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