Surfing the Megatext

By Niall HarrisonJuly 22, 2013

Surfing the Megatext

A Very British History by Paul McAuley
Evening's Empire by Paul McAuley

YOU WOULD THINK, after a career of nearly thirty years, that it would be easy to attach a label to a writer. But over the course of nineteen novels and more than eighty short stories, Paul McAuley has ranged widely, oscillating between far-future, near-future and alternate-history stories, and writing a mix of series and standalones. The phrase that most nearly sticks is probably “radical hard SF” — a term coined in a now-notorious 1984 editorial in Interzone. McAuley’s first story appeared in the same year, and he’s been in the pages of Interzone plenty of times. As many have noted, however, a call for stories that are “critical and investigative, facing up to the science and technology of the present and future” (as the editorial put it) is pretty vague as manifestos go, and you could quite easily argue that if McAuley writes radical hard SF it’s because his writing is part of what has given the term meaning. So, as a shorthand for McAuleyesque, it’s unhelpfully recursive.

Which is not to say the twenty-one examples of McAuley’s craft netted by A Very British History, the new best-of retrospective from PS Publishing, don't have recognizable McAuleyesque traits. Here’s a paragraph from about half-way through the opening (and earliest-published) tale, “Little Ilya and Spider and Box”, a rehearsal of the outward urge in which a clone escapes from her mother:
Little Ilya didn’t remember when her memory had been wiped, a whole year gone, a year of thinking, learning, being: the very memory of the act of erasure had been wiped when the hypaedia had detached every spin-tagged RNA molecule in her neurons. (She had read about the process after Box had unlocked the ranch’s library and had realised that her memory wouldn’t be tagged, tainted, if she stopped eating the food offered by the ranch’s treachers, but when she had tried to eat the raw algal concentrate from which the treachers spun food, she’d become ill.) No, she did not remember the day, any of the days, when her memory had been wiped, but no doubt it had been like any other, waking to filtered sunlight with a shoal of fish watching her through the transparent ceiling, her clothes laid out, breakfast waiting. Every day the same, except when Ilya visited: that was why Little Ilya loved her.

This is, obviously, enough, a substantial chunk of text, but it contains a substantial amount of information. Many writers, I think, would have cut short after “being,” or at the very least after “neurons,” but McAuley wants us to know not just that he has a mechanism worked out for how Little Ilya’s memories have been shaped, but how his protagonist reacted to uncovering said mechanism; you suspect that the mechanism may have come before that nugget of character development, but in the final text they’re blended quite effectively. (I think we could probably have inferred “from which the treachers spun food” ourselves, but still.) More generally the en passant mention of the mechanism — as its parenthetical status suggests, it’s not the most important thing in the paragraph (as outré as it may seem to us), what’s important is the monotonous mundanity of Little Ilya’s childhood — indicates that, if we hadn’t already guessed, McAuley is not a writer comfortable with single shaping novums. This, it turns out, is a near-constant: whenever and wherever his stories are set, in almost all cases they display cyberpunk’s lesson one, that the future has many degrees of freedom.

The apotheosis of this side of McAuley’s writing, and perhaps still his best-regarded book, is the Arthur C. Clarke and John W Campbell Memorial Award-winning Fairyland: a 1995 Euro-cyberpunk tale written in such a detailed, normalizing, and non-judgmental style that its readers are denied almost all handholds. Two early-nineties stories here try out some of the novel’s concepts, and though neither “Prison Dreams” nor “Children of the Revolution” quite work on their own, their failures are only loosely related to the style; the former seemed to me a bit too enamored with its violence, while the latter has at its heart a rather problematically othered Indian kid-genius, not given much voice of his own. But the descriptive density of the writing remains effective, if sometimes exhausting, conveying the Dutch setting with vivid melancholy, and allowing McAuley to slip in crucial twist-preparing information without it seeming obvious, simply because every element of a scene is subjected to the same high-resolution scrutiny.

The approach falters a little, however, in conveying the far-future fantasias of “Recording Angel” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, which set up McAuley’s late-nineties “Confluence” novels (which I have not read). Scenes that should be spritely and gonzo — the image of Mickey Mouse and Queen Victoria fighting a light-saber duel in the middle of a Neolithic stone circle, for example — are leaden. What’s interesting about these stories, however, is how McAuley’s integration of the imagery of fantasy into his worlds has evolved. In the “Fairyland” stories, we are in an unambiguously science-fictional setting, which contains artificial life-forms that increasingly move into the story-roles prepared for them by centuries of myth. In the “Confluence” tales, the movement is opposite, the surface is more overtly fantastical, and we sometimes wait for the science-fictional rationale. In “Recording Angel,” which reads like an origin story for the trilogy, an ancestral human calling herself Angel arrives on the posthuman world-artefact of Confluence and seems likely to spark a great change, awakening Confluence’s myriad peoples from dreamtime back into history. Although we never quite get all of Angel’s story, we do get a clear sense that her gospel is materialist, that her concern is that the world is all there is, and the posthumans should recognize and act on this. Yet the legends underlying Confluence society are defended by the titular recorder, Mr Narayan, on the grounds that, in the end, stories “are all that is left, all that history leaves us.” Time and again in McAuley’s work, old stories — fairies, angels, wizards, dragons — show up reconfigured for science fiction, because of their power as images and icons.

Arguably this is part of a more general respect for the legacies of history. In the angry “Cross Road Blues”, published in 1991, Isaac Turner, an African-American time traveller from a 1963 in which the US is isolationist, but in which it desegregated earlier and already has its first black president, finds himself setting out to manipulate the life of Robert Johnson — in his timeline “one of the most famous men in recent American history,” rather than achieving recognition posthumously — to ensure that America addresses its problems yet earlier and is able to intervene in World War II. He’s captured and co-opted by (white) spies who explain that they agree with his goal, an America more powerful on the world stage, but that the stronger scenario, and the only one they will allow him to pursue, is to shift desegregation to later, not earlier. I risk over-praising a story by a white British writer in large part about black America, but the closing pages, in which Turner is successful and realizes how thoroughly he’s been conned into a false choice — allowing white supremacy to run rampant in the alleged “national interest” in a way that, far from improving America, has been an imperialist disaster — had for me a bleak ferocity that lingers. Tellingly, on his return to the future, Turner discovers that the prime example of the new America’s engagement with the world is not the noble cause of World War II but the catastrophe of Vietnam. But even aside from its merits, the strategy of the story is notable: it may nominally be a tale of individual choice, but it’s also very strongly about systems and how they perpetuate themselves in time.

Similar thinking is evident in McAuley’s “Quiet War” tales, of which once again we find two examples in A Very British History. Despite the name, the stories are more interested in the consequences of war — between the Earth and outer solar-system colonies, a few centuries hence — than its process, and in how such properties as “national identity” are formed and revised. “Sea Change, With Monsters” is a long and largely conventional story, primarily a gothic adventure, whose protagonist, Indira, is hired to hunt down a leftover bioweapon preying on a Europan monastery. The story’s consideration of occupation, defeat, and reconstruction, and how people adjust to changing political conditions, remains below the surface for the most part. But the theme is explicit in “Second Skin”, a spy story in which our protagonist, Ben Lo, is on a mission to free his ex-wife, the “gene-wizard” Avernus, from what he presumes is imprisonment on Proteus, one of the moons of Neptune. Of course it transpires that Avernus has actually defected, but more than that, “Ben Lo” proves to be a constructed identity, a skin for another personality identified in the text only as “the spy”. In the context of a world in which “human” is an increasingly plastic category — both psychologically and physically, as skin color can be changed, basic physiology reshaped for different gravities — where, the story asks, is identity located? If this question has an answer at all, it is perhaps that identity is literally the stories we tell about ourselves, but that that self-narration may be subservient to the stories our society wants to tell about us.


“Second Skin” and “Sea Change, With Monsters” date from 1997 and 1998, respectively. It tells you something about McAuley’s approach to his writing that he deliberately waited a decade before taking the setting into novels, so that he could incorporate the findings of the Cassini-Huygens mission into his imagined solar system. Indeed a sense lingers throughout the opening duology, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, published in 20008 and 2009, that, much as with Ilya’s backstory, the whole enterprise existed as much to show off McAuley’s imagination, and give us a tour of the back-alleys of our neighborhood, as to tell a story: a range of moons were rendered in sourcebook-loving detail. This year’s Evening’s Empires, a standalone set over a millennium later (following another standalone last year, In the Mouth of the Whale), may therefore seem less immediately appealing not just because it has a straightforward revenge-quest structure in place of the duology’s complex political maneuvring, but because most of the locations visited are anonymous asteroids without the pre-existing imaginative purchase of somewhere like Europa. But the trademark McAuley detail is present and correct, and if at times it all seems a little austerely inorganic — “stony mountains of pyroxene, olivine and feldspar … rocks rich in carbonaceous tars, clays and water ice” — fear not: some stops on the journey are as spectacular as anything in the earlier books.

We start, if not underground, then in the dark and on the run. Gajananvihari Pilot is heir to a family of junk peddlers, and when we meet him, he is stranded on an asteroid having narrowly escaped the hijacking of his family ship, Pabuji’s Ring. Assassins arrive to tie up the loose end; he escapes again, and sets off on a running chase across the asteroid belt, during which he gains a few traveling companions — notably Rav, a winged posthuman with a grudge against the cult he claims is responsible for the hijacking, and Riyya, the daughter of another victim — and comes to confront both his family’s legacy and the state of human society. The solar system at this time, it transpires, is defined by two events: the fall of the True Empire, several centuries in the past, and the Bright Moment, a brief vision witnessed by all humans a couple of decades ago. The former has left a mass of squabbling polities and enduring economic malaise; the latter has spawned a panoply of faiths and cults. It is, we are told, a stagnant and increasingly anti-rational time — one character is described as “a romantic … he believed that the universe was comprehensible.”

The most immediately striking aspect of the novel for an SF-literate reader, however, is likely to be just how shamelessly it surfs the megatext. Each section calls back to an American Golden-Age SF title — Childhood’s End, The Caves of Steel, and so on, all with endearingly literal implications for the narrative they contain — and the text itself is littered with further references. In the first few chapters alone we have locations called Trantor and Tannhauser Gate, the introduction of tick-tock men, a reference to 1:4:9 black monoliths seeded across the belt by “a sect of philosopher-monks,” and the fact that our protagonist’s name is habitually shortened to Hari. “We live in an age that cannibalises its past because it has lost faith in its future,” Hari’s father tells him, in flashback, and it’s hard not to read much of what follows on two levels. The idea-structure of Evening’s Empires has to do with possibility and choice and ruins (is this a Seldon Interregnum?), and whether there can be something new — for the solar system, but perhaps also for genre SF.

Not everything about the novel works smoothly. Some information is repeated more than it needs to be. We’re told at the end of chapter one, for instance, that Hari’s lonely rock was previously occupied by an ascetic hermit by the name of Kinson Ib Kana; at the start of chapter three, we’re reminded who that name attaches to when Hari ventures “inside the spire that the ascetic hermit, Kinson Ib Kana, had hollowed out”; even in the last hundred pages, the phrase appears again: “the book that had once belonged to the ascetic hermit, Kinson Ib Kana.” This repetition grows wearisome. A similar urge to define sometimes attends the novel’s depiction of culture. We’re told that
In the long ago, in their motherland on Earth, Gajananvihari Pilot’s family would have been called kabadiwallahs. Junk peddlers. They located derelict gardens and settlements, salvaged machines that could be refurbished or repurposed…

Those two words, “junk peddlers,” can only seem like a pointed reminder of whom the book’s audience is expected to be, because they are utterly unnecessary — the meaning of the original word is quite clear from the other context provided. More generally, there’s a tension between the diverse origins of most of the book’s characters, and the straight-down-the-line Western nature of most of the SF references (and place names: colonies named after remote Scottish towns, for instance). This is not a future history where the West pioneered and everyone else inherited, it is (textually) a multicultural expansion from the start; but it sometimes doesn’t feel that way.

But what does work is the novel’s larger movement. The last third comes together with devastating elegance and refuses to indulge expectations, large or small, about what Hari’s life means, what sort of story it tells. Passing reference that Hari’s family (and others) have been working “to undo the homogenisation of the True Empire by reviving old traditions and customs” alerts us that, though the present may not be great, the past had its problems as well. (By the end of the novel, Hari is diagnosing the “blind worship of the past that had flooded most of what passed for civilisation these days.”) And there is no final transcendence, no new golden age, either. When Hari visits “the last remnant of the old Western cults which had venerated the primacy of the individual” — uploaded libertarians living on the moon — they try to convince him that he can be an actor, that he can change the course of history! That without him humanity will continue towards an inevitable doom of eusocial-communist stagnation! (We might also recognize this as an echo of the Asimovian Gaia.) But it’s a selfish desire — “They want to believe … that they are still relevant,” Hari’s companion snarks — and of course they’re wrong. Hari doesn’t bring about a new Empire. Instead, time passes, and his moving final encounter is with a man who has found tentative peace by turning away from the Bright Moment, by dedicating his life to the smaller but more immediate project of re-wilding the Earth. It’s clear that after the last page has turned, history will continue, paradigms will shift, discoveries will be made, and the work of understanding the universe will continue; it’s clear, too, that if any of it matters, it will only be in how it is experienced by humans.


It’s impressive, taking novel and stories together, how much of a piece they seem, in project and execution — after all, McAuley’s career is now as long and well-established as the careers of writers like Aldiss and Ballard were when he started. (In the early 1980s, those two were just publishing Helliconia and Empire of the Sun, respectively, and the “Quiet War” sequence may yet assume a similar stature within McAuley’s oeuvre.) But his preoccupations and methods seem to have remained relatively constant, as the so-called British Boom has risen and ebbed around him. I’ve framed Evening’s Empires as in part a response to contemporary genre malaise, but twenty-two years ago John Clute was able to define McAuley’s third novel, Eternal Light as “an echo chamber of quotes … a new book built on told dreams,” a sentiment that could easily fit into this review; and there are tales in A Very British History that seem to share the same blend of affection and skepticism for the megatext, from the neo-Heinleinian physics gimmickry of “How We Lost the Moon, a True Story by Frank W Allen”, to the sentimental alt-PKD riff “The Two Dicks.”

Yet I think Evening’s Empire does do enough to hold its own as a modern SF novel. Not because of its hard-SF verisimilitude — although that is considerable, and central to the book’s project, and may well endure as a speculative milestone (way back in 1991, one of McAuley’s shortest tales, “Gene Wars” managed to anticipate the agribusiness/personal biotech/posthumanity arc implicit in the work of Paolo Bacigalupi in about ten pages) — but rather because it understands two things that I think are crucial for SF written in the twenty-first century: first, that for all the value and splendor of imagination, in the end, as Hari puts it, “this world is all we have,” and second, that who is experiencing the world can radically change what it means. If not all of McAuley’s stories have endured, I think it’s because his preferred aesthetic keeps the portrayal of character — though important — relatively low in the mix. It’s also true that many of his protagonists are, if not quite as thoroughly used as Hari Pilot, primarily reactive, or even just observers. The combination works best on the broad canvas of a novel; within the compass of a short story, it can sometimes be hard to develop a strong sense of a McAuley character’s identity, and of how that identity is shaping and is shaped by the world around it.

Sometimes, however, it all works magnificently. “Second Skin” and “Cross Road Blues” would be my go-to examples, along with the tale that closes out the collection, “The Choice” — which won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award last year, and which pre-empts some of the conclusion of Evening’s Empires in a very different setting. For once — for almost the only time in A Very British History, despite the title — McAuley takes us to a UK setting, a near-future East Anglia flooded by climate change and coming to terms with the arrival of aliens bearing gifts. The distinct geography and psychology of this setting is comprehensive; reference to an “allergic reaction to the myriad products and pollutants of the Anthropocene” tells us something about how the people in the story think about their world, and the fret-laden archipelago is vivid — and strikingly organic and alive compared to many of McAuley’s other worlds. And our protagonist, while a much more conventional SF hero than most in McAuley’s work — a young British farm boy, Lucas, in a setting that echoes a more outdoorsy and adventuresome American tradition — thoroughly shapes what we see.

The action of the story is driven by the arrival of a crashed alien ship, which draws scavengers and salvagers including Lucus and his friend, Damien. Their hopeful adventure is swiftly curtailed by the authorities, but Damien ends up in possession of a fragment of alien tech that serves the same purpose as the posthumans in Evening’s Empires: as a lure, as a metonym for the world outside human context — as the magic and demons of an earlier age. Not for nothing is the crashed ship in the story, like the sentient bioweapon in “Sea Change, With Monsters,” known as a dragon. And, as in Evening’s Empires, it proves a false bauble. Damien begins to change, and he leaves. We stay with Lucas, who — while Damien seems to have, offscreen, the adventures we might expect of this story — is trying to come to terms with the world he’s growing into. Like Hari, in the end he lives in the practical, human world. What I take from both tales is an insistence that verisimilitude-driven hard SF is not an archaism — a demonstration that a particular aesthetic of setting can encompass more than the creaky mechanics of what Hari and Riyya at one point call “old stories,” that it allows generosity and humanity, contradiction and gaps. In some ways it’s frustrating that the point still needs to be made; but perhaps we need to call it radical for just a little bit longer.

LARB Contributor

Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is a former editor of Strange Horizons, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, and others. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and a guest of honor at the 2023 British National Science Fiction Convention. His 2023 collection All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays is available from Briardene Books.


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