of becoming. I really enjoy science fiction that invites me to look at the philosophy shelves behind my desk and consider some of its implications. Agamben, Malthus, Deleuze, I think that’s the core of the book, with some light waffle about social media as an appetizer. But I think I am drifting off course. This book is primarily a thriller. A very well done one, with a moving emotional resolution and a complicated moral arc. It doesn’t talk down to you, but it does cajole you into keeping up, rereading older texts and finding a way in which this story fits into how you think about the issues it raises. It’s playful more than anything.
As for the writing, well, it’s hard to say. It’s good, but it’s not as exact as it could be. It’s the kind of writing where you don’t notice it – it won’t bother you, but you also won’t stop to admire sentence construction. Strike that – I went back to the book after writing the last sentence: Jones’ writing here is definitely beyond what one might call dismissively ‘serviceable’ – her prose in this book has to do a lot of work: moving a plot forward, making scientific concepts understandable all while not losing sight of the emotional core of the narrative, and it does this remarkably well. In fact, of you look at the language on the page, you can tell how well Jones manages the limited real estate offered by a novella, how she shifts perspectives and manages events and dialogue. So, while I didn’t notice anything while reading the book, I can see the writing’s power now that I go back to the page. I don’t teach an MFA course, but some of these pages could easily be used as illustrative material. I just looked at last year’s Booker nominees and except for Levy and the tumultuous Beatty, none of the writers, including the inexplicably lauded David Szalay, are as remarkable on the page as Jones is, if you look closely what the language has to achieve and what it does achieve.
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