Justina Rob­son

Sex and sen­si­bil­ity… The Brit writer re­flects on gen­der pol­i­tics in her new novel

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Justina Robson - Words by Jonathan Wright Por­trait by joby sess i ons

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.

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