Sunday, 18 October 2015

Paul McAuley; Something Coming Through

Pro-tip; read the chapter subheads. I was a third of the way from the end of the book when it finally hit me that the two interwoven narratives were not in sync with each other, but McAuley had played perfectly straight by putting the date in every single chapter heading. From the get go, the chapters on Mangala are the aftermath of the chapters on Earth, not a parallel to them, but I read almost the whole book thinking that they were simultaneous. Of course, when the penny did drop I got quite a kick out of resetting all my internal clocks and realising how one group of chapters had been feeding into the other, so you’ll miss out on that, but on the other hand, you’re more likely to be reading the story McAuley was trying to tell.

McAuley isn’t actually an author I rate that much; he’s a guy who writes passably well while telling stories which don’t work for me. I remember thinking that Pasquale’s Angel would be a lot of fun - it was 1994, the whole idea of Renaissance Steampunk was genuinely novel - and not being able to trudge all the way through. Something was missing and I’m damned if I know what, or whether I’d read it a different way 21 years later. I thought that the Quiet War sequence was interesting, but between its downbeat tone and the fact that I read the second book in the middle of a pointless row at work - actually, I was reading it as part of the way I was conducting the row, hiding behind the book rather than talk to the person I was having the row with - I didn’t bother sticking with it. I sort of enjoyed Cowboy Angels, though not to the point that I remembered reading it until I was looking at McAuley’s back catalogue to see when Pasquale’s Angel came out.

So quite why I bought Something Coming Through is a bit of a puzzle. Probably because it was three bucks as a Kindle book, which tickled my bargain button. Three bucks isn’t much to risk on a book, and if I don’t like it, at least it’s not a brick of paper taking up more space on the shelves until I sweep it up and dump it on some charity shop that may never be able to shift it.

I’m glad I spent the money, because Something Coming Through is one of those books which left me wanting more. The plot isn’t that compelling, and I don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time with the characters in the future; it’s the background.

McAuley’s come up with a genuinely new notion for the future. Space aliens do exist, they’ve intervened on a troubled earth, and now we can travel to other planets. Which just throws up more questions than answers. For starters, we can only travel to fifteen other planets; the Jackaroo have given earth a shuttle service via wormhole to those planets, with no explanation as to why those planets or how to get to any other ones. And they’re not exactly perfect fits for settlement. We only see one of them in detail, Mangala, but hints about the others make it clear that they’re all marginal at best. And that’s before you get into the other problems. While it’s impossible to eat most of what’s on these other planets, and our crops won’t grow there without heroic effort, there’s lots of stuff on them which can survive on earth and do a lot of ecological and social damage.

And then there’s the abandoned detritus of the previous owners, because the Jackaroo have been pulling this trick with other planets in the past, and each of the fifteen is covered in the ruins and relics of many previous cultures. What happened to them? The Jackaroo won’t say. But mining out the relics and reverse engineering the technology has become the most important driver of earth’s colonial effort. Stuff coming back from the new planets has changed the earth in dramatic and subtle ways, and as always, there’s a thriving black economy making sure that the changes are not all for the good. The earth-bound chapters are very good at conveying an edgy sense of dislocation and loss; the Jackaroo intervention should have made everything better, but the disruption has left most people feeling worse about their lives and their chances for the future. I’m not sure if that’s intended to be a subtle critique of western lives right now, where we have toys and comfort we could never have imagined when I was a child and yet feel under a constant unfocused threat of terror or ecological catastrophe or technology that leaves us jobless and irrelevant.

Sitting on top of this shifting worry are the Jackaroo, one of the best aliens I’ve seen in fiction. They’re almost not present in the narrative, but they’re a constant in the minds of the characters. We see very few of them, but we’re constantly being told what they’ve told humanity, and more importantly, what they haven’t told them. The few we meet are pleasant and slippery, never offering any explanation for anything other than that they want to help and that they’ve found it best to let people make their own decisions about things rather than explain themselves and influence the decision making. Are they God, letting us all have our free will over the gifts on offer, or the Devil? Or neither.

It all makes for a fascinating milieu. There’s the overarching mystery of the Jackaroo and the potentially unlimited mini-mysteries of the gifted planets and all the weird relics scattered around them. McAuley’s cooked up something which could run and run, and for once he’s hit a tone which I can live with. There’s a follow up next year, and I’m torn between hoping it’s got some answers and hoping that it’s got even more questions for a further follow up.

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