England, in the near future. It’s Dissolution Summer—the increasingly divided United Kingdom is about to split off into the individual countries of England, Wales and Scotland, with Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland. A global economic collapse has created a whole generation of disaffected, unemployed youth. The dire effects of climate change are being felt, with huge populations displaced. The combination of economic and environmental collapse with civil unrest and the collapse of digital and physical infrastructure has led to a rise of enthnonationalistic violence. All of this may feel uncomfortably familiar for anyone following British politics, but this is the world of Gwyneth Jones’ Bold As Love sequence. But help is at hand in England’s hour of need…
Ax Preston, indie guitar hero wonderboy of mixed English and Sudanese inheritance, is ready to step up, a postmodern King Arthur with an electric guitar in place of Excalibur. His Guinevere: Fiorinda Slater, a half-Irish punk rock princess with a horrific past and a magical heritage, whose electrifying talent has catapulted her to early fame. His Lancelot: his best friend and rival Sage Pender, AKA Aoxomoxoa, techno Wizkid leader of controversial and hugely popular Aoxomoxoa and the Heads, a laddish shock artist with a surprisingly sensitive introspective side who always hides behind a digital skull mask. Gritty near-future dystopia, postmodern reimagining of Arthurian mythology, and rock and roll utopianism is far from an obvious combination, but somehow in Jones’ hands these seemingly disparate elements come together to create one of the most compelling—and disturbingly prescient—science fantasy sagas of recent memory.
Jones’ Bold As Love series comprises Bold As Love (2001), Castles Made of Sand (2002), Midnight Lamp (2003), Band of Gypsys (2005), Rainbow Bridge (2006), and The Grasshopper’s Child (2014). The first book won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2002. Book two was nominated for the British Science Fiction Award, and book three was nominated for both the Clarke and the BSFA. Since then they have lamentably fallen out of print, with the final novel being self-published as an ebook. This is a great shame, as there are few books that have so skilfully captured the concerns that would come to shape the 2010s and the early 2020s. Jones’ novels combine elements of science fiction and fantasy in ways that bring out the best in both genres. The books are full of memorable characters, thought-provoking technological speculation, and fantastical flights of imagination. They are meditations on dystopia and utopia, and explore how we might imagine a brighter future on the other side of the messy collapse of capitalism. And they are books that uncover and engage with the troubling aspects of genre fiction, critiquing science fiction and fantasy’s sometime fondness for power fantasies and toxic nostalgia for a golden age. Now that Bold As Love and Castles Made of Sand have been republished in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, it is to be hoped that the series will find a new generation of readers.
The events of the first book are kicked into action when England’s Home Secretary Paul Javert comes up with an unconventional solution to all the problems plaguing the country in the run up to Dissolution Summer. Taking a page out of Tony Blair’s New Labour ‘Cool Britannia’ ploy, he puts together a Countercultural think tank made up of popular rock stars. The idea is that beloved popular entertainers such as Pigsty Liver, Aoxomoxoa and the Heads, Ax Preston of the Chosen Few and Fiorinda will give the government much needed street cred amongst the burgeoning Countercultural Movement or CCM—the catch-all term for the various disaffected groups mobilised to save the planet by climate catastrophe. The rock stars get a taste of real power whilst still allowing the traditional government to call the shots from behind the scenes.
Unfortunately for Javert and the government, they are not as in control as they think. Pigsty Liver leads a coup on Massacre Night, murdering the less extreme members of the coalition and taking power for the Hard Greens, violent ecofascists. So begins Pigsty’s reign of terror, the Deconstruction Tour, in which the worst, most violent elements of the CCM are unleashed. It’s up to Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda to save England from destruction, restore some kind of stability and create a future true to the Green ideals of the CCM while eschewing the violence and fascism of the Hard Greens. All the while, Fiorinda’s past is catching up with her. Her father is Rufus O’Niall, rock star and magician, who abused Fiorinda as a child. Fiorinda escaped before, but now dark Celtic magic powered by blood sacrifice is on the rise. Rufus is returning to take control of Ax’s England and his queen. Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda will have to navigate their complex personal relationships, global politics, and the unholy union between technology and magic in order to save the country and themselves.
What makes the Bold As Love sequence so timely and vital is that it not only imagines in alarming detail the ghastly dystopia we collectively seem to be hurtling toward in the present day, it also portrays a utopian struggle to rebuild a better society afterwards. Jones’ novels convincingly render the horror of living under late-period capitalism. The England in her books is characterised by mass unemployment caused by systemic economic collapse. Climate change is having a palpable effect on people’s lives, as global flooding has rendered parts of the planet uninhabitable, leading to mass migration of climate refugees. Today, as the UK suffers drastic rates of unemployment and poverty from decades of austerity and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues terrifying warnings about the irreversible damage humanity has done to the environment in the wake of wildfires in Greece, Jones’ warnings seem more pertinent than ever. But the Bold As Love novels are more than just a well-observed post-apocalypse story. Crucially, Jones’ imagination extends past catastrophe to find some form of hope for the future, however hard won.
The series does not pretend that this will be easy. From the start, Ax acknowledges that his Utopian vision can only ever be both temporary and fraught with compromise:
And yeah, before anyone says it, I know it won’t work. If I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, it’ll be partial, fucked-up and temporary. Partial, fucked-up and temporary will be fine. If we can get that going, for just a few years, just here in England, we’ll have made our mark. Something will survive. (Bold As Love, 72)
The guiding tenet is the utopian struggle to preserve the benefits of civilisation and redistribute them to the many rather than the few. Jones takes the postmodern mythological figure of the rock star, so often seen as the peak of the consumerist capitalist dream, and uses it to reawaken the radical potential of the hippy and punk movements. The itinerant life of the rock musician, the emphasis of hippies and punks on anarchism and squatting, reflects the nomadic life of the CCM’s “dropout hoards,” those people who through choice or necessity live outside the strictures of capitalism. Ax’s plan for England combines radical green policies, new technological innovations such as an alternative biological ATP power sources, and converting to Islam to ally himself with England’s Muslim population. Ax’s revolution rejects the racism of the white supremacist black magic enthusiasts who make up Rufus O’Niall’s Celtic movement. The diversity of the Triumvirate of Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda, with their varied backgrounds and cultural heritages, and that of their friends and colleagues, reflects the multiracial, multicultural England they stand for.
In Jones’ books, utopianism is about embracing progress and change. But central to Ax’s utopian vision is the knowledge that in order not to stagnate into an oppressive regime, utopia must be a process rather than an end in itself. The utopian society he is trying to build is always out of reach. Ax takes the title of “Mr Dictator,” and calls his government of rock stars the Rock and Roll Reich, as a reminder of the violence with which the Hard Greens seized power and an acknowledgement that, because they are shaping the people to their will like the capitalist class before them, should they ever succeed there can be no place for the Triumvirate in the utopia that they create.
Another key aspect of the Bold As Love series is how it uses fantasy and the fantastical to interrogate the genre’s core assumptions. Magic hovers around the margins of the first book, only making its presence keenly felt from the second book onwards. Rather than being a source of wonder and enchantment, magic in Jones’ series functions like fascism’s will to power. Rufus O’Niall is a monster, a rock star who feeds off the adoration of his fans and uses the resulting power to bend reality and the people around him to suit his whims. Then there is the Celtic movement, the ecofascist ethnonationalist side of the Green movement, who use human sacrifice and blood rituals to try and create their personal idealised fantasy version of England, a racist parochial Little Britain where they can roll back the rights of people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, and women. These forces stand in direct opposition to everything the Triumvirate are trying to achieve. As Fiorinda notes, “Magic is no friend to civilised society” (Castles Made of Sand, 24)
Embedded in Jones’ portrayal of magic is a critique of a kind of fantasy that uses the mythic archetypes played with in the Bold As Love series not for progressive ends but to create a toxic vision of a “golden age” of England where racism, misogyny, and bigotry reign unchallenged. The way Rufus O’Niall and the Celtic movement exploit this ultra-conservative strain of fantasy is reminiscent of the propaganda of Nazi Germany, and anticipates much of the poisonous rhetoric that would characterise the right-wing populism of Brexit and MAGA in the UK and the US, respectively. Jones is interested in exploring to what extent fantasy can be separated from power fantasy, and we see this in how she never lets her rock star characters forget that they too are intimately involved in the problematic practice of using myth to shape reality. In Midnight Lamp, Ax, Fiorinda, and Sage travel to the USA to foil a plot to create a weaponised psychic wizard using fusion consciousness technology, which sees them going undercover in Hollywood. The novel plays with how media and pop culture are complicit in the creation of consensus reality, and to what extent its possible for those inside the system to subvert that process.
The Bold As Love sequence is dense with ideas, mixing the personal and the political to remind us that the two can never be truly untangled. Thus Fiorinda’s dark fairy tale story of confronting her abusive father is inextricably linked to the fate of England, and the Triumvirate’s messy polyamorous relationship must be successfully negotiated before they can save the world. The books are also dense with memorable and compelling characters. The Rock and Roll Reich is made up of a range of vivid, well-realised characters—some based on myth, some based on pop culture, some based on real-life rock stars—all of whom have a role to play in Jones’ story. Jones draws on everything from Arthuriana to the rock mythology of Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, the Clash, and Nirvana. The novels engage with elements of speculative fiction as diverse as cyberpunk and mythic fantasy. They are complex books that reward deep reader engagement, but retain an admirable approachability because Jones never loses sight of her characters. Even in the wondrous realm of modern speculative fiction they remain a unique proposition, and with their relevance to our present-day anxieties only increasing, now is the perfect time to embrace Bold As Love’s extraordinary vision of a speculative future that seems closer to reality with every passing day.
Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts Of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.