Paul McAuley's Blog

October 30, 2018

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Published on October 30, 2018 02:00 • 20 views

September 24, 2018

She Has Her Mother's Laugh, Carl Zimmer, Picador, 2018

We are more than the sum of the combination of genes we inherit from our parents, and that combination is in any case never as simple as two halves making a whole. That's the basic thesis of Carl Zimmer's intimidatingly large but beautifully lucid exposition of the history, ethics and science  of heredity, illuminated and tied together by human stories, from Luther Burbank's alchemical talent for producing hundreds of new varieties of fruit, flowers and vegetables, the 'feebleminded' girl at the centre of a study that underpinned the eugenic movement in the United States, and the implications of Zimmer's agreement to have his own genome sequenced, and the bacterial population of his bellybutton analysed:
When I looked over my spreadsheet, I could see that seventeen of my species were unique to me. One type, called Marimonas, had only been known from the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. Another, called Georgenia, lives in the soil. In Japan.

On discovering this, I e-mailed Dunn [the biologist conducting the study] to let him know I'd never been to Japan.

"It has apparently been to you," he replied.

Zimmer's book is likewise as wide-ranging and crammed with unexpected revelations, from the search for genes that control variables such as height and intelligence to mosaicism and human chimeras, and from tracking the flow of genes in human populations to the inheritance of a cumulative culture that may reach back at least seven million years, to the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. It's an exemplary explication of how the narrow definition of heredity, limiting it to genes, has been overturned. We are the product not only of our genetic inheritance, but also the social network and history of our immediate family, and our shared culture and an environment altered by human activity. Readers of Austral may see a parallel, here.

Associated Reading: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us, by Ed Yong, and The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History Of Life, by David Quammen
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Published on September 24, 2018 01:50 • 23 views

September 10, 2018

(An extract from Austral's account of her and her mother's long walk towards freedom after escaping from the prison of Deception Island.)

The days and days of walking blur together. It’s hard, now, to sort dreams from actual memories. I remember climbing to Mapple Valley’s high southern crest and seeing a panorama of parallel razorback ridges bare as the moon stretching away under the cloudless sky. I remember a circle of upright stones in a mossy chapel in the forest below the Forbidden Plateau, lit by a beam of sunlight slanting between the trees. The glass and concrete slab of some plutocrat’s back-country house cantilevered out from cliffs overlooking Wilhelminia Bay. The broken castle of an orphaned iceberg grounded on a rocky shore, with freshets of sparkling meltwater cascading down its fluted sides and a thick band of green algae tinting its wave-washed base. But did we really see, in the pass between Starbuck and Stubb Fjords, an albino reindeer poised near the thin spire of an elf stone named The Endless Song of the Air? Did we glimpse a pyramid set on a remote bastion of bare rock in the ice and snow of the Bruce Plateau? I’ve looked long and hard, but I’ve never been able to find it on maps or in satellite images. And did we really see people dancing naked in a circle around a huge bonfire in a forest glade near Tashtego Point? I can’t be certain that it wasn’t one of my dreams, but whether it was real or imaginary the memory of it still wakes the pulse of drums in my blood.

I’m trying to tell you how happy we were, Mama and me. Not only in those few moments indelibly fixed in memory, but also during the uneventful hours of walking through the forest and crossing meadows and hiking up long slopes of scree or snow, or when we rested beside a little campfire, taking turns to braid each other’s hair or simply sitting in companionable silence. The times we picked berries together in some sunny clearing or amongst the sliding stones of a mountainside, or spear-fished in icy rivers, or gathered sea moss and limpets from the salt-wet stones of the sea shore.

Some old-time writer once claimed that happy families are all alike, while unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. If that’s true, then happiness can be attained only by sacrificing or suppressing some part of whatever it is that makes us different, by unselfishly giving up our wants and desires and submitting to something larger than ourselves. Family. Society. God. But in those long summer days, walking south with Mama, it seemed to me that happiness was a gift that fell on us as lightly and freely as sunlight. It was as simple as lying on wiry turf with the sun warm and red on my closed eyes, or the heart-stopping shock of jumping into a meltwater pool. It was a gift the world gave you if you gave yourself to the world.
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Published on September 10, 2018 02:28 • 17 views

August 30, 2018

Photograph by Shirley Baker, 1966.
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Published on August 30, 2018 22:57 • 13 views

August 28, 2018

When I was writing Austral, the idea in the next century or so parts of Antarctica might become warm enough to support forests and fjords was a deliberate heightening of climatic trends: setting the novel in a near future that otherwise hadn't drifted too far from the present meant that the narrative could keep the effects of climate change in the foreground. Three years later, things have changed. A group of scientists has suggested that even if we're able to keep the rise in average global temperature to less than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, as per the Paris Accord, it may not be enough to prevent a catastrophic domino effect that could push the planet's climate system towards a Hothouse Earth. And throughout the summer of 2018, catastrophe and climate change have been inextricably linked in the news headlines, suggesting that some kind of tipping point may have been reached. That some kind of new normal has been established. Higher than average temperatures across global land and ocean surfaces, devastating wildfires in Canada, California and Europe, the breakup of old, multilayer ice in previously frozen waters in the Arctic, and much else, have helped to drive home the idea that global warming is real, with serious consequences in the here and now. It's even informing the fake news fantasies of far-right pill-peddling hucksters, who claim that weather-controlling weapons based in Antarctica are firing powerful energy beams that can split hurricanes in two. Somehow, Senator John Kerry and a buried alien city may be involved. I missed a trick or two, there.

Not for the first time, the present has overtaken the speculative scenarios of science fiction. Closed the weirdness gap between now and what might be. At the end of The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner's multistranded novel about environmental and societal collapse, the smoke from the bonfire of America civilisation drifts across the Atlantic to Ireland; this summer, smoke and other pollutants from extensive wildfires in Canada reached northwest Europe. It's hard, now, to imagine any kind of plausible near future that doesn't foreground the effects of climate change; it's increasingly difficult to distinguish headlines in the happening world from scenarios lifted from fictional dystopias and catastrophes.

But although climate change is reshaping the happening world and casting a long shadow across the future, its endpoint remains unclear, and there's still space for speculation about how we might survive it, and how it might change us. Kim Stanley Robinson's heterotopic New York 2140 and the hypercapitalism of Sam J. Miller's Blackfish City are interesting, and interesting different, explorations of how society might be reshaped by climate change. N.K. Jemisen's triple Hugo winning Broken Earth trilogy may be set on a far-future Earth where magic operates, but its magic system is at service to a kind of geoengineering, and its plot turns on the lengths to which people must go and the sacrifices they must make to save a world broken by catastrophe: hard lessons that have critical relevance to our present predicament. The future may not be what it once was, but creating human-shaped possibilities is still a good way of discovering what we think is important, here in the present. And of reminding ourselves that any new normal is only temporary; that there is no constant now, except for change.
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Published on August 28, 2018 09:11 • 12 views

August 18, 2018

Went out yesterday and bought a pack of paper, and printed off the second draft of the new novel, ready for rereading and editing. (I'll probably get through two of those red pens.) It's due to be delivered to the publishers early next year, and although I don't yet have a publication date I imagine it will be some time in the first quarter of 2020. It's set in the far future on a crumbling macrostructure (aka Big Dumb Object) with the surface area of 400,000 Earths, so there's some worldbuilding involved. Most of it trying to make sense of everything the protagonist encounters as he travels further than he expected, rather than a formal interrogation of the world and its peoples -- hopefully the process of discovery avoids the kind of over-thought underpinnings that are too often visible in fictions set on imaginary worlds, gives plenty of space for serendipity and bricolage, and helps keep me interested. Maybe the reader, too.
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Published on August 18, 2018 08:34 • 15 views

August 9, 2018

Today is publication day for the mass-market paperback of Austral, my novel about a short but somewhat troublesome walk across the fjords, forests and ice fields of the Antarctic Peninsula in the not very distant and somewhat warmer future. Please do check it out.

Coincidentally, I received confirmation that Big Talk Productions have taken up an option to use Austral and a couple of associated short stories as the basis for a multi-season TV programme. This is a long way from actual production, of course. And given that most options don't pan out into actual programmes, this may be as far as it goes. Still, it's a very nice boost to my morale, especially given the timing.

Meanwhile, here's a short section of Antarctic history that didn't make it into the finished book, first published here in October last year.

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Published on August 09, 2018 11:53 • 25 views

June 1, 2018

One of the neat things I did as the guest of honour at the Satellite 6 convention last weekend was talk about my desert island books, in an interview with a format similar to the venerable Desert Island Discs radio programme. If I was cast away on a remote island in the tropics, what essential volumes would I take with me ? Here they are:

1) On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (1859). I used to be a research biologist -- how could I not choose this, the most famous and most important book on biology yet published? Based on evidence gathered from his voyage on The Beagle and years of observations, ideas and experimental work in the years since, this is the keystone of Darwin's theory of evolution, explaining in beautifully lucid prose the simple principles by which the vast complex diversity of life on this planet developed. It was controversial when it was published, and is still in certain quarters, but has survived every challenge and test, and is one of science's greatest achievements.

2) The Adventure of Alyx, by Joanna Russ (1967 - 1970). Back in the formative years of my science fiction reading, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, there were far more women working in the field than some would have you believe. Joanna Russ was one of the best, and although The Female Man is perhaps her finest novel, I have a soft spot for Alyx. Independent, clever, determined, adaptable, clear-minded, ready to mete out violence when it's needed -- in short, a typical hero of sword-and-sorcery stories, except that she's a woman. In the early stories collected here she's a barbarian working on the shady side of an ancient Hellenic milieu, much like Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (who are mentioned glancingly in one of the stories). In the short novel Picnic on Paradise, having been accidentally scooped up by archaeologists from the far future, she's tasked with escorting bunch of hapless tourists across a war-torn planet. Scornful of the blandly pleasant utopia in which she finds herself, she's the original of scores of kick-ass heroines, redeemed from cliche by Russ's sharp prose and observations. If you want to know why so many of the protagonists in my novels are women, here's a major reason.

3) Pavane, by Keith Roberts (1968). At age 13 or so, I found the US paperback edition of Roberts's masterpiece in a local jumble sale. I have no idea how it got there -- accident, luck, fate -- but it instantly became one of my favourite books. It's set in an alternate history where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and the Roman Catholic Church regained control of Britain and the development and use of technology. A patchwork of stories develop a portrait of England where wolves and a hidden race of Old Ones still roam forests, messages are transmitted through chains of semaphore towers, the printing press is banned, the church uses the inquisition to suppress the spread of clandestine knowledge, and rebellion is slowly growing. It's a haunting, detailed portrait of Deep England and lives straining against the fetters of power: Roberts's best work, and the best alternate history yet written. My alternate history novel, Pasquale's Angel, in which the great engineer Leonardo Da Vinci kickstarts the industrial revolution a couple of centuries early, is in part a mirror-image homage.

4) Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (1985). Sub-titled The Evening Redness in the West, a major theme of McCarthy's novel, based on historical events, is man's propensity for war and gleeful ruin. Two characters, the unlettered Kid, and an all-knowing Judge, join the Glanton gang of scalphunters that murder their way along the Mexican-US border. Only the Kid and the Judge survive, until a final encounter years later. Unsparing descriptions of violence and the vast and unforgiving landscapes of the American West are vividly conveyed in McCarthy's sparse Biblical prose; history is revisioned as a fantastic nightmare from which which reason struggles to wake. Widely praised as McCarthy's best novel, and one of the best American novels of the twentieth century it's a challenging benchmark that I admire intensely. It isn't exactly an influence, but it is one of the books I dip into when my inspiration needs a stiffener.

5) Hav, by Jan Morris (omnibus volume collecting Last Letters From Hav (1985) and Hav (2006)). Jan Morris is best known for her travel writing; this linked pair of novels are an outsider's exploration of the Mediterranean principality of Hav, where West and East coexist in a city whose deep history is underpinned by a variety of secrets and unique customs. The first novel chronicles the author's attempts to penetrate Hav's mysteries; the second her return to a city despoiled by revolution and the intrusion of the instruments of late-stage capitalism, yet where stubborn elements of its strangeness have resisted change. A fantasy venue populated by lovingly-drawn eccentrics that holds up a mirror to our own world and its colonial 'global culture'; a brilliant, detailed piece of world building.

6) The Collected Stories of J.G. Ballard (2001). I mentioned that my formative years as a science-fiction reader were the late 1960s and early 1970s. That's when the New Wave was still a major agent of change in the genre, and J.G. Ballard was the new waviest of all the New Wave writers. This monumental volume contains all the stories that blew my teenage mind back then, with early examples of Ballard's condensed novels, later assembled into The Atrocity Exhibition, and precursors of Empire of the Sun, drawing on his childhood experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp in Shanghai. Prescient, weird, essential stuff, hugely expanding the possibilities of the genre, before transcending it.

7) Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link (2015). A terrific collection of short stories by one of the finest fabulists of our time. I started out writing short stories, I'm still writing short stories, I still want to learn how to do better, and Kelly Link is one of the best short-story writers working today. Reading one of her stories is like watching the performance a table magician: although the trick is done right in front of you, you can't quite see how it subverts reality. They mostly feature girls and young women on the cusp of claiming their own lives, drawing on familiar tropes and making them new, often by relocating them in our digitally-dominated panopticon. Her characters may be haunted by ghosts and troubled by vampires and werewolves, but they're also hip to fantasy lore, and there's always some kind of grounding in actual and emotional reality. Link's three other collections are terrific too, but this one is the latest, was nominated for a Pulitzer, and contains my favourite of her stories: 'Two Houses', a story within a story told on an interstellar ship which, like all the best science fiction, questions the difference between the true and the real.

8) The Once and Future King, by T.H. White (1938 -- 1958). If I had to choose only one book, this would be it. I found it in the school library when I was thirteen or fourteen (along with William Golding and Mary Renault) and I've loved it ever since. A great, singular, haunting masterpiece that like Blood Meridian examines humankind's propensity for war, but from the point of view of someone who spends his entire life searching for an alternative. It is, famously, a retelling of Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur, one of the great foundation stones of British myth. White relocated it to a magical version of the fourteenth century (whose actual kings and queens are mythic ghosts), beginning with the education of an orphan stable boy, the Wart, by a backwards-living Merlin, who fortifies moral and political instruction with direct experience other ways of living by transforming the Wart into a variety of animals, from ants and hedgehogs to geese and hawks. The Wart is, of course, Arthur Pendragon, pulls the sword from the stone to establish his legitimacy, and establishes the round table and attempts to find an alternative to might is right by using might to do right. And fails, because of all-too-human mistakes, but in the last pages, in the last hours before the final battle with his illegitimate son Mordred, passes on the flame to a page, who is, of course, Thomas Mallory. A brief recounting of its story can't do justice to this great novel. It's a unique book, crammed with humour and tragedy, fantasy and history and frank whimsy, with brilliant passages about hunting, falconry, jousting, and so much more. A great work in the tragic mode, intensely human and humane -- there are a couple of passages that still, after many re-readings, bring a prickling to my eyes. I wouldn't be without it.

In the tradition of the radio programme, I was also asked which luxury and piece of music I would like to take with me. As a luxury, I chose the International Space Station: unlike Robinson Crusoe, I wouldn't loot it of necessaries, but would watch as over the years it became an offshore Ballardian reef, technology colonised and transformed by the collective work of humble polyps.

As for music, I chose Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. I first heard an excerpt from it in 1979, just a few years after it was first performed, when David Bowie helmed a radio programme about his favourite music. Like much minimalist music, its hypnotic cadences are good to write to. This extract is from the very final part; like the LP set I bought, it's truncated from the original, but ends on a very science-fictional question.

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Published on June 01, 2018 06:10 • 29 views

May 21, 2018

The novel I'm presently working on won't be published until next year (or possibly the year after), but I do have a few new short stories scheduled for release in 2018. The first, a weird biological apocalypse number, 'Chine Life', is in Twelve Tomorrows, an anthology of original SF stories published by MIT and edited by Wade Roush. It's out on Friday May 25th, so why not order it now? Here's the Table of Contents:

Profile of Samuel R. Delany - Mark Pontin and Jason Pontin
The Woman Who Destroyed Us - SL Huang
Okay, Glory - Elizabeth Bear
Byzantine Empathy - Ken Liu
Chine Life - Paul McAuley
Fields of Gold - Liu Cixin
Resolution - Clifford V. Johnson
Escape From Caring Seasons - Sarah Pinsker
The Heart Of The Matter - Nnedi Okorafor
Different Seas - Alastair Reynolds
Disaster Tourism - Malka Older
Vespers - JM Ledgard
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Published on May 21, 2018 01:13 • 32 views

April 24, 2018

Yesterday I started my 64th orbit around the Sun, and I wondered, idly, how much distance that represented. Turns out it's quite a lot more than I thought, but compared to the outer limits of the solar system, let alone interstellar space, not very much at all.

The average radius of the Earth's orbit is about 150 million kilometres, handily defined as one astronomical unit, and the circumference of its slightly elliptical orbit is around 940 million kilometres, or around 6.27 AU. So even if you do nothing all year but sit in your armchair, your track around the Sun would, if unraveled and straightened out, reach somewhat beyond the orbit of Jupiter.* And by simply staying alive for 63 years, I've managed to travel 395 AU, or more than 59 billion kilometres. That's about ten times the average distance of Pluto from the Sun, and nearly three times the distance of Voyager 1 from Earth (currently 141.9 AU).

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and officially reached interstellar space in August 2012, after it escaped from the influence of the Sun's magnetic field, but it's still inside the region influenced by the Sun's gravity. Out there, far beyond the planets, are two clouds of icy planetesimals, the origin of comets that now and then fall on long, long orbits towards the Sun. The first is the Hills cloud, a disc-shaped belt extending 2000 -- 20,000 AU from the Sun, and beyond that is the spherical Oort cloud, which may reach out as far as 50,000 AU, a substantial fraction of a light year.

At its steady rate around the Sun, it would take 319 years for my armchair-based mode of space travel to clock up a distance equivalent to that of the inner edge of the Hills cloud, and almost 8000 years to pass through the Oort cloud. As for the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, that's 4.25 light years away, or around 268,700 AU; so far, my travel around the Sun amounts to just a tiny fraction -- 0.15% -- of that interstellar gulf. It would take 42,900 years to make a one-way trip to Proxima, and I'm already out of warranty. Space is big, and life is short. Yet still I move.

*Armchair space travel is more complicated that spinning around a fixed point. The Sun is orbiting the Milky Way galaxy at around 230 kilometres per second relative to the galactic centre; the Milky Way, along with the rest of the Local Group of galaxies, is plunging towards the Great Attractor at around 600 kilometres per second; and spacetime is expanding. But let's keep things simple.

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Published on April 24, 2018 02:23 • 39 views