A great epic work, doomed to obscurity:
”Austral”, a novel by Paul McAuley
Gollancz, London, 2017
by Valentin D. Ivanov
Paul McAuley is an unappreciated writer and I can think of a number of reasons why. They are all wrong, of course, but these are the realities of the modern publishing word, cross-crossed with the mass-market sensibilities, spread around with the single-mindness of the social networks.
First of all, he is a scientist, a former scientist, to be accurate, who holds a Ph.D. in biology. This is not a problem in itself, except it shows all too well in his writing. His novels – and I am talking here mainly about his space opera series The Quiet War is generously laced with science facts and hypotheses. Alas, today most scientists in fiction are not recognized by the ideas they bring in or the objective reasoning they represent. I see this as a sad consequence of the attempt to reach as wide audience as possible, leading to a the great simplification if the scientific ideas. It has always been that way, because of the basic fact that science is complex and it takes a great effort to get through the tick layer of arguments in a science-based SciFi novel.
Next, McAuley is a white middle class Anglo-Saxon male living in a world, where the border between character and author is somewhat blurred and characters like that are considered boring. This is an understandable reaction to the long dominance of the white middle class Anglo-Saxon males in a genre that was created to an equal extent by Herbert Wells, Jules Verne and the often forgotten Mary Shelly.
Third, McAuley probably suffers – at least to some extent – from the infamous NIH syndrome: Not Invented Here. This is less important for writers from UK, Australia and other English speaking countries, than for those with different native languages, but even with (or may be because) my second/third-language English I can clearly see how different Austral sounds in comparison with a novel from most modern US writers.
As a result most important blurbs on the novel’ s back come from scientists/engineers-turned-writers who incidentally are white middle class Anglo-Saxon males and live in UK (in the interest of fairness, I am looking at an UK edition, but if the UK and US editions differ, that would strengthen my last point and speak volumes by itself): Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds. One exception–to some extent–is Joanne Harris who wrote Chocolat and The Gospel of Loki. Of course, she is from UK – another fact to support my arguments above. She wrote: “… hooray! – a male author writing a complex first-person female narrator…”
Fortunately, most of McAuley’s work is available in electronic form in тхе major on-line outlets, and I hope after reading this review everybody will rush to purchase his books.
Now, let’s proceed with Austral. Like in мост my reviews, I refrain—as much as possible—from retelling the story. Instead, I try to place the book in the wider cultural context, giving the potential readers a chance to decide for themselves whether to devote time for this piece or not, based on comparisons with others, hopefully well-known reference works.
The main theme of Austral is freedom. Freedom from poverty, from race and gender inequality, freedom to travel—yes, some characters are bared even from this basic right (bringing up some memories of the Berlin Wall and such).
There are many ways to read this book, and – as it should be with such a sophisticated work – it can be interpreted and perceived on many different levels. For someone like me, who grew up in one of the poorest (still!) countries in Eastern Europe the first point outweights by far the others, but I understated why a person from the richer and more diverse Western countries would put the stresses on the other issues – аs much as they can be separated, of course.
Structurally, this is a relatively simple travel novel, with a few minor flashback or parallel story-lines that accompany the main line – the escape and run for freedom of the leading character, a young woman appropriately named Austral. I would not go so far as to say that this is somehow connected with On the Road or other famous travel novels or movies, but a number of parallels are inevitable. To name a few: the protagonist is an outlaw, much like in Vanishing Point (1971) and in Thelma and Loise (1991). Similar to the later move we have two young women on the road of discovery and self-discovery. They are facing a deadly force—like in Duel (1971). The tragic atmosphere of the Polish movie Ida (2013) and the lost love theme of the Bulgarian film Detour (1967) come to mind as well (although the two latter titles probably speak nothing to Westerners).
These themes are eternal and the similarities give the novel depth and place the story in the context of cultural discussions about personal freedoms, about the personal versus communal rights, etc. – disputes that have been heating up in the last decade. The scene when Austral asks a virtual stranger for help is easy to overlook in this aspect, although it’s particularly powerful: she needs help to ensure her own survival (and that of her relative turned abductee) placing at risk the survival of a community of ex-ecopoets (a fancy word for the early enthusiasts for settling the new lands in the South).
The setting is an interesting “character” on its own. The action takes place in Antarctica. The global warming has turned this now frozen continent livable and green, although it has taken many decades and genetic modifications of plants and … humans to make this possible.
We are told about the human modifications early in the novel—so this is not a significant spoiler. Such kids grow to be better-suited for the cold: they are larger (and stronger!), improving the mass to surface ratio and can stand cold better that the ordinary humans. This is all well-intended, but as the conditions on the new “Wild West” become more hospitable, the need for these mods weakens. The people who were meant to be at the forefront of the great new undertaking – the colonization of the vast and empty continent – are condemned to second grade citizens. Today they survive either in small isolated communities, scattered across the most inhospitable parts of Antarctica, or they turn to the crime underworld and not surprisingly, end up in on one or the other side of the fence In correction facilities. Indeed, on the opening pages the protagonist is a correctional officer.
Tragically, Austral was born too late. At the time the novel takes place, the optimistic pioneering days of collaboration-over-competition and enthusiasm are gone. The revolution has eaten its children and the “effective managers” have taken over. That last expression perhaps is a mystery to most Westerners, so I will explain it – this it an euphemism for Lavrentiy Beria, the infamous head of NKVD, the Soviet secret service that preceded the better-known KGB. He was a head of the Soviet Nuclear program and saw to its success, by any means necessary.
The epic feel of the novel is created by a reasonably wide cast of supporting characters. They are given enough back stories to make us care about them or despise them, depending on the points McAuley wanted to make. Something I did appreciate is the complexity of these personages. Nobody is fully evil and even the most positive ones – Austral among them – are prone to bad judgment and occasionally take questionable decisions. Like in real life, often the most despicable actions are taken in the name of some abstract or future good and bad people probably never think of themselves as evil.
Yet, we are not facing some empty TV drama where the actions of the characters are fully dictated by the circumstances. By virtue of the chosen viewpoint that gives the reader a full access to the inner voice of Austral we understand that she doesn’t try to hide behind external excuses: she admits that she did enjoy the attention of the important mafia boss she had a relationship with – again this is a plot element revealed on the very first pages of the book, so no significant spoiler here, either.
The main surprises come at the end of the novel, and they are not about the escape or about the chase across Antarctica; they are about the moral growth and cost of compromises and the consequences from bad decisions. I won’t reveal them, I will just say that the readers won’t be disappointed in MacAuley’s writing and in Austral. Some questions are left open, intentionally. I don’t think these is meant to be the seeds for a sequel, but rather a deliberate attempt to make the story more real life-like – indeed, we are not always given all the answers.
Finally, a few words about the language – with a warning that an opinion from a non-native English speaker like this reviewer should be taken with a grain of salt. The language of the novel is rich to the point that Austral was one of the few books that I have read recently with occasional dictionary consultations. Partially, the reason may be in the UK-versus-USA English, but it’s not just that. We have here intelligent and nuanced writing meant – and succeeding! – to express sophisticated ideas and moods of complex characters.
It was a pleasure to read this book and it will be pity if it doesn’t gain the recognition it deserves. Austral and her companion change visibly during their trek across Antarctica. They discover truths about the world, about themselves and about each other; they struggle and have hard time accepting some of these, they face impossible choices with no correct or right solutions, or sometimes even without acceptable options.
The empty house with the fresh grave they discover near the end of their tribulations is a deep metaphor of Austral’s life. Her decision to go on speaks volumes about the protagonist’s strength. I discovered a few more sub-luminous messages like that, scattered across the text, but I will live it to the other readers to enjoy discovering them.
On the negative side, the novel is a bit short for a true epic and it’s limited mostly to Austal’s viewpoint. I would have like to find out more about this world, particularly, about its early days. Widening the line about the trek of the heroine with her mother, that had happened many ears earlier, to match in scope and detail the present-day escape line would have been a good move.
I have anther disagreement with the author, of philosophical nature. Fundamentally, the novel says that the new country on the Antarctic peninsula can not be created without the usual growth pains of inequality, intolerance, and various phobias. This differs very much from the message communicated by the novel Last Year of yet another undervalued writer and а favorite of mine, Robert Charles Wilson. Incidentally, he also lives and writes outside if the US – in Canada. Without spoiling it too much, I will say that his protagonist Jesse Cullum, a child of the real Wild West days, transcends the limitations of his circumstances and society and shows wisdom in a situation where the modern 21-century people fail. These two books share background and address similar problems, but arrive at different answers. Austral and Last Year are both challenge the reader’s expectations and reiterate the well-known, but often forgotten point, that there are no easy answers.
Another work that I kept thinking of while reading Austral was The Left Hand of Darkness and the trip across the vast frozen lands that Le Guin’s characters have to endure. Some of the deceivingly “simple” dialogues in McAuley’s novel matches the exchanges between Genly Ai and his extraterrestrial host: “Can you make it travel faster? – Yes, but why?” I also noticed parallels with some of the Jack London’s stories.
I freely admit, I am biased. I come with scientific background. I grew up with hard-SF about social injustice (Stanislaw Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, the late Kir Bulichev come to mind) and I like it. I feel compelled to promote books and writers that represent these ideas.
To summarize, I think in Austral we have a piece of modern socially conscientious speculative fiction of the highest quality. It offers food for thoughts while being an engaging page-turner at the same time. I am convinced this book deserves to set apart a few hours and enjoy it.
Copyright: Valentin Ivanov
Valentin D. Ivanov (Bulgarian: Валентин Д. Иванов) is a Bulgarian astronomer who had worked in the European Southern Observatory, mainly at the Paranal site. Nowadays, Valentin works at the European Southern Observatory | ESO · Directorate of Operations, Garching bei München, Germany.
Among his primary research areas are the dynamics of star clusters, formation of stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets around such objects.
Valentin Ivanov and Ray Jayawardhana are two of the pioneers of the investigation of the planemos, a special cast of exoplanets.
They discovered the first double planemo Oph 162225-240515. This discovery, came just before the debate about the 2006 planet definition, and posed the problem about the distinction between planets and low-mass stars (brown dwarfs)
Valentin D. Ivanov was born in the town of Bourgas, Bulgaria in 1967. He obtained his master’s degree in physics and astronomy at the University of
Sofia in 1992. He earned a PhD degree at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, U.S. in 2001. He became a fellow at the European Southern Observatory, on La Silla and Cerro Paranal. In 2003-2014 he was a staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), Paranal where he was an instrument scientist for a number of near-infrared instruments, including SofI at the NTT, ISAAC and VISIR at the VLT, and the wide-field camera VIRCAM mounted at the VISTA (telescope). He moved to the ESO headquarters in 2015 where he is working at the science-grade data products group.
Science fiction is Valentin’s hobby. He has published about thirty stories in Bulgaria and a few in various English language venues.
In 2006, together with Kiril Dobrev, he has published a science fiction story collection in Bulgarian language.