The aliens are here… and they want to help

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…

Something Coming Through

Paul McAuley
Gollancz; £16.99
Review: Val Nolan

Paul McAuley’s twentieth novel is the ultimate bailout narrative. Economic collapse, environmental destruction, terrorism, and political extremism have crippled the world, but help is here in the form of the Jackaroo. These secretive aliens “gift” fifteen planets and the means to travel to-and-from them to the human race. It is “a chance to redeem ourselves” however, after much fine talk, all humanity seems to have ended up with are new ways of killing one another.

Thus it is not the aliens which are McAuley’s focus here but characters like Chloe Millar, a sociologist investigating “deep changes in the collective human psyche” caused by the appearance of the Jackaroo. Chloe tracks outbreaks of “people trying to express the new ideas that have infiltrated their minds”, dangerous memes, algorithms, eidolons, and memory fragments spreading like flu. In the process she is drawn into the hunt for a particularly transformative piece of alien technology.

Meanwhile, on one of the fifteen planets, hard-bitten homicide cop Vic Gayle has seen too much to believe that humanity can ever change (“What does it say about us when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high?”). Vic’s beat is Mangala, a “strange, old, vast and mostly empty planet”, a “dry red world like Mars, which is why it had been given one of Mars’s old names”. It is a Wild West of murders, kidnapping, extortion, and all the skulduggery of the new interplanetary drugs trade.

Something Coming Through is therefore as much a detective novel as it is a work of science-fiction, a change of gear after McAuley’s more recent space operas. It is a human story set against a sci-fi backdrop, one which in this case is not that far-fetched. Climate refugees and petty criminals populate the artificial reefs of a flooded London and the dusty streets of Mangala alike; all the while a UKIP style movement calling itself the “Human Decency League” dominates the Earth-side political landscape and regards both the aliens and those investigating them with hostility.

Readers of McAuley’s previous novels will recognise the manner in which he takes an interest in “humanity’s bicameral nature. Love and hate. Phobia and agape. All that jazz”. Like the Jackaroo, he toys with the reader in ways they cannot immediately see. A case in point is the true cost of alien assistance. It is never the primary concern of Chloe or Vic yet it informs everything about their lives, especially as no one knows what happened to the Jackaroo’s previous client races.

For though all fifteen worlds have been occupied multiple times before, the Jackaroo will not say what happened to those species. They are thought to have destroyed themselves, dwindled on account of pronounced culture shock, or even transcended into something beyond understanding. The human race may or may not have been set on a similar path but, by the time Chloe, Vic, or indeed the reader place all the greedy intrigues and manipulations within their larger context, events have taken on a certain inexorable momentum.

McAuley of course knows exactly what he’s doing and so the multiple strands of the story converge in satisfying fashion via not just plot developments but through a clever use of structure (one impossible not to read as a nod to the work of the book’s dedicatee, novelist Alastair Reynolds). The result is a compelling and realistically imagined piece of speculative fiction anchored by weighty contemporary concerns over doing deals with the devil.

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