Hard Science, Radical Imagination
An Interview with Paul J McAuley
by Nick Gevers
The British SF writer Paul J McAuley, born in 1955, has over the
last decade made his mark as one of the genre's most dedicated,
most imaginative, and most versatile authors. Ingeniously exploring
and developing the potentials of a succession of speculative subgenres,
he has provided SF with a voice of mature acuity.
McAuley's great strengths are: a very thorough grounding in past
SF (he is a frequent critic and reviewer), which allows him to
deploy and comment upon the field's icons and tropes with great,
knowingly humorous flexibility; a strong command of scientific
theory and detail, which lends his work, like that of Bruce Sterling
and Michael Swanwick, a relentless, densely argued, intellectually
provocative texture; a mastery of brisk, variously contemporary
and exotic language; and a quietly persuasive sense of the existential
and moral implications of his fictions, however distanced from
reality they may at times seem. All of these gifts have enriched
a steady, consistent output of stories and novels.
McAuley's first literary campaign was in the territory of Larry
Nivenesque space opera. A testing ground was the set of interrelated
short stories constituting most of The King of the Hill (1991);
Of the Fall (1989) was a long sidebar to this emerging
future history; and its full story of alien contact, cosmic origins,
and personal crisis emerged in the linked novels Four Hundred
Billion Stars (1988), winner of the Philip K Dick Award, and
Eternal Light (1991). The focus of Red Dust (1993),
a strong planetary romance, was a Mars of centuries hence, an
elaborate realm of Tibetan monasteries, Chinese agricultural collectives,
and bizarre secret histories; its rich drama and sense of place
were carried further in the alternate history Pasquale's Angel
(1994, winner of the Sidewise Award), which exhilaratingly
and menacingly converted Renaissance Florence into a domain of
advanced Industry in addition to its customary intrigue...
From there, McAuley proceeded to master cyberpunk, in the majority
of the stories in The Invisible Country (1996) and in the
Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel Fairyland (1995), which
populated post-industrial Europe with artificial creatures that
alternated as docile slaves and threatening figures from myth.
And the Confluence trilogy, made up of Child of the
River (1997), Ancients of Days (1998), and Shrine
of Stars (1999), and probably McAuley's masterpiece, revitalised
Science Fantasy, telling superbly the tale of a young man of extraordinary
powers who is the last of the Builders of a vast world populated
by thousands of intelligent species, all of which must be saved
When I interviewed Paul McAuley in December 1999, I sought both
an overall conspectus of his remarkable career and particular
insight into the narrative strategies and intellectual schisms
McAuley's great strengths are: a very thorough grounding in past SF (he is a frequent critic and reviewer), which allows him to deploy and comment upon the field's icons and tropes with great, knowingly humorous flexibility; a strong command of scientific theory and detail, which lends his work, like that of Bruce Sterling and Michael Swanwick, a relentless, densely argued, intellectually provocative texture; a mastery of brisk, variously contemporary and exotic language; and a quietly persuasive sense of the existential and moral implications of his fictions, however distanced from reality they may at times seem. All of these gifts have enriched a steady, consistent output of stories and novels.
McAuley's first literary campaign was in the territory of Larry Nivenesque space opera. A testing ground was the set of interrelated short stories constituting most of The King of the Hill (1991); Of the Fall (1989) was a long sidebar to this emerging future history; and its full story of alien contact, cosmic origins, and personal crisis emerged in the linked novels Four Hundred Billion Stars (1988), winner of the Philip K Dick Award, and Eternal Light (1991). The focus of Red Dust (1993), a strong planetary romance, was a Mars of centuries hence, an elaborate realm of Tibetan monasteries, Chinese agricultural collectives, and bizarre secret histories; its rich drama and sense of place were carried further in the alternate history Pasquale's Angel (1994, winner of the Sidewise Award), which exhilaratingly and menacingly converted Renaissance Florence into a domain of advanced Industry in addition to its customary intrigue...
From there, McAuley proceeded to master cyberpunk, in the majority of the stories in The Invisible Country (1996) and in the Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel Fairyland (1995), which populated post-industrial Europe with artificial creatures that alternated as docile slaves and threatening figures from myth. And the Confluence trilogy, made up of Child of the River (1997), Ancients of Days (1998), and Shrine of Stars (1999), and probably McAuley's masterpiece, revitalised Science Fantasy, telling superbly the tale of a young man of extraordinary powers who is the last of the Builders of a vast world populated by thousands of intelligent species, all of which must be saved from themselves.
When I interviewed Paul McAuley in December 1999, I sought both an overall conspectus of his remarkable career and particular insight into the narrative strategies and intellectual schisms informing Confluence.
NG: You've described yourself as a radical hard SF writer. By way of introduction to your authorial philosophy and techniques, what does writing radical hard SF entail?
PM: Radical hard SF was a term coined by David Pringle and Colin Greenland in an Interzone editorial some years ago. They suggested that there was room in SF for new fictions that would be "critical and investigative, facing up to the science and technology of the present and future...using the hard-edged language and imagery of technology for imaginative interpretations of reality". More recently, Gardner Dozois has appropriated it to describe the subgenre of revisionist widescreen baroque space opera -- which is only partly what I think radical hard SF can do. I use the definition very loosely: SF rooted in the core traditions of SF but also surfing the wave of the present, with rounded characters, bleeding edge science, an attempt to convey the complexity of a world or worlds. It's a reaction to the trad SF approach of filtering the future through One Big Change -- nanotechnology, immortality, biotech. If there's one thing we've learnt from the twentieth century, it's that change is continuous and is advancing on a thousand different fronts.
NG: Your scientific background is as a research biologist; how has this grounding shaped your SF?
PM: I'm a science junky -- always have been. If I'd been a writer before becoming a scientist I think I'd still be writing about science and I'm certainly still excited by the rich strangeness of the universe -- I'm lucky to live here, at the end of the twentieth century, where new wonders are reported almost daily. As a scientist, I hope I've acquired a certain meticulousness about thinking things through, the ability to see things from the bottom up, and to not be afraid of research. I'm definitely writing more and more about biology and the culture of science now that I'm no longer a scientist -- there's a kind of disinhibition process going on, and it's something I know a little bit about.
NG: Like a number of other writers of your generation -- for example, Ian McDonald, and your occasional collaborator Kim Newman -- you have a marked tendency to allude very comprehensively to earlier works of SF, Fantasy, and Horror in writing your own fiction, often to subversive and parodic effect. What lies behind this? And are there authors whom you especially like "quoting"?
PM: Working as we all do in a genre that is itself a patchwork of quotes, for the same tropes and tricks have been used over and over, it's hard not to find a quote in any contemporary SF. For instance, how can you write a new alien invasion story without acknowledging all the old alien invasion stories? After all, your characters will already know about alien invasions from movies and TV, if not from books. However, I think that a lot of the parody in my work comes from real events, not books; quoting the world is what I like doing best.
NG: Your first series -- the novels Four Hundred Billion Stars, Of the Fall (Secret Harmonies) and Eternal Light, and many of the stories in King of the Hill -- is very much adventurous grand scale cosmic SF, but with a texture of realism and disillusion. Were you consciously writing revisionist space opera here, perhaps expressing an ideology at variance with others typical of that subgenre?
PM: There was a conscious attempt to subvert the triumphalism dominant in American SF -- an unsurprising triumphalism, since this has turned out to be the American century, but annoying when it is the unquestioned default mode. And I was also aware of the perception of British SF as being low key, inward-turning and, yes, disillusioned with the toys of SF. I wanted to try and combine the two -- the grand sweep of vision the best American SF can give, grounded in gritty realism. I'm not sure that it's a natural combination, frankly, but I don't think that the ending of Eternal Light could be considered disillusioned. Hopeful, hopefully.
NG: The most important single character in these books is Dorthy Yoshida, a heroine unusual in space opera both for her complexity and for her lack of an orthodox narrative-facilitating kinetic drive. What motivated you to portray her this way?
PM: She's trapped in a mode she doesn't instinctively understand or feel any sympathy towards, which I guess was emblematic of my feelings as I tried to wrestle the well-worn tropes into something new. Although she's passive -- willfully so, sometimes -- she does possess a quality which people want to use, and not unnaturally she resents and fights against that. Suzy Falcon, in Eternal Light, was supposed to be the mirror of Dorthy -- she wants to be a hero, she is someone always on the move through the plot, and if it was a straightforward space opera she would have won the prize. I'm pretty sure she didn't.
NG: Your following novel, Red Dust, is essentially a planetary romance, set on a rich and bizarre version of Mars. How do you see the book now, in the context of all the Martian novels produced by SF in the Nineties?
PM: It's really a '90s Mars book that should have been written in the '60s. I think I started from the same place as, say, Stan Robinson -- that is, the Mariner and Viking maps and photographs -- but I regressed. It was fun.
NG: A striking feature of Red Dust is its vision of Mars colonized by the Chinese, the flavour of whose culture and society permeates the book. What stimulated this creation?
PM: It just seemed an obvious move: in fact, I think Mick Farren wrote a Chinese Mars book, and around the time I was doing the first draft of Red Dust, I learned that Howard Waldrop had this plan for a (still) unwritten neorealist Communist Chinese Mars novel. I wish he'd written it. It sounded much better than Red Dust. In fact, I started from the idea of Mars as Tibet, and then (as in the real world) the Chinese took over. Then I stuck in Elvis and things started to get a little out of control.
NG: Elvis Presley is a significant figure in Red Dust, a subversive icon resurrected. What does this say about the book, and about your attitude to Elvis?
PM: I'm not sure how subversive Elvis is at the moment -- he seems more Camp than subversive, but things might change. Every decade has its take on Elvis: that's what makes him eternally interesting. And of course he's ubiquitous -- every day, you can have an Elvis moment. My take was to imagine that his singing career was largely forgotten; Wei Lee is a fan of his movies. In which, charitably, one might imagine Elvis deconstructing his own myth.
NG: Pasquale's Angel is a very clear example of the sort of alternate history novel that accelerates historical development, in this case delineating a Sixteenth Century in which Leonardo da Vinci presides over a premature Industrial Revolution. In this, you echo works such as The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling, and prefigure Swanwick's Jack Faust. What judgement does Pasquale's Angel deliver on scientific genius? Is the novel an intensification of trends in our history, or an alternative to them?
PM: It's a transposition and intensification of trends -- Florence is a small city wracked by large changes, and as a venue for the traditional culture clash between science and art, it's hard to beat. I don't think anything happens in my alternate history which either couldn't happen or hasn't happened in the history we got. Almost all of the machines are modelled on real plans or even actual machines (the floating watermills come from 13th century Paris, for instance). I'm hesitant to use Pasquale's to pronounce judgement on scientific genius (although it's partly the subject of my next novel), since Leonardo da Vinci is a shadowy figure who only appears towards the end of the book, even though his inventions dominate the plot.
NG: Is the murder investigation at the centre of the plot of Pasquale's Angel, undertaken as it is by Machiavelli, a commentary of a sort on the Renaissance mindset?
PM: Not really -- history has been changed and so has the way the characters in the book view the world, although I suppose the artists do represent the old (or original) Renaissance way of thinking. I don't think you could have a parody of a consulting detective without some kind of application of the scientific method, for instance, and that certainly wasn't a feature of the Renaissance mindset; they deferred to the Greeks in those matters. Leonardo was an exception, of course, but he was not exactly an ordinary citizen. Niccolo Machiavegli, who in our history was a fairly protean and adaptable figure, represents the new mindset which is rising out of a culture driven by the infernal devices. He was supposed to be in only one or two scenes, but took over as Pasquale's other secret master.
NG: Is a sequel -- Pasquale in America, or some such -- possible? A strong shamanistic theme was emerging at book's end...
PM: It's in my mind to write something set about fifty years later, in fact. And yes, set in America (South and North), with a quest for Cibola featuring strongly. I might have already written it, but my former publishers, Gollancz, are holding onto the rights for Pasquale's Angel against my wishes, and so, not unnaturally, no other publisher wants to do the sequel. Until or unless I get those rights back, the book is in limbo -- not the first case of a publisher stifling a book, but annoying nonetheless.
NG: Fairyland, along with the related stories in The Invisible Country, is very evidently in cyberpunk vein. Does your emphasis on biotechnology -- the crafting of demihuman dolls who in time are engineered into synthetic elves and other artificial creatures of Myth -- amount to a systematic reorientation of cyberpunk, away from virtuality and into living possibility?
PM: I suppose you could call it biopunk, to borrow Paul Di Filippo's coinage. The fairies in Fairyland do stand between the imagined and the real (as fairies always do), which is why they so naturally colonised the Magic Kingdom. But there's no intentional reorientation of cyberpunk tropes and themes.
NG: A remarkable aspect of Fairyland is the way in which the gritty noirish milieux of cyberpunk at times shade into eerie situations familiar from Faerie and pre-industrial Europe. Is this a reflection by you on the continued power of myth, or a denunciation of cultural nostalgia?
PM: I think it's mostly a response to the way that history underlies everything in Europe; the fairies are trying to construct their own myths, using fragments of ours in a weird bricolage. I'm interested in the way that the stories in myths have grown from real events -- ceremonies, wars, the change from bronze to iron and so on -- and especially in the way that certain themes still have a resonance. If the best stories last longest, the question then is, what makes those stories the best? Why are they so resonant?
NG: Your three-volume masterpiece, Confluence, continues the fusion of the materials of hard SF and Fantasy, in its rendering of a huge fantasticated far-future world which is wholly susceptible, in time, to scientific rationalisation. By what logical stages does that rationalisation unfold, and is the rationalisation total? Should the glamour of the fantastic, which is such a large part of Confluence's appeal, entirely fade away?
PM: I hope that the careful reader will see that all of the fantastical elements are susceptible to rationalisation. Myths, after all, are attempts to rationalise, through story, what seemed like fantastical elements to those who first coined them. I deliberately structured the three books as Fantasy, Science Fantasy and Science Fiction (the last explains everything that isn't already unexplained); that's why, at the end of Ancients of Days, the sword-wielding barbarian comes up against a flying saucer with a death ray. As Yama learns about the world, he grows out of the myths of the past, or at least manages to gain control of them.
NG: Confluence pays very deft homage to many major works of SF --Cordwainer Smith is certainly background to Confluence's thousands of genetically uplifted animal bloodlines, and Jack Vance lurks about generally -- but in reading the trilogy I was constantly struck by echoes, some very specific, of The Book of the New Sun and The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe. Wolfean turns of phrase (particularly in dialogue), the necropolis, Ys as Nessus, the hero who serves an inscrutable destiny while pursued by blasphemous rebels and monsters, the Kypris-like virtual figure of Angel, and so much more.... The closing sections of Shrine of Stars seem like a rather witty recasting of the material of The Urth of the New Sun. Could one read Confluence, on one level, as a commentary on Wolfe's works?
PM: I think that's just what John Clute will be doing [in his "Excessive Candour" column for SF Weekly -- NG], so I don't want to spoil his game. I'm not sure how much of the necropolis comes from Wolfe, though -- it's modelled on the real necropolis in Glasgow -- and Yama isn't Christ, he's Moses, while the big spaceship at the end of Shrine of Stars isn't much like that of The Urth of the New Sun, except that it is a very big, very old spaceship. It isn't God's spaceship (we don't meet the crew, but we have already met two of them, in Child of the River), and its destination isn't Heaven, unfortunately (but perhaps the planet where Yama makes landfall is a little bit like Hell). You'll have to remind me who (or what) Kypris was, too. So I've a feeling not all the references you might be able to dig out are either overt, or intentioned.
Nevertheless, anyone writing about the end times in the very far future must owe a considerable debt to Wolfe's wonderful books - his torturer casts a long shadow. And it's obvious that I owe a huge debt to Wolfe (and to Jack Vance too) for the use of real, albeit archaic or obscure, words to convey the strangeness of a world and its furnishings and inhabitants, rather than relying on inventions, which to my mind hardly ever convince. There's really no excuse for the rash of typographical oddities which speckle too many Fantasy and SF books.
NG: The pacing of Confluence has two notable features: a startlingly rapid progress through strange landscapes and violent incidents, and what amount to long, although still hectic, digressions -- as Yama himself reflects near the end. What motivated this highly enriched picaresque manner of narration?
PM: The origin of Confluence lay in a novelette I wrote for Greg Bear's anthology, New Legends [this novelette is available elsewhere in infinity plus - Ed]. When I had finished it, I realised that, in setting the story in an insignificant city at the far end of a huge and ancient world, I had barely lifted a corner on its richness, and so I set out in the trilogy to explore the world of Confluence in a very traditional manner -- that of the picaresque which slowly gathers itself into a quest, enriched, I hope, by a sense of the world's deep history, and the deeper history beyond that of the world. Like the quest plotline (I think Yama thinks that he is on a quest), it's a very traditional way of exploring a world in both SF and Fantasy. Given that Yama's true name is the Child of the River, it's inevitable that he should journey along its whole length.
Yama doesn't set out to change the world on his first journey, from Aeolis to Ys. All he wants is to find out where he came from and to follow in the footsteps of his dead step-brother and so fulfill his naive notion of glory. But because what he is (what he needs to learn about himself) is apparent to those who know the origin of the world, he gathers plot and subplot about himself almost by accident.
NG: Yama is a protagonist of a kind familiar from your earlier works -- as you've intimated above, basically interested simply in living a satisfying life, but dragged onto the cosmic stage, acted upon until he must himself act, which he in the end does, determinedly and capably. He is a superman, sui generis, but Everyman as well. What continuing statement on the nature of SF are you making here?
PM: One of the most engaging themes in SF is, to my mind, the problem of the hero. How can a hero be human enough for us to care about him, and yet also be capable of doing heroic deeds? One solution is that he or she does not care to be a hero -- echoing Christ's denial on the cross. The tension between ability to act and reluctance to act is where human drama is kindled. So with Dorthy Yoshida, Wei Lee, and Yama. Who all get some peace at the end, at least.
NG: The struggle between the heretics and bureaucrats in Confluence is obviously one between heedless hubris and stagnant conservatism. I was struck by paradoxes, however: the superficially progressive heretics seem like Thatcherites employing the methods of the Khmer Rouge, while the bureaucrats mingle an historically expected mandarinism with an air of Communism in terminal decay. Is your point that extremism is always basically the same (as illustrated when the feral machine, a heretic, wears the face of Prefect Corin, a conservative)? Is Confluence, then, a plea to observe the Golden Mean?
PM: I think that the extremes of the two great political systems of our time do meet around each others' backs. That's why many of those who were communists in their youth end up as rabid freemarketeers later on; the transition is much easier than might be expected from the propaganda from both sides. No matter what cause extremists rally to, they are all driven by the need to stamp their ideology on the rest of us. Despite their much vaunted "free market economy", Thatcherites were remarkably interested in pumping us full of their particular brand of ideology. The combination of libertarianism and my take on the Khmer Rouge permanent revolution was an attempt to come up with a doctrine so horrible no one could possibly like it.
NG: More deeply, it is different conceptions of destiny that clash sustainedly in Confluence. As you remark in your note on "Recording Angel" (the story that was the germ of the trilogy) in The Invisible Country, the war the heretics wage against the bureaucrats is a battle between Christian and Hindu philosophies: the rebels urge an imminent and individual eschatology, reminiscent (in some ways) of Christ's, against the ancient, patient, collective theology of the bureaucratic order; the linear bias of Christian historiography clashes with the cyclical orientation of Hinduism. Does either ethic acquire affirmation in Confluence?
PM: The wheel of history is broken at the end of Confluence, but there's the sense of greater wheels beyond. The smaller compass of human lives is shaped differently from the larger -- Yama's life is an exception, of course, but then so is he. I don't think that the heretics' extreme individualism is much like true Christian virtue, by the way -- they wouldn't have much time for the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance.
NG: How significant is it, then, that Yama in the end accepts an infinite recurring loop as the structure of his own existence, in order that the lineages of Confluence can finally have the linear freedom of the Galaxy?
PM: One of the things Yama wanted to learn about when he set out from Ys was his nature (I think the first of the fisherfolk Yama encounters after escaping Dr Dismas guesses it from his name, for there's an indication that the fisherfolk may know the truth about the Great River). Yama told himself comforting lies about his origin, but by the end of Confluence is able to set them aside and accept the truth. His history, unlike those of ordinary people, also echoes the larger cycle of the Universe's history.
NG: Another clash, represented strongly in Child of the River, is between different ideas as to how the past can best be known; there is the archaeological school of the Curators, emphasizing how artifacts reflect history tangibly, and there is the scholasticism of Zakiel, who would rather peruse the texts earlier ages have left behind. What relation does this interplay have to the larger themes of Confluence?
PM: The past is essentially unknowable: we remake it in our image. Things do not speak for themselves -- we must make them speak. Stories do speak to us, but we don't necessarily hear what they are telling us. The world of Confluence was made by the Builders under the instruction of the Preservers, and each bloodline has a story of its own making congruent with the making of the world. But which is true?
NG: A secular theology very apparent in Confluence is that of Frank J Tipler, whose notion is that Intelligence must become Godlike near the end of time, resurrecting its own ancestors in a sort of Judgement Day. Does Confluence satirize Tiplerian beliefs?
PM: Most definitely and I think (or at least, hope) explicitly. The problem of Tipler's heaven -- the problem with all secular heavens, including those of the virtual reality variety -- is that he can't imagine what it could be like to retain all the human attributes of one's present personality yet also to be truly immortal. It's a general problem in any SF dealing with transcendence in any serious kind of way, and of course the answer is that one cannot become immortal without becoming other than one's self. That's the root of Angel's dilemma, and the Great Lie at the heart of the propaganda of the heretics, and one of the lies that SF tells itself over and over.
NG: A small final query about the trilogy: one of Confluence's more striking scenes is that in Shrine of Stars where the bureaucrats' general, Menas, is involved in a consensual standoff with heretic forces, whom he engages in a ritual combat of what amounts to special effects monster technology. What lay behind this episode?
PM: Two things, I think. The battle of the ironclads in the American Civil War, and the performance art of Mark Paulin's Survival Research Laboratories and others. And I suppose, now I think of it, the ritual futility of the trench warfare in the First World War, in which my grandfather fought. Sometimes the past stands beside you and you do not realise it.
NG: Your next novel, awaiting publication, The Secret History of Life, is set on Mars again. Is it connected with Red Dust? And does it mark any new direction in your work?
PM: It's now The Secret of Life -- and while the middle third is set on Mars, the rest is set on Earth. It's a return to the near future (not the same near future) in the style of Fairyland, although rather less baroque and more concerned with the culture of mainstream science than that of garage science. There isn't a connection with Red Dust -- Mars here is as real as I could make it, the venue for a search for ancient life which might have been the universal ancestor of life on Earth. If there is a new direction, it's a movement away from the fantastic elements of SF and towards an engagement with the real world.
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© Nick Gevers 12 February 2000