Sex and sensibility… The Brit writer reflects on gender politics in her new novel
When Justina Robson came to write her new novel, one idea was at the forefront of her thinking. “I had been toying with, trying to figure out really on a personal level, what’s the deal with men being in charge of everything in the world?” she says. When Robson’s editor told her “to do something that you really want to do”, one of her overarching themes came into focus: “I was thinking, and lots of people have done it before me in other novels, ‘ What would it be like if women were more in charge, and what would it take for that to come about? Are gender and our identities necessarily biologically intertwined at a very deep level, or are they just roles that we play? Is it culturally learned? Where do nature and nurture collide?’”
Big questions of the sort that keep academics busy for years, so don’t look to Robson’s The Glorious Angels, a novel set on a world where women are most definitely in charge, to offer easy answers.
“In my research on philosophy and biology, I couldn’t come to any definite conclusions,” she says. “Except for the ones you live through in your life, where you realise how many of your own decisions and the things you’ve done have been imposed on you by your biology, by your nature as an animal. Which is operating sometimes in harmony with and sometimes, it feels like, in opposition to your mind, your intellect, your sense of who you are as a self- determining individual.”
It’s no coincidence that as Robson offers these words, her 18- month- old daughter, her third child who should really be having a nap, is quietly playing in her mum’s home office. “Biology, for me, certainly hits you with a vengeance post- 30, in that things really start to change quite significantly,” Robson says. “I think that the old biological clock cliché really comes in with a vengeance at that point, and it cranks all the way through, I guess, for the next 10 or 15 years with increasing ferocity. It changes the way that you look at things, the way that you feel. It’s very profound.”
It’s not, Robson adds, that she “longed for children”, it was more a case of “no longer actively not having children”. This paradoxical idea of doing things while not wanting to “be consciously aware of them because it’s inconvenient” finds an echo in The Glorious Angels: “I was reading it through and thinking, ‘ Oh god, it’s very much embedded in the different characters’ conscious experience of their lives, a lot of them are doing this kind of thing, which is thinking one thing and doing something which is slightly at odds with it, and then trying to rationalise what they’re doing as if it’s a plan.’”
She sounds amused as she says all this, but don’t let that fool you into thinking The Glorious Angels is somehow not a serious book. Rather, it functions as an exploration of sexual politics that also happens to be brilliantly entertaining as a genre novel. Set on a world where people “mine their technology from the past”, it’s a return to the hard SF that marked out the first phase of her career and yet, like her more recent Quantum Gravity novels, it “reads like a fantasy”.
It’s a relief to see it out there too, as it’s been four years since Down To The Bone. The delay, and this explains her editor’s instructions to tackle a project she really wanted to do, was partly down to Robson hesitating about what to do next. “I think he felt my hesitancy was [ because of ] the fact that I didn’t feel committed to some of the things that I was proposing I might write about,” she says.
In this context, a couple of years back she mentioned the possibility of writing a YA novel to SFX. It’s safe to say this idea isn’t on her immediate horizon. “It can be tempting as a writer to think, ‘ There’s a trend for this, maybe I’ll be more popular if I write about these things,’” she says. “And then you try, and succeed or fail horribly, depending.”
Instead, she’s writing another novel set in the Forged universe of Natural History ( 2003) and Living Next Door To The God Of Love ( 2005). Looking from the outside, despite this nod back to the past, it seems a third act of her writing career has begun. Except that’s not necessarily how it seems from Robson’s perspective. Citing the way common themes run through her novels, whether that’s “writing about biology and how it determines your experience” or sharing your body with another personality, she says, “To me at least my books do have a definite trend of interest and great commonality.”
She’s right of course, but nonetheless you suspect it’s integral to her working process, whether that’s because of nature or nurture, to over- analyse, look for points of departure, before embarking on new projects. Recently, she says, she read fellow author and friend Adam Roberts’ primer for those embarking on their careers, Get Started In: Writing Science Fiction And Fantasy. “I thought, ‘ Gosh that sounds so easy…’ His instructions were all perfectly great. I thought, ‘ God you make it sound like I could just whip out a novel in two months and why the hell aren’t I?’ He’s much more productive than I am.” And then she laughs.
“To me my books do have a definite trend of interest and great commonality”
The Glorious Angels is published on Thursday 19 March and reviewed on p106.