by Paul McAu­ley, 1997- 99 Au­thor Stephen Bax­ter on a fu­ture where SF and fan­tasy col­lide

SFX - - Contents -

Stephen Bax­ter on Paul McAu­ley’s Con­flu­ence tril­ogy.

Arthur C Clarke’s rather over- quoted “Third Law” of prophecy is that “Any suf­fi­ciently ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy is in­dis­tin­guish­able from magic.” Paul McAu­ley’s mighty tril­ogy might in­spire a Con­flu­ence corol­lary: “Any suf­fi­ciently far- fu­ture sci­ence fic­tion epic is in­dis­tin­guish­able from fan­tasy.”

Cer­tainly the open­ing of the first vol­ume, Child Of The River, has the feel of epic fan­tasy. On a world called Con­flu­ence, a baby is found, like Moses, drift­ing down a river in a bas­ket, and is im­me­di­ately sur­rounded by an aura of spe­cial­ness: “You are the one who is to come.” Yama seems to be a re­cre­ation of the mys­te­ri­ous Builders who con­structed the world, long ago. Much of the ( very read­able) plot of the three books is driven by Yama’s per­sonal jour­ney, like the Bud­dha’s, like Je­sus’s, both spir­i­tual and phys­i­cal, in search of the mean­ing of his ex­is­tence.

But this is not fan­tasy, as a glance at the sky re­veals: “In winter, we see the Home Galaxy, sculpted by unimag­in­able forces in ages past, and in sum­mer we see the Eye of the Pre­servers.” In­deed the world it­self, Con­flu­ence, is like one tremen­dous ship, a nee­dle- shape, rock­ing as it or­bits its yel­low sun. This is not a mag­i­cal realm but a very far fu­ture, in which ev­ery­thing from the ma­chine-infested soil to the en­gi­neered sky has been man­u­fac­tured or trans­formed, and the trans­for­ma­tions for­got­ten.

And in Yama’s re­al­ity a great in­tel­li­gence re­ally did cre­ate the world – the su­per­ad­vanced de­scen­dants of hu­mans who had al­ready con­quered the Galaxy – and there is a true prom­ise of “heaven” in the fu­ture. This is based on the the­ory of physi­cist Frank Ti­pler ( fash­ion­able in the ’ 90s) that in­tel­li­gences could ma­nip­u­late the “Big Crunch” en­er­gies of the end of the uni­verse to cre­ate an eter­nal com­puter sim­u­la­tion, within which copies of all who had ever lived could be res­ur­rected. To the in­hab­i­tants of Con­flu­ence, the an­cient Bi­ble- like ac­count of their world, its mean­ing, be­gin­ning and end, is re­li­gion, a matter of faith; we know there is en­gi­neer­ing logic be­hind it.

But by Yama’s time, mil­lions of years after the cre­ation of the world, Con­flu­ence is old, bro­ken down, bat­tered by waves of war, en­crusted with bat­tered mon­u­ments and looted tombs. This is clas­sic McAu­ley; one of his tropes is to cre­ate a fan­tas­tic fu­ture and then to let it fall, to de­cay.

McAu­ley has ac­knowl­edged in­flu­ences from Jack Vance to Gene Wolfe, and he knew ex­actly how to use the ma­te­ri­als of the genre to tell his story: “I de­lib­er­ately struc­tured the three books as fan­tasy, sci­ence fan­tasy and sci­ence fic­tion.” So in the first book, Yama, the foundling be­comes a kind of knight, com­plete with squire; in the sec­ond book he is like a flawed su­per­hero, strug­gling for mas­tery of his pow­ers; and in the third book, says McAu­ley, “at the end … the sword- wield­ing bar­bar­ian comes up against a fly­ing saucer with a death ray.”

McAu­ley would prob­a­bly be ir­ri­tated if I were to say that Con­flu­ence is his mas­ter­piece. His ca­reer con­tin­ues two decades on, and his work ranges from al­ter­nate his­tory to crime to ex­pan­sive so­lar sys­tem sagas to noirish near- fu­ture dra­mas. But Con­flu­ence is par­tic­u­larly mas­ter­ful, a con­tem­pla­tion of the mean­ing of mor­tal­ity, evolution and cos­mic des­tiny: “Ev­ery­thing im­por­tant has hap­pened in the past, and we are its chil­dren...” Books like Con­flu­ence are what SF is for.

Stephen Bax­ter and Alas­tair Reynolds’s The Me­dusa Chron­i­cles is pub­lished in May.

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