Some years ago Jon Courtenay Grimwood was the guest at a London BSFA meeting and, as is customary at these things, before he was interviewed he gave a reading from his new book. The book was reMix and it contained a reasonable amount of sex and violence for an sf novel. One of the things I first noticed about Jon’s work is that he writes rather well about sex and violence. One of the things I first noticed about Jon himself is that he’s a quietly-spoken and courteous man. The contrast between how he sounded and what he was reading was arresting. As is, I went on to find, what he writes.
Jon’s novels are usually distinguished by a fractured narrative, sometimes with different timelines running in several directions and often with different viewpoint characters. I’ve come to expect such complexity in his narrative framework, along with a richly sketched cast of characters balanced across the web of the story; and it’s equally characteristic to find that balance upset with a sudden savagery, the world turned over and over and upside down – the players reset, some bloodied, some unbowed, and some very and shockingly dead.
You could start anywhere in the bibliography; although Jon himself encourages people not to seek out his first published novel, neoAddix, it sets up and adds another angle to the action in the books that followed it: Lucifer’s Dragon, reMix, and redRobe, which share an occasionally connected cast of characters in what may be a common future.
Much of Jon’s work features a clash of cultures – sometimes between nations, sometimes within one society – and people who feel they don’t belong and fear they might be found out. The Arabesk sequence (Pashazade, Effendi, Felaheen) is notable both for its vision of future local and global society – set in an alternative future Egypt with circling Great Powers of the USA, France, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire – and for the intricacy of the alternate history that underpins it.
For me, though, what was really notable about this trilogy was that all the seeds scattered throughout Jon’s earlier work burst into flower here to deliver the elements I have now come to expect in his novels: the exquisite personal touch of the characterisation, the elegant plotting of brutal events, and the exceptionally deft depictions of human relations. Above all, there is a recognition – which comes tinged with both anger and black humour – of what people do to one another, what they let other people do to one another, and what they fail to understand about other people.
Jon’s subsequent books (Stamping Butterflies, 9Tail Fox and End of the World Blues) are not presented as a sequence, but he plays out similar themes in all three novels, despite their very different – exotic, domestic, beautiful, brutal – settings, exploring from many angles of speculative fiction ideas of alienation, atonement, displacement, duplicity, friendship, betrayal and love.
People may read Jon’s books because they appreciate them as noir-ish thrillers in a science-fictional setting, or as science fiction novels with all the ambience of crime. I read them because I’ve come to find him the most compelling, incisive and emotionally engaging writer of science fiction today. If you haven’t yet read them all, now’s your chance.