Another terrific novel from an author who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
This year would appear to be Paul McAuley’s 34th anniversary as a writer of speculative fiction (mostly SF). In the late 80s, early 90s he was the hot new thing nominated for and winning all manner of prizes like the Philip K. Dick and the Clarke awards. More recently though, there’s been less love for his work – at least in terms of awards. And while I know prizes are not the be all and end all of everything, nor are they an indication of quality, it does surprise me that he’s never been recognised, not even nominated for either a Nebula or a Hugo Award. Again, I appreciate that he’s not Robinson Crusoe here, other UK authors have failed to make a mark on US fandom (mostly because they struggle to get their books published in the States) but the tragedy is that McAuley, in particular, over the last 7 years, has hit a rich vein of quality hard science fiction – The Quiet War series, for example, is audacious stuff.
I know I’m tilting at windmills here, but even if I think Austral, his new novel, is a piece of garbage (having only just cracked the cover) I’m saying upfront that McAuley is worth your while.
This is a great opening paragraph. A lovely bit of succinct exposition and foreshadowing:
Austral, the book’s title, is also the name of our main character. Stral, as she likes to be called, is an edited person, or husky, genetically engineered and therefore seen by some as not entirely human. The Antarctic Peninsula, a sovereign country in its own right, is one such place that treats edited people as second-class citizens. That’s why Stral is saving every last penny so she can skip town and travel to New Zealand where huskies don’t face discrimination. Her problem is that she earns a pittance working as a corrections officer at a prison work farm. To earn additional cash she becomes a contraband mule for one of the big wig prisoners, a man named Keever. He though has problems of his own. The Australian Government has ordered his extradition for the murder of six people and now that he faces the death penalty he requires Stral’s help to escape. And that’s just from the first two chapters.
Oh… and one other wrinkle. Austral is pregnant with Keever’s child.
This Keever bloke is clearly not a nice guy:
McAuley evokes the stark beauty of Antarctica:
I do like how McAuley doesn’t belabour the point about the impact of climate change. It happened. It was worse than what was modelled. It fucked up the life of billions. Or as McAuley brilliantly puts it, “it was a comprehensive disaster”:
One of the things that regularly impresses me about McAuley is his skill as a story-teller. Even when he’s writing the hardest of hard Science Fiction, like The Quiet War series, he doesn’t let himself get too bogged down in the technical shit. That’s not say that he won’t bask in new technology or the wonders of terraforming or mining a moon but in amongst all this he moves the plot along, setting up the next set-piece, ending chapters on minor cliff-hangers or turning points. The same goes with Austral where a great deal happens in the first quarter of the book, with still time to establish a robust future history.
Generally, when a character is reading a novel it’s usually something recognisable, a classic with a thematically similar story. McAuley takes a different direction:
Prior to Austral my exposure to McAuley’s work was the last five or six books he published. Other than maybe the first two books in the Quiet War series I can’t remember McAuley being as political as he in this novel:
Austral is such a fantastic character. It’s not not just that she’s confident and strong and sympatico with her environment, no matter how inhospitable. Those aspects of her were, to a significant extent, edited into her DNA when she was an embryo. What marks Austral as a fully-fleshed out fictional person is the way she never denies who she is. In spite of the prejudice, the name-calling, the limited opportunities the life as a husky affords, Austral accepts her lineage, embraces her identity.
As I’ve said already McAuley’s depiction of the natural world is beautifully rendered. I just wish this lengthy section where Austral recalls a time when she was happy while travelling a summer-melted Antarctica with her mother happened earlier in the narrative. We’re at the pointy end of the novel and the story has… not screeched to a halt… but lost momentum. Still, the prose really does sing:
Don’t get me wrong though, these diversions into Austral’s past and that of her family are a critical aspect of the novel. This first-person account isn’t for us it’s for Austral’s child. A history of tragedy and brief moments of happiness:
The Gist Of It
Climate Change has one silver lining in as much as its provided us with some fantastic fiction. Clade by James Bradley and New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson are just two novels I’ve read recently that take the political, social and economic implications by the horns and run with it. What’s surprising is that both novels aren’t doom and gloom. The Bradley has some dark, awful moments but the ending hints at a hopeful future and New York: 2140 goes as far as implementing a socialist utopia of sorts, one where capitalism is replaced by a system that puts the community first.
That same sense of optimism is present in Austral. McAuley is less convinced that capitalism can be killed and he does make it clear that climate change saw the death of billions and led to a planet-wide refugee crisis, but as with Bradley and KSR humanity does endure, life goes on. If there is a pessimistic note in the novel it’s that not even a planet-wide disaster can rid people of their prejudice and hatred of the other, if anything it reinforces it. Austral, though, is a wonderful character because she’s not afraid to embrace who she is. Yes, she kidnaps a young girl… for reasons… and yes it leads to all manner of shenanigans… but Austral stays true to herself throughout. It’s this depth of character, coupled with robust world building and some fascinating ideas around the greening of Antartica (I’ve said little about the eco-poets mostly because I kept reading them as eco-pets, but they are an intriguing part of McAuley’s future history) that elevates what might have been a conventional chase and escape thriller.
With Austral, McAuley has written a smart, thrilling and emotionally engaging novel.