Some­thing Com­ing Through

First con­tact prob­lems

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Books -

Re­lease Date: 19 Fe­bru­ary

384 pages | Hard­back/ ebook Au­thor: Paul McAu­ley Pub­lisher: Gol­lancz

Bri­tish au­thor Paul

McAu­ley has long been a crit­i­cal dar­ling. His back­list comes with a host of awards – the Philip K Dick, the Arthur C Clarke, the John W Camp­bell, the Side­wise, the Bri­tish Fan­tasy – and this new novel it­self grows out of an award- win­ning short story.

McAu­ley’s ma­jor work over the past half- decade has been the Quiet War se­ries, hailed for its reimag­in­ing of the science fic­tional so­lar sys­tem, based on find­ings from re­cent space- bound probes. The end of that se­quence, though, sig­nalled a re­turn to Earth and more im­me­di­ate con­cerns. “The Choice”, in US zine Asimov’s ( Fe­bru­ary 2011), took up this theme: it’s set in a near- fu­ture UK reel­ing from cli­mate change, vis­ited by aliens of­fer­ing to help.

Noth­ing, of course, is as sim­ple as it seems: McAu­ley de­scribed Some­thing Com­ing Through on his blog as an ex­plo­ration of “the strange­ness of in­cip­i­ent fu­tu­rity turned up to 11”, and so it proves. Set 13 years af­ter the ar­rival of the aliens, known as the Jackeroo, it’s a pow­er­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of both the phys­i­cal ef­fects of the alien tech and the psy­cho­log­i­cal le­gacy of first con­tact on an al­ready dam­aged hu­man so­ci­ety.

The con­se­quences of the alien tech have been un­pre­dictable and not wholly suc­cess­ful: crea­tures in­tro­duced to com­bat pol­lu­tion have turned into in­va­sive species; alien arte­facts have changed peo­ple phys­i­cally and men­tally, caus­ing them to see “ghosts” or speak in tongues. “Ever since First Con­tact,” says one char­ac­ter, “our minds have been al­tered by alien memes and ideations.” In a way that echoes the le­gacy of first- world med­dling ( both im­pe­ri­al­ist and more well- mean­ing) in poorer na­tions, hu­man­ity is at the mercy of cul­tural forces it can’t con­trol; for ev­ery prob­lem the tech solves, a new one is cre­ated.

The novel tells two in­ter­twined sto­ries in al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters. In the first, Chloe Mil­lar, agent of a cor­po­ra­tion that col­lects frag­ments of Jackeroo tech­nol­ogy, dodges po­lit­i­cal sep­a­ratists, shady po­lice and so­cial me­dia op­pro­brium as she hunts an or­phaned child with an un­canny in­sight into the land­scape of an alien planet. In the sec­ond, Vic Gayle, a de­tec­tive living on Man­gala – one of sev­eral hab­it­able worlds gifted to hu­man­ity by the Jackeroo – in­ves­ti­gates the mur­der of a re­cent im­mi­grant from Earth.

The sto­ry­telling style is punchy, thought­ful, and some­times play­ful. Vic’s half, in par­tic­u­lar, has fun with crime drama touch­stones: Vic re­peat­edly calls him­self “a mur­der po­lice”, re­call­ing The Wire, Man­gala’s crim­i­nal bosses have the air of Guy Ritchie gang­sters about them ( and one is a fan of Re­volver), and a mi­nor char­ac­ter called Mikkel Mad­sen rep­re­sents the Scan­di­na­vians. But along­side the chase se­quences, in­ves­ti­ga­tions both con­ven­tional and un­con­ven­tional, and some­times bru­tal vi­o­lence, the novel is grounded by a host of dusty, grimy de­tail that makes its worlds feel both lived in, and el­e­vated by a fo­cus on the big­ger ques­tions be­hind its sce­nario. Are the Jackeroo’s in­ten­tions and meth­ods benev­o­lent? Does “benev­o­lence”, as hu­mans un­der­stand it, have any mean­ing when ap­plied to ex­tra- ter­res­tri­als? And what does be­ing shep­herded by aliens ul­ti­mately mean for hu­man­ity’s moral char­ac­ter and free will? The plot puts th­ese ques­tions into ac­tion in en­joy­ably sub­ver­sive ways: faced with tech­nol­ogy that ma­nip­u­lates its users’ psy­ches, it’s in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for the char­ac­ters to be sure how much agency they re­ally have. Are they the he­roes of their own sto­ries, or just pawns be­ing made to think they’re he­roes?

All this, and a fast- paced crime thriller too. McAu­ley’s lat­est is smart, it’s chal­leng­ing, and as an ex­plo­ration of the so­cial con­se­quences of sud­den science fic­tional change, it’s very im­pres­sive in­deed. Nic Clarke

The novel is grounded by a host of grimy de­tail that makes its worlds feel lived in

Paul McAu­ley was a lec­turer in botany at St An­drews Uni­ver­sity dur­ing the ’ 90s, be­fore be­com­ing a writer full time. Pin­bor­ough spent much of her child­hood in board­ing schools, which no doubt helped when writ­ing The Death House.

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