Short works

Books : reviews

Paul J. McAuley.
The King of the Hill.
Orbit. 1991


TheKing of the Hill. 1985
Karl and the Ogre. 1988
Transcendence. 1988
The Temporary King. 1987
Exiles. 1990
Little Ilya and Spider and Box. 1985
The Airs of Earth. 1986
The Heirs of Earth. 1987

Paul J. McAuley.
Vista. 1995

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 10 December 2006

Alex Sharkey is a drug engineer whose latest concoction is about to be made illegal. His last attempt at a sale goes wrong, and he ends up with the wrong crowd, in a fight club where the idle rich get to snuff gengineered subhuman "dolls". But there he meets the elusive Milena, child-genius with a mission, to uplift the dolls to human intelligence, and free them. But nothing goes to plan, and the uplifted "fairies" have ideas of their own. Alex, framed for murder, and abandoned by Milena, tracks her across Europe, from a fairy-infested Parisian ex-Disneyland, to a war-stricken near east, where the fairies' destiny is played out.

This is a richly detailed, intricately plotted, post global warming, post genetic engineering, post nanotech, post everything, hell. A fascinating, but not a comfortable, read.

Paul J. McAuley.
The Invisible Country.
Vista. 1996


Recording Angel. 1995
In the far future, when humans are changed and other creatures are human, an Old Human returns to upset the balance
TheInvisible Country. 1991
Gene Wars. 1991
Prison Dreams. 1992
Dr Luther's Assistant. 1993
TheTemptation of Dr Stein. 1994
Children of the Revolution. 1993
TheTrue History of Dr Pretorius. 1995
Slaves. 1995

Paul J. McAuley.
The Secret of Life.
HarperCollins. 2001

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 6 November 2003

An ecological disaster in the Pacific is linked to the possible discovery of life on Mars. Brilliant biologist Dr Mariella Anders is one of the team sent to Mars to investigate, but big-corporation politicking might be putting profits before people.

This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award (see the Helicon 2 panel discussion). Yet it really didn't work for me, for several reasons.

It is lauded for its realistic portrayal of science: for showing how science is done by teams, not by lone individuals. True, the organism is brought back to Earth for investigation by Anders' team, and true, her previous breakthrough was also teamwork. Yet Anders is very much a lone maverick genius.

It is lauded for its characterisation. True, Anders has a private as well as a public life, and true, that private life plays an integral part in the plot (although I found the ending vomit-inducing). But many of the other characters are cardboard cutout villains (particularly Penn Brown), and cardboard cutout eeeevil corporations.

This is also a very angry book: angry at the patenting and corporate exploitation of science, and angry at UK/EU abandonment of science.

The plot is essentially a quest chase, first across Mars, then across New Mexico, to showcase various strange people and lifestyles. That did give the plot enough momentum to keep me reading, and I did enjoy the guided tour. It is written in the present tense (except for flashbacks), which I find distracting. And, despite the high density of infodumping, there's not enough science -- not enough about the "Secret of Life".

So: interesting premiss, fun chases, but ultimately disappointing.

Paul J. McAuley.
Whole Wide World.
HarperCollins. 2001

Paul J. McAuley.
White Devils.
Pocket Books. 2004

Paul J. McAuley.
Mind's Eye.
Pocket. 2005

Paul J. McAuley.
Cowboy Angels.
Gollancz. 2007

Paul J. McAuley.
Pocket. 2007

Paul J. McAuley.
Gollancz. 2017

Austral is a husky, an edited person adapted to the unforgiving climate of the Antarctic Peninsula, feared and despised by most of its population.

She’s been a convict, a corrections officer in a labour camp, a consort to a criminal.

And now, out of desperation, she has committed the kidnapping of the century.

But before she can collect the ransom and make a new life elsewhere, she must find a place of safety in a landscape altered by climate change, and evade a criminal gang that has its own plans for the teenage girl she’s taken hostage.

And she has a story to tell you.

Paul J. McAuley.
War of the Maps.
Gollancz. 2020

On a giant artificial world surrounding an artificial sun, one man – a lucidor, a keeper of the peace, a policeman – is on the hunt. His target was responsible for an atrocity, but is too valuable to the government to be truly punished. Instead he has been sent to the front lines of the war, to use his unique talents on the enemy.

So the lucidor has ignored orders, deserted his job, left his home and thrown his life away, in order to finally claim justice. Something has begun to infiltrate the edges of the lucidor’s map, something that genetically alters animals and plants and turns them into killers. Only the lucidor knows the depths to which his quarry will sink in order to survive. Only the lucidor can capture him.

The way is long and dangerous. The lucidor’s government has sent hunters after him. He has no friends, no resources, no plan.

But he does have a mission.

Paul J. McAuley.
Child of the River.
Vista. 1997

Paul J. McAuley.
Ancients of Days.
1998. 1998

Paul J. McAuley.
Shrine of Stars.
Millennium. 1999

Paul J. McAuley.
Four Hundred Billion Stars.
Orbit. 1988

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 29 June 1997

Humanity is fighting a war against an unknown enemy in the BD-20 system. In another star system, orbiting close to a red dwarf star, a strange planet has been discovered. Obviously planoformed about a million years ago, it is populated by mindless herbivores herded by barely intelligent carnivores. Are these herders the Enemy? or a regressed form of the Enemy? or something else? Dorthy Yoshida, an astronomer with a telepathic Talent she resents, is sent to join the survey team, to find out.

This is essentially a puzzle story: can Dorthy discover the secret of the aliens before the Navy is goaded into sterilising the planet? That's if she even gets to try: she has been drafted and initially feels no great urge to help; Andrews, one of the leaders who drafted her, has his own opinion of the herders, and merely wants it confirmed.

McAuley is a biologist by training, and we get treated to descriptions of alien physiologies and ecologies, and some graphic accounts of the effects on the human digestive system of eating them; there is also a fair smattering of astronomy. A good scene that illustrates McAuley's scientific background is where Andrews tries to patronise the military commander, who then demonstrates a better grasp of the scientific method than he does:

"Those herders are no threat," Andrews said. "Believe me. They're not the enemy, just the caretakers. The enemy will come along, though, but I think we'll be ready for that."
     "One way or the other," Colonel Chung said. "Before this change you believed them to be, what, the ragged barbarian descendants of the enemy? And now you have had to alter your theory."
     "Well," Andrews said, smiling, "that's science."
     "Because," Colonel Chung continued implacably, "you have learned a little more. There is still much that is not understood.

Despite the good science, McAuley's prose style is rather too flowery for my taste. Example: this planet is orbiting close to a dim red dwarf, so everything is bathed in a dim red light, or rather, in various multi-syllabled synonyms for such.

I found it to be a slightly depressing book: all the characters are rather unsympathetic, and the story never seems to get going. Everyone seems rather listless, not focussed on solving the problem, just going through the motions, or fighting their own petty battles. Even Andrews, the most dynamic character, seemingly working very hard to make the survey a success, only wants to get a convenient answer, not necessarily the right answer. (I know this kind of behaviour is all supposed to be 'realistic', that this is supposed to be how petty people really behave. But if I wanted that kind of realism, I'd read mundane fiction.) And the answer in the end --- of up-until-then unexpected staggering significance usual in such a puzzle story --- is played out in a downbeat manner.

So, an interesting puzzle, but it rather failed to engage me, somehow.

Paul J. McAuley.
Of the Fall (== Secret Harmonies) .
Del Rey. 1989

Rubble In Paradise

Elysium was a lovely planet with clear skies, lush forests and endless fertile plains. Though its wildlife could not be eaten, plants from Earth grew well there. The native aliens were passive and, it seemed, harmless.

Yet Elysium’s rulers awaited each new shipload of settlers with mixed emotions—descendants of the first colonists, they welcomed scientific innovation from Earth but feared the new settles would soon outnumber them on their own home planet.

In their fear, they mistreated not only the newcomers but the alien aborigines as well. And when the revolt finally came, and Elysium’s capital city lay in ruins, it was clear that at least one revolutionary group was not human…

Paul J. McAuley.
Something Coming Through.
Gollancz. 2015

The alien Jackaroo have given humanity fifteen worlds, covered in ruins left by the Jackaroo’s previous clients. The human race has finally reached the stars.

In London Chloe Millar, mapping imported scraps of alien tech, stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient alien ghost.

On one of the gift-worlds, the murder of a man just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vie Gayle to a remote excavation site, which hides a disturbing secret.

Something is coming through. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo’s benevolence…

Paul J. McAuley.
Into Everywhere.
Gollancz. 2016

Humanity’s future has been disrupted and shaped by the mysterious alien Jackaroo. We spread to the planets they gave us, and we discovered the ruins of a dozen previous civilisations. All previous clients of the Jackaroo. All dead.

A woman living a quiet secluded life, with only her dog and her demons for company. The dissolute heir to a powerful merchant family. The laminated brain of a long-dead woman. A policeman, seemingly working for the Jackaroo.

All of these people are on the edges of a vast plar, one which will span decades and light years. We may finally discover if the aliens really are here to help us …

Paul J. McAuley.
The Quiet War.
Gollancz. 2008

Paul J. McAuley.
Gardens of the Sun.
Gollancz. 2009

Paul J. McAuley.
In the Mouth of the Whale.
Gollancz. 2012

Paul J. McAuley.
Evening's Empires.
Gollancz. 2013

The True Empire has fallen, The Solar System is divided into a thousand city states and petty commonwealths and kingdoms.

Scientific enquiry has dwindled. Superstition drives out reason. When a mysterious signal stamps the same brief vision in the minds of everyone alive, rival cultists claim that it foreshadows the intrusion of something inhuman, and a final war between good and evil.

Gajananvihari Pilot, youngest son of a family of junk peddlers, escapes the hijack of his father’s ship with vital secrets locked inside the severed head of a philosopher.

Sworn to find the bandits who murdered his family, accompanied by a flamboyant exile and the daughter of a mad scientist, pursued by cultists and renegades, he sets out on a quest across an asteroid belt crammed with the wonders and ruins of a more ambitious age.

From encounters with ancient intelligences to a secret rooted in the first days of the colonisation of the Solar System, Pilot’s journey may decide the answer to the most pressing question facing humanity.

Something new has flowered in the ruins of history. Who will decide how it grows?