WHITE QUEEN by Gwyneth Jones (BOOK REVIEW)
“Everything was alive: rock, metal, food, tools. Everything was crawling with the infection of Aleutia: a world of flesh infested with the life of its people.”
“It was a truism that the aliens who landed, whoever they were, had to be superior. Or else we’d be visiting them.”
White Queen (1991) is the first novel in Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian Trilogy, one of the key works of speculative fiction of the 90s. It is a first contact novel, one in which the aliens are used to both explore posthuman possibilities of embodiment and to question the ways we perceive otherness. As such it is a feminist science fiction classic in the vein of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series (1987-89), works with which it is very much in dialogue. Through her alien Aleutians and her compellingly well drawn human characters, Jones explores how our assumptions about humanity, and about how aliens will behave in first contact situations, combined with similar assumptions on the aliens’ part, lead to a tragic series of miscommunications that have enormous consequences for both peoples. Jones demonstrates how speculative fiction acts both as a thought experiment to consider the difficulties we might face in human/alien communications, and as a mirror through which we consider how we interact with people whose race, gender or sexuality is different to our own. She does all this whilst constructing a frighteningly plausible future for humanity, in which the effects of climate change and the tensions between the haves and the have-nots are making themselves felt. White Queen is a powerful and disturbing work of science fiction at its best, and confirms Jones as one of the genre’s most incisive voices.
White Queen starts in the year 2038, the year the Aleutians land. The world is teetering on the edge of chaos, following the destruction of Japan in a geological disaster, the wide-spread effects of climate change, and increasing wealth inequality. Johnny Guglioli is an ex-eejay – a digital journalist – living in quarantined exile in West Africa because during his last job he became infected with QV, a deadly virus he caught from a biotech computer. He meets what he perceives to be a mysterious young woman called Agnès, whom he has a hunch can lead him to the rumoured landed aliens, a story so big it will put him back on the professional map. He also becomes entangled with Braemar Wilson, a cynical journalist not shy about using her sex to manipulate him, who also believes that Johnny is onto a massive scoop. Both Johnny and Braemar get gazumped by the Aleutians announcing their presence to the world, but not before Agnès reveals herself to Johnny as one of the Aleutians. Humanity is convinced that their new alien visitors must be a massively superior species to have travelled all that distance, and assumes that the Aleutians are telepathic and immortal. The Aleutians, who simply want to make a quick buck trading with the humans, are keen to exploit this misunderstanding. For their part, they mistake the World Conference On Women’s Affairs (WOCWOM), which just happens to be in session, for the world government, inadvertently fuelling the conflict between the exploited women of the third world and the patriarchal men in power in the West into a full-blown Gender War. Misunderstandings pile up and tensions between humanity and their alien visitors rapidly increase, resulting in the anti-Aleutian terrorist group White Queen deciding to take matters into their own hands. Following a disastrous encounter with Agnès, who is now called Clavel, Johnny finds himself recruited into White Queen by Braemar, who is planning a terrible mission of retribution.
As the summary above indicates, White Queen is a complex novel with many overlapping elements. However the main focus of the book remains the disastrous relationship between the Aleutians and humanity. Because the Aleutians have turned up on our doorstep like the Martians out of War Of The Worlds, humanity assumes that they are a vastly superior force, armed with devastating firepower and equipped with FTL drives, intent on conquering Earth and making us a part of some vast galactic empire. However the Aleutians are only playing along the role of the superior conquering aliens because their leader Rajath thinks it will help them get a good trade deal. Far from representing a galactic empire, they don’t even have a formal name for themselves – the press calls them Aleutians because their first ship lands in the Aleutian Islands and the aliens just go along with it. Because the Aleutians can communicate without words, humanity assumes they are telepaths, able to read everyone’s thoughts and so curb rebellion as soon as it’s thought of. But the Aleutians communicate using the Common Tongue, a combination of body language, intuition and non-verbal gestures, and make the mistake of assuming that the humans can communicate in this way too. The Aleutians have every possible individual coded into their DNA, resulting in them being reborn each generation and learning their previous personalities, and those of their fellows, using their extensive recorded archives. They came to Earth on a generation ship. But the humans misunderstand individual Aleutians to be immortal. Thus both Aleutians and humans, because of their specific cultural environments, encounter the alien through their own specific lens of assumptions and beliefs, leading them to inevitably misunderstand one another.
However, the two biggest differences between humans an Aleutians comes down to gender and individuality. In stark contrast to Johnny Guglioli’s American individualism, the Aleutians treat their living technology, their plants and animals, and each other as extensions of one massive WorldSelf, a contiguous hive entity. This is a viewpoint radically opposed to Western notions of the self as distinct and discrete, and one that horrifies the humans when they discover it. The Aleutians, for their part, can’t help but see individual humans as woefully incomplete. Aleutians are also hermaphroditic beings who reproduce via pathogenesis. Johnny, Braemar and the other human characters insist on reading Clavel and the other Aleutians through the lens of a binary male/female gender system, one that absolutely does not apply to the Aleutians at all. Thus, depending on whether Clavel is thinking about themselves or other people are thinking about them, Aleutian pronouns change from he/him to she/her in the text, showing how humanity is projecting their understandings of gender onto the Aleutians rather than trying to understand how the Aleutians conceptualise themselves. This leads to the great interpersonal tragedy between Clavel and Johnny, as Johnny sees Clavel as a woman until following a horrendous miscommunication, Clavel rapes Johnny. This act of violence, which Clavel cannot perceive as violence because they do not have the same conceptions of personal boundaries as humans do, radicalises Johnny into joining White Queen. Similarly the Aleutians mistaking the WOCWOM for the world government suddenly spotlights women’s affairs in ways the Aleutians cannot understand, ultimately splitting humanity into those who want reforms, which gets called the women’s side, and those who are opposed to them, which gets called the men’s side, in the messy Gender War, which of course has men and women fighting on either side. The Aleutians may not see themselves as conquerors, but their very presence on Earth exacerbates existing tensions in ways they cannot understand and irrevocably changes humanity based on these fault lines that were already there.
Jones manages to juggle all these complex storylines and ideas into a satisfying narrative whole, one that is fuelled by the personal tragedies of Johnny, Clavel and Braemar, damaged individuals caught up in something larger than they can understand, whose attempts to find intimacy only end up causing more pain and suffering. Jones expertly handles the big reveals, slowly feeding the reader information and rumours about the Aleutians as the humans receive them, so that like humanity in the novel, the reader must try and build a picture of the “real” Aleutians from the incomplete and biased information they have. Rather than getting a clear picture from an infodump, the reader is required to confront their own assumptions and prejudices about aliens, and experience in real-time how that obscures the Aleutians from the humans and vice-versa. Jones continues this process throughout White Queen and its sequels, North Wind (1994) and Phoenix Café (1997), and as we shall see, the in-depth exploration of the relationship between humanity and the Aleutians makes the Aleutian Trilogy one of the most powerful explorations of the alien the genre has to offer.