The world is still warming, sea levels are still rising, and the Antarctic Peninsula is home to Earth's newest nation, with life quickened by ecopoets spreading across valleys and fjords exposed by the retreat of the ice.
Austral Morales Ferrado, a child of the last generation of ecopoets, is a husky: an edited person adapted to the unforgiving climate of the far south, feared and despised by most of its population.
She's been a convict, a corrections officer in a labour camp, and consort to a criminal, and now, out of desperation, she has committed the kidnapping of the century.
But before she can collect the ransom and make a new life elsewhere, she must find a place of safety amongst the peninsula's forests and icy plateaus, and evade a criminal gang that has its own plans for the teenage girl she's taken hostage.
Blending the story of Austral's flight with the fractured history of her family and its role in the colonisation of Antarctica, Austral is a vivid portrayal of a treacherous new world created by climate change, and shaped by the betrayals and mistakes of the past.
'Paul McAuley's balanced grasp of science and literature, always a rare attribute in the writer of prose fiction, is combined with the equally rare ability to look at today's problems and know which are really problems, and what can be done about them.' William Gibson
3.5 stars - Thank you, NetGalley, for this preview copy.
Although I love Paul McAuley's prose, and there are exquisite passages (Please see below) , not enough of the book is of his previous quality.
There are a number of interwoven stories, some in the past, one is fantasy, and one is in the present. Only the one in the present has real forward motion, the others do not quite come alive. Worse, those interfere with the pacing and tension of the main story.
The world-building is very good, but not up to McAuley's usual seamless wonders. And as interesting as the "icy south" setting, that is just not enough to sustain any of the plots.
The main plot starts with Austral as a corrections officer supervising a future "chain gang" in Antartica. McAuley’s prose flows and flows. You’re really there with Austral, living her life, being set up by the big con-man, prisoner-boss. Fantastic stuff! Just as this gets interesting, whoosh we are now in the past, with several confusing stories of Austral's parents etc. They seem distant, and their lives and troubles only detract from the main event.
After coming back to Austral, we see an interesting story of escape and difficulties, but again and again the side stories suck the life from the main tale. The concept of a "frozen road trip", in many ways reminds me of Jack London, Len Deighton and Alastair MacLean. This should be great stuff, but the pacing is poor, although the scenery is quite amazing.
Much of the backstories is pretty dull, and unforgivably irrelevant to the main plot. If these stories had not been poorly interwoven, but had been separate short stories, or novellas, coming together in a final chapter or two, this might have been much better.
Add in Eddie, one of the "villain” and we are squirming. He is a slimy and repulsive coward. Who enjoys reading about such a scumbag? I remember getting up from the movie "Star 80" due to the skin-crawling villain. I could feel it for days after.
All the plots resolve eventually, none with any sense of justice or redemption, or even fun.
A great disappointment as a novel, with some redeeming facets.
Here is an extraordinary and exquisite passage, one of my favourite of all Paul’s work....
(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.
I was sent this proof by the publishers, and oh boy, it's a good one. A cracking setup; great writing; great pacing; a genuinely fresh narrative voice, and for once - hooray! - a male author writing a complex, first-person female narrator who is neither a broflake's wet-dream, nor a wooden stereotype. Austral is big, strong, powerful, and yet with real vulnerabilities; a flawed and relatable heroine with agency, feelings and spirit. And to cap it all, Austral is fat - genetically edited to be fat in a way that enhances her strength and endurance, and in the context of her race, is only ever mentioned as a positive. Halleluia. It can be done. Now write it out a thousand times...
The newest nation on Earth is on the Antarctica Peninsula, a place that has now been made habitable by global warming, rising sea levels and the advent of ecopoets. These genetically modified humans had special adaptions to cope with the extreme cold and climate at the far south of the planet. Seen as sub-human, they were despised and feared by the rest of the population.
Austral Ferrado is a second generation ecopoet, or husky, as they are often called, and she has been in and out of prison as a convict and a is now corrections officer. Always skirting at the edge of the law she has been involved with the criminal mastermind there, Keever, he has a favour to ask and it is going to be one she cannot refuse. He wants her to speak to Deputy Alberto Toom, who is her uncle, as he arrives and the disturbance that will cause will be a distraction helping Keever make his escape. Except Austral has a something that she is keeping from Keever, a secret that could threaten her life if he knew.
Instead, she abandons the plan when she realises what is going to really happen, and almost by accident, kidnaps Kamilah, Toom's teenage daughter. Now on the run with her cousin, Kamilah is her ticket off Antarctica. She is going to be reliant on all her skills to stay ahead of the authorities and Keevers gang in the forests and across icy plateaus of the peninsula, but even though all their tech is off to stop them being tracked, there is still someone who knows where they are.
This alternative spin on a dystopian future set on the continent of Antarctica is a great concept by McAuley, he has taken what will become mankind's greatest challenge in the coming years and places a thriller story on it. The geoengineering that humanity had tried has not worked as they thought; some think because they shouldn't have bothered and others in the story think that they didn't go far enough. On this bleak future is the story of Austral, a woman driven by wanting to get what she feels she is owed. The plot is essentially a thriller and it is varied, fast paced and action packed at times and at others slow as she gets to know her cousin and fills in the backstory. He has managed to get a society that blends high tech elements with the low tech way that most people will be living. I am not a huge fan of thrillers, twists and turns aside, it is fairly straightforward to predict where they are going, but that shouldn't put you off reading this alternative future.
Such an oddly plotted novel. 3 stories 1 set in the present which is the most engaging about the central character Austral, another about some past events ( although interesting doesnt really add much) and a 3rd fictional/fantasy story which to me is purely random. The 3 together really create a confusing mess. The setting is original and I think the author has/had promise with this world just unfortunately not this story. The ending was a little of a letdown. One thing which was great with this novel is the writing, I can see why people have praised his writing style for previous novels. Unfortunately this was my 1st book by him, but I'll attempt to delve into the last few novels as I've heard their lightyears above this.
This one was a slow starter for me. The description of the story sounded interesting and intriguing but during the first few chapters it did not grab me. You know how some books grab you instantly? This was not one of them.
I persevered however and am glad I did, the story and the world building got better and better and overcame all my early gripes with it. It is set sometime after 2040 (I think, it is not a big thing) in a world where global warming has escalated to the point that large portions of the world are underwater, Antarctica is habitable though still cold, and most of the rest of the world a burning hell. There is an early scene in the book which mentions it is autumn and -10C at the time it was just a bit out of context but later in the book we travel across this warming, greening Antarctica and those parts are my favourits in the book, I loved the ecological descriptions.
The leading lady, Austral /'Stral also was a slow starter for me. I loved the description of her; she is a Husky, an 'edited person' whose parents inserted genes to make her better suited for the cold. In the first part the genetic engineering and it's physical reality were not really expanded enough for me, so that in the early chapters my minds eye kept defaulting to a fairly regular woman while reading. Later in the book it expands more on her physical capacity and a lot more about the gene editing - those parts I thoroughly enjoyed.
The narrative technique that McAuley used to tell the story is first-person narration, basically Austral tells us what happened, she is the sole narrator and a pretty reliable one, also we stick to a single timeline which was immensely soothing to me as a reader, since current fashions seem to demand hosts of narrators and timelines.
The blurb on the back cover tries to be too dramatic -it nearly put me off the book to be honest- but the kidnapping it mentions is the main event. I will let you read for yourself how that pans out for yourself, but after the kidnapping Austral and the girl (whose relationship makes a fine dynamic tension throughout) travel across Antarctica. I really loved this part, the descriptions of the Ice fields and the snows lets Austral's genetic modifications really come into play and the reasons for them become naturally explained. As a biologist I was fascinated by the description of the 'Ecopoets' and their goals of vegetating Antarctica as it warmed, using hybrids, genetic modifications and so on. As the two travel across Antarctica I became more and more fascinated by the ecosystems that were developing in it after the ecopoets had been outlawed.
Yes, about that: The ecopoets being outlawed, the ecological exploitations and the political machinations were all very much part of the plot, they also served as an excellent social commentary on some of the more idiotic actions we, as a species, are currently engaged in. The way Huskys are treated as the new underclass also serves as a pretty good analogy for social injustice and given the strong name tied to New Zealand I wonder if there were not more subtexts that I missed.
Social commentary is one of the things I enjoy in science fiction, but here it is lightly written so that if it is not your thing you can simple integrate it into the story. The thriller part is light, if you want constant action this book may be a bit slow for you. I would thoroughly and unreservedly recommend it to people who enjoy reading about biology, ecology and predictive fiction of how the world may change due to global warming.
After enjoying a non-fiction book about rewilding recently (Wilding), I was delighted to realise that this is essentially a sci-fi novel on the same topic. While the central plot is is a snowy chase similar to The Left Hand of Darkness, it is as far from being a straightforward thriller as Le Guin’s novel. The story is being recounted by the protagonist Austral, who is both contemplating her past and justifying her choices. Her family were ecopoets, a group that sought to introduce dynamic biodiverse ecosystems to Antarctica as climate changed melted the ice. The political economy of the future world is delineated with remarkable clarity within a first person chase narrative. There is a depressingly convincing progression of events: attempts to create new ecosystems and ways of living in Antarctica are eventually controlled and exploited by capitalism; grand geoengineering projects are doomed to fail thanks to short-termism.
Austral the protagonist ends up trapped in poverty and crime after her mother dies and she’s stuck in a state orphanage. Her status as a Husky, genetically modified to cope with extreme cold, is a barely veiled allegory for indigenous populations and refugees. Thus ‘Austral’ feels very timely, as it confronts questions about borders, climate change, geoengineering, biodiversity, racism, and xenophobia. The central narrative voice is strong and compelling enough to bring all this together. Balancing weighty themes with a thrilling adventure plot is no mean feat and I was really impressed by how well McAuley pulled it off. I was also sufficiently invested in Austral to find the final twist very moving. An excellent climate change novel, to recommend with its urban sibling New York 2140.
Before I go any further I want to say that I really enjoyed this. I read it in four chunks of time over the course of five days. I could have probably read it over a shorter timespan but there is so much within this that makes you sit back and think that I had to do just that!
Austral is a genetically modified human living in the not too distant future. A future where climate change is slowly wrecking our planet (recognise anything?). The ice caps are melting at tremendous rates and Antarctica is now inhabitable. She is the child of environmentalists that are attempting to make Antarctica inhabitable and a place where wildlife can flourish.
There is no mention of the Northern Hemisphere whatsoever but even countries like Australia, Argentina and Chile are much smaller because of the rise in sea levels.
After all the ecological good Austral’s family and those like her have tried to do, money, greed, capitalism and the desire to have goods, the Antarctic government decide that these environmentalists are outlaws. They get hunted down and sent to an island where they can barely sustain life, but they do.
The story is Austral’s attempt to tell her daughter her story. We see things through Austral’s eyes, her emotions and motivations. At times it is meandering stream of conscious thoughts, at other times it is almost a thriller as life continues.
Much of the internal story is quite relevant and is one possibility of where humans and the planet could go if something on a planetary scale is not done to try and slow down, maybe even reverse the ecological disaster that looms in this future. It is not a very happy story either, the ending has hope but little more.
This is going to be hard to categorise but it is sort of an eco-scifi-dystopia, not one or the other but all three.
Definitely gets my recommendation!
I would like to thank Gollancz and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this digital galley version for review
Well, McAuley pulled it off, sorta kinda. So long as you don't look too close -- like at the textbook deus ex machina ending, which was OK (sorta kinda) to get the biter bit. My problems weren't with McAuley's writing or extrapolations -- if you've read his short story "The Elves of Antarctica," you will recognize the setup, and it's a nice one: with climate change, there will be winners and losers. The Antarctic Peninsula is a winner. (As always, read the publishers summary first.) My problem was that I didn't much like any of the characters. The viewpoint character, Austral the huskie, is, well, OK at best. Her BF is a serial killer, extortionist and torturer. Her NZ grandfather was drifter who made a big score by "inheriting" a major drug buy, parlayed that into a respectable fortune, yadda yadda. And there's quite a lot of filler crap, for such a short book. The fairy princess story!
Sadly, far from McCauley's best. But still, pretty good . . . But the book I wish he'd written instead would have been an expansion of "The Elves" -- and that's what I'd recommend you read instead of this one, really. For Cli-Fi and diehard fans only, I think. 2.5 stars, rounded up.
Just not for me I'm afraid, I found none of the characters likeable and the writing style irked me. That's not to say there wasn't anything to love, and I'm sure others will find plenty to admire and enjoy.
Austral is one heck of an escape story. Austral is on the run from a man who has a reach far beyond her comprehension; and she has stolen what he wants. Austral must navigate the unforgiving terrain of an ever-changing landscape, protect and barter her hostage and make it safely off the peninsula. The narrative is told as a letter of explanation to her unborn child, Austral explains why she had to run, what drove her to take the girl and escape to freedom. I was captivated by the depth and range of the story; Paul McAuley has a lot to say and has crafted a narrative that perfectly suits his message. Austral is a vision of the future and it is an unforgettable one.
Austral is a ‘Husky’, an individual with altered genes who was engineered to survive in harsh weather conditions. The mounting prejudice towards the Husky population makes it hard for people like Austral to fit in. Driven to crime and then eventually to becoming a prison officer, Austral is tired of the life that she has been unfairly inserted into. Once she finds out she is pregnant, by the resident criminal overseer, Austral knows she has to run as far as she can for both the baby’s life and her own. Keever runs the prison from his cell and has engineered his own escape. By using Austral as bait by using her connection to a high profile official, he aims to escape extradition. Austral is fully aware of how Keever operates and has a plan of her own.
At a ribbon cutting event that Austral’s uncle Alberto arrives with his 14 year daughter in tow. Austral realises what Keever has planned and decides to kidnap the girl herself to both protect her and use her to ransom herself to a safe haven. Running for her life, the life of her child and the life of an unsuspecting youth, Austral has to make it to an old friend and get her smuggled off the peninsula. But with the whole world conspiring against her, can she overcome the odds and evade capture? I loved this story! It had plenty of everything I enjoy about fiction. Risk, great characters, fleshed out (and meaningful) story lines and that extra secret ingredient that binds it all together, personality. Paul McAuley is a skilled narrator, using a refreshing and compelling writing style to feed the narrative to the reader via an Austral is recounting her efforts to escape.
The actual cat and mouse chase is relatively subconscious (though the signs are there), with Austral trying to explain her connection to the family to her young captive/cousin while traversing the brutal but achingly beautiful terrain and avoid capture from bandits, police and thugs. Austral is the legacy of a group of people called Ecopoets; people who have embrace climate change and want to adapt the Earth and it’s inhabitants ensure our survival. Chased, prosecuted and killed, all the Ecopoets are either dead or in hiding. Austral’s parent died protecting her and their cause and she wants vindication for them from her Uncle who left them penniless and alone. I seriously enjoyed this aspect of the story as it added a depth that made me support Austral 100%.
Austral and her family legacy make up the back story sections of the novel, but the main event provides all the thrills. I thought Austral was an exceptional main character. Deeply conflicted but driven by maternal love; Austral won’t let anyone get in her way. PM really fleshed out the Husky element of the story, providing themes of prejudice, abuse, racism, sexism as well as bonding, salvation and protection. Austral’s journey across Antarctica with her young hostage is full of thrilling action set pieces and amazing visual delights. PM has an indefatigable appreciation for the beauty of the planet we live on and has written a captivating and intense character-driven novel that has a meaningful message threaded through out. Our planet is in trouble and we must prepare for change.
Overall I can’t recommend Austral enough, not only is it a great science-fiction piece that makes you stop and consider the future, it is also a high stakes action novel with fantastic set pieces, memorable characters and a well developed world and backstory that grabs you by the shoulders and doesn’t let go.
And here is the proof. Paul’s latest book is a travelogue of gangsters, pursuit and revenge across a landscape of climate change.
If you are a regular genre reader, you may know this already. However, it is relevant here, that often with a science fiction novel it is not just the characters that are important. Equally important, or perhaps even more important, the unusual setting is what elevates a tale to the science-fictional, that allows us to imagine things weirder, stranger and grander than our normal lifestyle. Think Dune. Think Trantor. Think Mesklin.
In Austral, though the characters are what moves the plot forward, it is the landscape they travel through that is the most memorable. This is an Antarctic different from the place we recognise from our nature programmes. Yes, there are vast stretches of icy wastes, but nothing like we see today. Instead there are trees, energy farms, decaying mines and cities. It is a world of rising sea levels, flooded urban landscapes and decrepit transnational projects.
It must also be said that often in science fiction it is these vistas that hold our attention, moreso than the characters that live there. Of the characters we are given here, what must be seen as an honest narrative, albeit from an unreliable narrator. Austral Morales Ferrado is an outsider from an ethnic minority, a genetically altered human nicknamed a husky, remodelled to cope with the extreme cold and climate of the South Pole. She is a criminal from an exiled group of eco-poets, an environmental group once laughed at by the politicians. Left to terraform the wilderness, they have a resistance network of surrogate underground subterfuge, rather like those seen in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series.
When ‘Stral’s job as a correction officer (think prison guard in an extremely dangerous prison) overlaps with her relationship with Keever Bishop, a really bad inmate, it is clear that that’s not a good thing. Despite this, ‘Stral goes into the relationship knowing fully that she shouldn’t, yet does so anyway. It’s not long before Keever wants something else, and this leads to ‘Stral escaping with young Kamilah Toomy, her cousin, whilst Keever and his henchmen chases them across the Antarctic landscape. ‘Stral is looking for refuge and a way to return Kamilah to her influential father, Deputy Alberto Toomy, whilst Keever wants Kamilah back as a hostage, for leverage.
Whilst ‘Stral runs with Kamilah across the Antarctic, we find out more about ‘Stral’s past, her family and how she got to this point. It’s deliberately focussed on its small scale, with a plot that is decidedly revengeful. What it shows us is that those human emotions of love, hatred, and betrayal, of loyalty and legacy are still important.
It’s also a place for metaphysical soul-searching as well. There is an examination of personal identity as ‘Stral tries to reconcile her past with her current life and on her physical journey Kamilah realises that the world is not as straight-forward as her teenage life has shown her to be.
There is a twist at the end, though really by then the tale’s purpose is done.
For me, the main effect of reading Austral is the creation of a feeling of melancholy, a sense of passing, of change – and not always for the good. It is engrossing and yet a little depressing, the old ideas of a bright future seemingly long gone. Gone are our shiny spaceships, instead we welcome JG Ballard’s world of physical and human decay.
For a story that seems small in scale and nature, its cumulative effect is large. Austral is a surprisingly affecting story of our possible future.
When I was a teenager, I devoured post-apocalyptic disaster novels, but as an adult I've tended to think that life is too short to read depressing books. Luckily, despite Paul McAuley's Austral being set in a world that has been reshaped by catastrophic climate change, it hasn't got the entirely miserable feel of some of science fiction's more hangdog works - but it certainly isn't a bundle of laughs either.
Central character Austral is an outcast, genetically modified by her eco-poet parents (not writers of verse, but involved in shaping the environment to naturally deal with what hits it). She is bigger, stronger and far more able to cope with the cold of her Antarctic home than normal humans. And for most of the book she is on the run, taking with her cousin, a young woman she has saved from being kidnapped by kidnapping her herself.
The structure of the narrative is multi-layered. We get the straight Austral story, Austral telling her cousin the story of their mutual grandfather (each has their own very different version of this), the story of Austral's parents and, somewhat bizarrely, a story that her cousin (almost always, and rather irritatingly just referred to as 'the girl' throughout the book) is reading, which is a modern myth (set on a greened Antarctic where the ice has melted) that seems to combine Tristram and Isolde with aspects of Theseus.
What we get is a beautifully written book that immerses the reader in the harsh Antarctic environment which is Austral's natural home. It's impossible not to be pulled in to Austral's story and want to see it through to its conclusion - it manages to have both literary merit and a page turning draw in the main storyline. I did find those multiple layers a little frustrating - and in the end, Austral's repeated negative warnings about how things will turn out mean that her flight seems doomed from the start. However, this didn't stop this being a haunting and engaging piece of science fiction that is every bit as good as a piece of writing as the best literary fiction.
'Fiction can help to make the possible consequences of global warming by illuminating the nature of the catastrophe through stories on a human scale.' Review to follow. Secures McAuley's slot in the top pantheon of contemporary SF writers: devastating, humane, extraordinarily harsh and beautiful.
A couple months back my father surprised me for asking for some recommendations for Science Fiction novels. You see my father is extremely well read in non-fiction, but he is not a novel guy at all. He has read three novels as long as I know him. He is a retired professor of political science and his school is known for environmental affairs so it was not so weird that he was interested in Cli-fi. It was a term I taught him when he said he wanted to read some novels that dealt with the future of climate change issues. He had picked up this novel Austral that he read about in I think the economist. I told him I thought he should check out Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Revolution trilogy, in a respect I think that was more what he was looking for.
He couldn't get into this book in large for the same reason I liked it. This is a weird entry in the subgenre of climate change speculative fiction, that may have been a little too out there for my father. I on the other hand thought this novel balanced concept, character and world building to perfection.
The setting of this novel is the Antarctic peninsula at sometime probably 100 years or more in the future. Not much is said about the outside world, but we get lots to chew on in this setting. Austral has live her whole life in Antarctica, genetically edited to survive in this cold climate she is part of a group of experimental humans nicknamed Husky. Our main character Austral is a troubled person a former criminal who is trying to get her life back by working as a corrections officer at a labor camp.
Austral finds out she is pregnant, a result of an affair she was having with a dangerous criminal. When she decides that she has to get away from the Peninsula before she is exposed she gets pulled into a kidnapping plot. One of the richest men in the world and his daughter are coming for a visit, to check out their investment. Austral thinks kiddapping this man's daughter might be here key to escaping. The problem is she is more connected to this man, then she first thought, and he is involved in more nasty business than she is prepared for. Was she kidnaps the teenager they have to avoid gangs and various dangers traveling across the Antarctic landscape.
This set-up and setting makes for a really cool adventure tale that McAuley strengthens with a cool structure that weaves in the world-building and character back story. One of the strengths of the novel is Austral. She is a really well written character, a female lead that is layered and complex. She is not a male fantasy while driving the story as a flawed hero. She is one of the strongest elements of the novel.
The novel has a lot to offer from gangsters, Ecopoets (environmental radicals), the harsh almost alien landscape, and weird crime. There is alot going on and for the most part I really enjoyed it. In a strange way I enjoyed it more when I was thinking about after it was over. I respect the hell out any other who tackles this issue and tackles it well.
Sometime in the near future climate change has led to the thawing and wilding of parts of Antarctica. It’s still a cold, harsh place, but it’s also home to a sizable and growing population attracted by its natural resources. Austral is the daughter of an ecopoet and a husky: a person whose genes have been edited to cope with the climate and environment, though her difference means she is feared and discriminated against by others. She’s had a tough life, first growing up on a remote island where ecopoets, who work with rather than exploiting nature, were isolated, then in an orphanage after her escape fails. After a time in prison, she’s now become a corrections officer in a labour camp and consort to a major criminal. He’s got plans to escape, enrolling her in his scheme to kidnap the daughter of a senior politician, who is related to Austral through her grandfather. Austral has other plans, however, snatching the girl herself and heading out into the wilderness. Her plan is to demand a ransom then use the funds to leave Antarctica. Her first priority though is to make good her escape and keep herself and the girl alive as the authorities and criminal gang try to track her down.
The narrative takes the form of a story being told by Austral to her child, explaining her adventure, her relationship to the girl she has kidnapped, who’s her second cousin, the history of her family and of the populating and wilding of Antarctica, and the decisions that she took. The plot essentially follows her escape journey and its various twists and turns as the pair struggle across a tough, wild landscape and get themselves into scrapes. The world building is very nicely done, with a strong sense of place and landscape. And the tale is infused with thoughtful reflection on climate change, wilding and genetic modifications. Two other threads are woven in to the telling – the history of Austral’s grandparents and her own backstory, and a fantasy adventure that forms the story that the kidnapped girl is reading. The latter seems somewhat out of place and surplus to the main tale. The real strength of the book, however, is Austral and McAuley creates a convincing and interesting character who despite circumstances is determined to escape while acting in good faith to the girl she is forcing along with her.
Austral is a husky, a specific type of genetically modified human suited to the cold of Antarctica. Like all huskies, she is bigger and stronger than unmodified humans. Huskies are also generally despised and discriminated against. Austral has had a rough life, which we find out about as the book progresses.
I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. At the beginning, it's kind of grim. Austral, who was imprisoned much of her life, is working at a prison camp. She is thrust into a untenable situation and resolves it by...kidnapping a teenager? Yeah, she doesn't make good choices. Then she has to trek all all over the icy South dragging the girl along while she figures out what to do next. In fact, the book is pretty grim all the way through, with most of the happier part in flashbacks to a couple of months of Austral's childhood. And yet, I cared about her.
I liked the worldbuilding; a future where global warming has people populating the poles, the South one at least. The ecopoets who started designing the Antarctic ecology (and who Austral descended from) were interesting, but at the time when the book is set, they'd been supplanted by more corporate interests with a different agenda. The book mostly stays local; there's little mention of the rest of the world beyond Australia and New Zealand. I guess more context would have been interesting, but the story was Austral's personal journey, and it was satisfying.
Reading this was a fascinating experience, in part because while I never really connected with the plot, I was totally swept up in McAuley's incredible world-building.
'Ecopoets'. Possibly the most beautiful invention I've ever encountered in a book. The name, the concept - a group of people who go to the northern Antarctic peninsula to seed novel ecosystems as the ice melts. McAuley is, as far as I can tell, a veteran of speculative fiction and so his grasp of science and technology doesn't surprise me. But he weaves it together masterfully, into new cultures and industries and societies, some inspiring like the ecopoets, some more familiar as Antarctic capitalism again looks set to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The protagonist, Austral, was more of a guide than a companion, for me. But I could feel how carefully she'd been put together like the world in this book, complicated, tenacious, hasty, occasionally hobbled by compassion. "Bittersweet" would be the best way to describe both her and the end of the book.
The thing I was least enamoured of was the fairytale that Austral's abductee provides snippets of throughout the narrative. I assume there were meant to be parallels between the events in the fariytale and those of the actual story, but for the life of me, I couldn't work it out, and it felt like padding. But that criticism aside, I highly recommend this "cli-fi" (climate fiction).
I admit that the first part almost caused me to stop reading. All the vicissitudes of crossing an icy wasteland were only partially cushioned by the stories of the grandparents, the parents, and the princess. The second part, however, I read it all in a row and when the book ended I was even sorry.
Ammetto che la prima parte mi ha quasi portato a smettere di leggere. Tutte le peripezie nell'attraversare un deserto di ghiaccio erano solo parzialmente attutite dalle storie dei nonni, dei genitori e della principessa. La seconda parte peró, l'ho letta tutta di seguito e quando il libro é finito mi é anche dispiaciuto.
A gorgeous, haunting novel—brimming with fractal stories-within-stories—about a fugitive on the run through the backcountry of the new nation established on a greening Antarctica. McAuley's unskimmably precise prose conjure the bleak beauty of the internal and external landscapes the protagonist navigates as she tries to find her way in a world where humanity has become the primary agent of change—the biosphere increasingly subject to the vicissitudes of human nature.
It is what I can only describe as an ice western. But it is more than this too: it is a deeply personal tale at heart, grown of fear and hope and the work of generations in the throes of the climate crisis. It is a near-future story that feels as real as to be in the now. The only fault I find is a strangeness in its pacing, but this story is a beautiful one, and worth the reading.
Austral is a genetically edited woman living in Antarctica, a century or so after climate change has started to free it from ice. She kidnaps a politician’s teenage daughter for very good reasons, and is on the run. This was an enjoyable short novel.
Climate Change has one silver lining in as much as its provided us with some fantastic fiction. Clade by James Bradley and New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson are just two novels I’ve read recently that take the political, social and economic implications by the horns and run with it. What’s surprising is that both novels aren’t doom and gloom. The Bradley has some dark, awful moments but the ending hints at a hopeful future and New York: 2140 goes as far as implementing a socialist utopia of sorts, one where capitalism is replaced by a system that puts the community first.
That same sense of optimism is present in Austral. McAuley is less convinced that capitalism can be killed and he does make it clear that climate change saw the death of billions and led to a planet-wide refugee crisis, but as with Bradley and KSR humanity does endure, life goes on. If there is a pessimistic note in the novel it’s that not even a planet-wide disaster can rid people of their prejudice and hatred of the other, if anything it reinforces it. Austral, though, is a wonderful character because she’s not afraid to embrace who she is. Yes, she kidnaps a young girl… for reasons… and yes it leads to all manner of shenanigans… but Austral stays true to herself throughout. It’s this depth of character, coupled with robust world building and some fascinating ideas around the greening of Antartica (I’ve said little about the eco-poets mostly because I kept reading them as eco-pets, but they are an intriguing part of McAuley’s future history) that elevates what might have been a conventional chase and escape thriller.
With Austral, McAuley has written a smart, thrilling and emotionally engaging novel.
I was given this book to read by netgalley, but they did not influence my review.
This book was a slow burner. It took a while for me to get into the pace of the story and to become attuned to the characters and the direction of the pot. There is not much in the way of setup or backstory to start with, that's a slow reveal over the course of the book. This is also not story of light vs. dark, or good vs. evil, although there is an obvious villain. This is more shades of grey and a comment on immigration and racism in society, with a healthy dose of ecology and climate change warning. But above all, a good story of people and relationships.
If you're looking for a story with good characters, with some social commentary and realism at the end, then this is a great book for you. It takes some effort at the start, but well worth sticking with and the middle to end of the book flew by.
It's not too much of a spoiler to say that if you're looking for a feelgood happy ending, then you may be disappointed, but the end was in the tune with the story.