Escape Plans (1986) by Gwyneth Jones

Available works by Gwyneth Jones


Set on the Indian subcontinent in a sealed planetary habitat known as SHACTI (Surface Habitat Area Command Threshold Installation), Escape Plans envisions an Orwellian matriarchy that has resorted to  enslaving large swathes of the population, entirely marginalising the male part, in an attempt to restore Earth’s destroyed biosphere. Escape Plan was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clark Award (1987) for Best Science Fiction Novel.

Terran affairs are controlled from the space habitat VENTUR, originally set up to colonise other star systems, but as man never made it beyond the Solar System, it has since evolved into a monitoring and control station. Earth’s much diminished population is largely confined to underground facilities. As a member of the elite, the VENTURans, ALIC is on holiday in SHACTI enjoying the horse races via a virtual reality device called a vicset. She develops an amorous interest in one of the jockeys, Millie Mohun, who is the property of the SCHACTI racetrack, a bonded labour status that is also know as a biel, a number or a basic. Numbers and VENTURans live separate lives, and ALIC, in her pursuit of Millie, resorts to hacking into the system that manages the underground facilities and registering herself as a number. ALIC’s subsequent journey through the underworld exposes her naiveté about the totalitarian system she so far has only experienced from the point of view of an elite member of society. She soon discovers that Millie is an anti-VENTURan agitator, but as she loses her VENTURan identity credentials, without which she has no proof of her VENTURan status, she is stuck in the Underworld and forced to live as a biel.

Escape Plans is a first-person account told by ALIC, subject to her limited view of what goes on around her and how society works. Combined with Jones’ prolific use of acronyms and neologisms, often unexplained, Escape Plans can be a frustrating read, not dissimilar to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980). As a strategy it serves the double purpose of estranging ALIC from the part of society she for the majority of her life has had little contact with, and in creating a cognizant barrier between reader and text. A parallel would be to imagine how a medieval reader would struggle to make sense of a text from the 21st Century.

The VENTURan system of digital control is fully automated, all-invasive and requires little human intervention - hence perhaps ALIC’s naiveté: VENTURans have little need to interact with the inhabitants of the underworld. The level of systemic totalitarianism is such that VENTURans don’t even question the colonial master-servant fabric of society: numbers are seen as pets that can be toyed with, a source of entertainment. Such is the separation of master and slave that difference has become the source of myths, the numbers wrongfully believing for example that VENTURans are immortal. By the same token, the feminist nature of the work is defined by the absence of male agency. It is as if Jones is saying that when one group of society is systemically suppressed there is no space to develop a vocabulary of political resistance. It is a very clever ploy on Jones’ part, one that sets her work apart from other feminist sf works, and also one that is not without precedence in the real world. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was not the most suppressed workers who developed a politics of resistance; it was the skilled, better paid and more educated ones who articulated a theoretical language of revolution. It is of course also a comeuppance to literature where women are defined by their absence. In Escape Plans men simply do not have the means to develop a voice.

As ALIC descents into the underworld, she quickly becomes a victim of the totalitarian regime as well. All numbers are tagged and the tag is needed for accessing even the most basic of services. Numbers are also forced to wear collars, which transmit instructions and restraints vis brain implants, and which can put the numbers in an unconscious state of mind should work tasks such as passive data processing require it. So when ALIC is found out, she is not punished or even questioned, but merely has holes drilled in her cranium so she too can become an active part of the digital economy with no means of accessing or alerting the outside world.