Gwyneth Jones may have some of the accoutrements of New Agery, down to the nose-ring, but there's nothing wishy-washy about the fecund intelligence that glitters behind her wary eyes. Talking about her work, the most acclaimed British female science-fiction writer since Ursula le Guin is initially reserved and hesitant. But it's quickly apparent that Jones balances her reserve with quiet charm and a fierce intellect. Jones is considered to be one of this country's finest science fiction practitioners, a writer of visionary skills with a striking and poetic narrative style. Her feminist credentials are impeccable, but gender issues do not obsess her as much as such predecessors in the field as Joanna Russ.
Just don't start criticising the pretensions of rock stars or their inability to string together a coherent sentence. Such personalities are at the core of Jones's extraordinary vision of a strife-torn, near-future Britain in Midnight Lamp (Gollancz, pounds 10.99): the latest book in her ambitious, five-volume Bold As Love sequence.
Jones is more than ready to counter the drug-addled chunterings of the Ozzy Osbournes or the rainforest chic of such stars as Sting with the (generally) good instincts of music-biz denizens. Despite being an unapologetic child of the Sixties, she is au fait with current movements in popular music - although she admits that the negativity of most rap gives her pause.
"I realised quite some time ago that music had shaped my consciousness", says Jones, "and I suppose that's why I set the Bold As Love sequence in a world which has been transformed by music and (in particular) the ideals of rock music, much mocked though they may be."
Midnight Lamp continues the story of three rock musicians who form a think tank to prevent the UK from splintering into total political fragmentation. But, after a battle with politicians and eco-warrior counter-culturals, the UK collapses, and the trio are hiding in Mexico. An emissary from the US president tracks them down, and the future of Britain is up for grabs again.
So is national identity a central concern for Jones? She's a touch wry about this: "Well, it's a key subject only because I live here. I'm deeply suspicious of nationalism and extreme patriotism. And I don't think the latter is the exclusive preserve of the Far Right. Although I'm sometimes assumed to espouse counter-cultural values, I've made some people on the Left uncomfortable when I've pointed out that there's a kind of dewy- eyed patriotism that come from that quarter - and it doesn't stand up to rigorous analysis any more than that of Tory colonels in the Shires.
It's similar, she argues, with paganism: "I've taken a great interest in the subject, and many pagans have been very kind and helpful to me, although I should state that I'm not now - nor have I ever been - a pagan. I'm not really sure that any of these groups who offer an alternative to established society provide any real threat. It amuses me when they're called `dangerous'; that probably pleases them - after all, what group doesn't like to feel it has people worried? But things are too entrenched, and if my books show English society torn asunder, that's not necessarily wish- fulfilment. I don't wish death and destruction on society, however much I might object to certain aspects of it."
Leaving aside the battle for the heart of society, what about that other unending battle - that between the sexes? As a foot- soldier in the conflict, what's her position today? Jones leans back and laughs. "Oh, I was never a militant feminist, although I obviously espouse all the ideas you might expect. But I'm not concerned with scoring points in this area, and proselytising is definitely not my thing. What interests me ... is the shifting of gender roles, which is a very fluid thing.
"The three books in the Aleutian trilogy focused on this subject to some degree - not in any crass `girls are powerful' fashion, but with an understanding of how shifts in perception of the status of men and women are beneficial to both. …