Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Bognor Regis, Flying Saucers and Me

Beyond the Burn Line is, in part, a kind of First Contact story that's set in the aftermath of the Anthropocene and employs tropes from the UFO literature of the last half of the twentieth century. How did I, somewhat unwillingly labelled a 'hard' science fiction writer (that is, someone whose fictions find various uses for actual science), get involved with that flying saucer stuff? We have to go a long way back. The third quadrant of the twentieth century to be precise. The groovy late 1960s, in not-so-groovy Gloucestershire.

I was a bookish child, hooked on science fiction from an early age. My family was pretty poor, I couldn't afford to buy many new books and there were no secondhand bookshops in my little town, so my main sources of supply were libraries, church sales and Woolworths' trays of cheap American paperbacks. Allegedly shipped across the Atlantic as ballast, there were a scattering of science fiction novels and story collections amongst the florid romances and remaindered copies of Thrilling Detective Stories. I still have a few of them -- John Jake's Asylum World, Clifford Simak's All the Traps of Earth and other stories, Theodore Sturgeon's A Way Home -- but most were lost to moves and years of strategic winnowing, including the only non-fiction title I bought, back then. A slim paperback by George Adamski: Inside the Flying Saucers. I was expecting some kind of gee-whizz space adventure; instead there was a plodding linear narrative interspersed with tedious lectures and steeped in a stifling sense of virtuous self-importance. Even at age 12 or 13 I wasn't much impressed, and that was it, for me and flying saucers, until the summer of 1970.

We were poor, but an aunt owned a boarding house in the south-coast town of Bognor Regis, where my mother's family came from, and that's where we went on holiday for a fortnight every other year. It was, and still is, a somewhat low-rent resort, but there was a park with a boating lake, a miniature railway and a small zoo, and a long promenade with a theatre, a pier and miles of sandy beaches from which, on clear days, the misty coast of France could be glimpsed at the horizon. As far as we were concerned, not knowing any better, it was a kind of paradise.

But in August 1970 the weather for the first week of our holiday was wet and windy, and my sister, my brother and I mostly stayed indoors. In one of the sea-front cafes, in the pier's penny arcade (with its mechanical depictions of a haunted house and a hanging, and the head and torso of a sailor that, for a penny in its slot, would roll its eyes and laugh so horrendously and relentlessly that we'd shriek and flee after triggering it), or in my aunt's cosy kitchen, where my great-grandfather was a benign presence beside the cast-iron grate and we sat at a table covered with green oilcloth, listlessly fiddling with jigsaw puzzles, squabbling and listening to my sister's transistor radio. She was into pop music far more than I was, back then, but I remember one song that came around frequently, that August: Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi'. You know, the one about paving paradise to put up parking lots, visiting trees in a tree museum, and saving the birds and bees from DDT. A perfect miniature anthem that fused environmental and personal loss in two minutes fifteen seconds. Meanwhile, the rain didn't stop, and after I exhausted the handful of books I'd brought with me, emergency measures were required: I persuaded my aunt to help me join the local library.

It was in a modern brick-and-glass building a few streets away from my aunt's boarding house, and one of the first libraries in the UK to install an electronic ticketing system, which meant that you checked out books yourself, rather than having them approved and stamped by a librarian. I'd already read most of the books in the science fiction section, but there was a short shelf of UFOlogy literature nearby, and perhaps prompted by that purchase in Woolworths a few years before I borrowed several likely looking volumes.

During the rest of the fortnight I read my way through that shelf, five books at a time, even when the rain stopped and the sun reappeared, just in time for the opening of the third and last Isle of White festival -- it was just a few dozen miles west of Bognor, but as far as we were concerned it might as well have been on Mars. Amongst others, it featured the Who, the Doors, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimmy Hendrix (one of his last shows; he died of a barbiturate overdose a few weeks later) and Joni Mitchell, who was given an especially hard time by a bellicose crowd which had swelled to over 600,000 after French anarchists and other mutineers tore down the security fencing. At the end of our holiday, the coach to London, where we'd change to another coach that would take us back to Gloucestershire, made an unexpected stop, and a band of what looked like yetis recently returned from the trenches of the First World War clambered aboard. There was an empty seat next to me, and as these revenants shambled down the aisle I sent up a prayer to the cosmic overlords that none of them would sit next to me. But one inevitably did, wearing a damp Afghan coat whose damp, uncured goatskin smelled exactly as you'd expect, and that was as close as I ever got to the summer of love.

I don't remember much about those UFO books now. Apart from a few which attempted to give impartial overviews of the phenomenon, most were, like Adamski's book, eccentric personal revelations of contacts, kidnappings, cosmic secrets and conspiracies to keep the truth from the public. About fifteen years later, I interviewed the physicist John Barrow for the SF magazine Interzone (several of his books, notably his collaboration with Frank Tippler, the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, informed some of my early writing), who noted that members of the green-ink brigade who sent him their Theories of Everything only ever used algebra to explain the entirety of creation. There was definitely that kind of aura about those flying saucer tracts. But they were also utopian, hopeful, imbued with a need to understand the vast otherness of the universe and deliver outlines of utopias that could solve our all too human problems. As Jack Womack puts it, in his fine survey of UFOlogy, ... Flying Saucers Are Real, they were, like science fiction, 'ways to see beyond the neighborhood.'

I mostly forgot about the books I devoured in that reading marathon, but not entirely. One of my first attempts to write a science-fiction story was about UFO sightings in an idealised Cotswold village, which didn't go anywhere because (I know now) I took the subject far too seriously. Several of my early novels, and a couple of later ones, involved encounters with aliens whose minds and motives remain teasingly enigmatic* even when (or especially when) they arrive to help us. And some fifty years after my first contact with UFOs, when it's become all too clear that we really shouldn't have paved over paradise, I finally found a way to make use of those earnest chronicles of sightings and contacts, and their odd, short-lived cults.


*Wittgenstein famously wrote 'If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.' By which he didn't mean that we couldn't understand, at a basic level, the lion's need to communicate, but because his world and ours only partially overlap we could never intuit the full range of his feelings and emotions; we couldn't grok him as we can another person. And lions have much more in common with us than aliens, which is perhaps the major fault of much UFO literature, in which Venusians and Saturnians are simply idealised versions of ourselves.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Inception

Where do writers get their ideas? Anywhere and everywhere they can. In the case of Beyond the Burn Line, it began with something so slight it barely qualified as the ghost of a notion. A throwaway remark by a minor character in one of my earlier novels, The Quiet War, who wonders, as nations struggle to fix the damage to ecosystems caused by previous generations, if Earth might not be better off without humans. ‘In time, some other species might start to look at the stars and wonder. Bears, perhaps. Or raccoons. Perhaps they will manage things better . . .'

Something I more or less forgot, at least on the conscious level until more than a decade later, when I remarked on Twitter, during a brief to and fro about waves of galactic colonisation or some such, that by the time an extraterrestrial civilisation discovers Earth, the human species may well have managed to extinguish itself, and some other species of Earthling will have to deal with First Contact instead.

The fusion of these two notions was the inception of Beyond the Burn Line, and an early, fleeting interest in UFOlogy gave its first half development direction and purpose. It wasn't the novel I was intending to write. That one, set in the near future, was in the early stages of development when COVID-19 began to spread across the globe; because of the uncertainties created by the pandemic (still not settled), I set it aside, recalled the remark about post-Anthropocene First Contact, and began to tinker with what became, after a couple of false starts, the story of a scholar who doggedly pursuing his late master's research into glimpses of strange visitors and stumbles on a greater truth. As for my brief flirtation with UFOs and their cults, it involves summer thunderstorms, my aunt's boarding house, one of the first libraries in the UK to have an electronic ticketing system, and Joni Mitchell. But that's another story.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Publication Day!


 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Brief Review: Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman

The two central characters in Ned Beauman's dark comedy are, broadly, personifications of the commonest reactions to the great thinning of the world's ecosystems: grief and anger. Emotions which in this case are generated by the accidental destruction of what may have been the last breeding grounds of a 'bumpy and greyish fish' that's obscure and distinctly uncharismatic, but also the second most-intelligent species on the planet.

Karin Resaint, the animal cognitive specialist who was studying the venomous lumpsucker, experiences a kind of existential collapse; Mark Halyard, who works for the extinction industry which commodifies endangered species, is furious not because of the loss, but because it threatens to ruin him over an unwise bet he made with company money. The two of them form an uneasy odd-couple relationship as for very different reasons they try to track down rumours of surviving populations of the lumpsucker. Their search spans the collapsing ecosystems of the Baltic and the North Sea, a pirate nation plagued by a rapture of gnats, and the self-willed isolation of the Hermit Kingdom (whose refusal of the outside world and enthrallment to an imaginary past is all too recognisable), and uncovers the machineries of a grandiose scheme in which the lumpsucker was an accidental casualty.

Although nominally an author at the literary end of the spectrum (he was selected as one of Granta's best young British novelists in 2013; his second novel was long-listed for the Man Booker prize), Beauman hasn't been shy in listing in genre influences; the deep-grained noirish cynicism of Venomous Lumpsucker reminds me of Fredrick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's satires of American mid-twentieth century hyperconsumerism, The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law, and there's a truly science-fictional twist to this densely realised ecothriller. Combining high-end farce with an acerbic portrayal of a world in which technology fails in various terrible ways to counter the effects of uncontrolled plundering of finite natural resources, it's unsparing in its deconstruction of global capitalism and the fallibility of well-intentioned attempts to preserve the myriad species that knit together the world's ecosystems, and pivots on an urgently topical question. We're a clever species, noble in reason, infinite in faculties and so forth, but are we clever enough to save the world from the worst of our nature?

Monday, September 12, 2022

More Promotion

 

Another positive review of Beyond the Burn Line (have I mentioned that it will be published on the 22nd of this month?) in the Guardian. 'The book is an absolute delight: evocatively written, surprising, thought-provoking entertainment.'

Friday, September 09, 2022

'Geenisõjad'

 My story 'Gene Wars' ('Geenisõjad') as been translated into Estonian for Reaktor magazine's special biopunk edition. I haven't been keeping track, but this little story, first published in 1991, has been reprinted at least twenty times (moral: 2000 word short stories are popular with editors). You can read it in English here.


 

Thursday, September 08, 2022

First Review

 It's two weeks before publication of Beyond the Burn Line (you can, if you wish, pre-order), and the first review has appeared. In The Times, no less, as its SF book of the month. The review is over here, albeit beyond a paywall, and concludes:

'McAuley’s eccentric retread of late 19th-century science (Saltmire’s kind are just wrapping their furry heads around the concept of adaptation through natural selection) provides the intellectual framework for a spirited tale of travel, manners and professorial skulduggery ... McAuley is not a showy writer, but his fiendishness gets under your skin.'

Will definitely take fiendishness.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

The Thing Itself


 

Friday, September 02, 2022

Brief Review: Pupa, by J.O. Morgan

 'Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I.' The Fly (dir David Cronenberg).

The first novel by poet J.O. Morgan, Pupa is set in an alternate world predicated on a single what if? -- what if human reproduction resembled that of insects, with larval forms hatching from eggs, and changing, via pupae, into the adult form? Sal is a larval who tells himself he is content with his lot. He's an unambitious office drone with a necessarily unrequited friendship with another larval, Megan, and has no intention of willing the potentially fatal transformation to adulthood. As he tells Megan, 'You can't know if you'll like how you'll turn out.' But by a single uncharacteristic act, he precipates Megan's decision to change, and puts his own assumptions to the test.

Morgan allows the differences between Sal's world and ours to unfold at an unhurried pace that eschews infodumps and exposition for glimpses of complexities and consequences that Sal, like other larvals, often doesn't quite understand. The prose is unadorned yet precise, accentuating the impact of pivotal moments of body horror; the story turns on individual decisions and actions without overplaying the considerable metaphorical power of its central conceit. Cool, restrained, quietly affecting, it's an impressive novelistic debut.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Currently...

 ... on page 63 of the first draft of a Quiet War novella. Which was supposed to be a short story but grew, as they say, in the telling. I've been working on it since the beginning of this month, and now the ending's in sight (or, at least, the steps of its final tango have been blocked out). It's called, for the moment, 'Blade and Bone'. As is usual for me, these days, I kind of felt my way into it and although I knew the beats of the story before I began, I didn't realise what it was really about until some way past the midpoint. I'm quite excited by it now.

Meanwhile, I'm accumulating bits and pieces for what might be the next novel: the one I was going to try to write before the plague intervened, and I wrote Beyond the Burn Line instead. This new thing is mostly incomplete scaffolding and some pieces of furniture in storage, but I do have a good opening paragraph, at least.

(These are mostly encouraging notes to myself, by the way, and shouldn't be mistaken for actual news.)

Monday, July 18, 2022

Early Light/Early Life

 

 

Last week NASA released the first images acquired by its new James Webb Space Telescope, including this infra-red image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. The field of view is tiny, about the size of a grain of dust held at arms length, but it's packed with galaxies shining with light 4.6 billion years old, around the time the solar system was condensing out of a swirl of gas and cosmic dust. And amongst those galaxies are redder, fainter, fingernail arcs that are the light of even older star clusters and galaxies, distorted by the gravity of nearer, younger galaxies. That reddened, distorted light is around 12.8 billion years old, according to NASA: a window into the very deep past, around a billion years after the Big Bang and the universe's creation.

What was it like, then? The universe was still somewhat hotter and denser than it is now, and star formation was more intense, but there were stars and recognisable galaxies, even if they were small and irregular or simple spirals rather than elliptical giants like the Milky Way. Given what we know now about the abundance of exoplanets, some of those stars may have had planetary companions. But was there any life* on those first worlds? Was anything splashing about in some primordial ocean, under a sky crowded with stars and cauls of hot gas giving birth to stars, and pocket-sized galaxies smashing into each other?

On early Earth, the limiting factor for the kindling of life was temperature and the availability of liquid water. The earliest undisputed trace of life are fossilised microbial mats 3.5 billion years old. There are also traces of what might be stromatolites and biologically formed graphite in rocks 3.7 billion years old, and there's a claim that eyelash-sized iron-rich tubes may have been formed by microorganisms living 4.28 billion years ago. Their age and biogenic nature is still disputed, but if they really are fossil traces of life, then life on Earth began very soon after its formation by violent accretion 4.54 billion years ago: as soon as the first oceans appeared. Could life* have arisen somewhere in the universe as quickly? Here's some artless speculation.

In the early universe, the limiting factor for the first appearance of life was not temperature, but availability of water and necessary elements -- carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and so on. A brief universe-wide flare of fusion processes in the first few minutes after the Big Bang produced mostly hydrogen and helium, with a vanishingly small smattering of lithium and even tinier traces of beryllium. Everything heavier than hydrogen and helium (called metals by astronomers, so both oxygen and carbon, for instance, are metals) had to be forged by fusion in stars, so the very first stars that formed in protogalaxies a few hundred light years across were composed entirely of primordial hydrogen and helium.

Those first stars, known as Population III stars, started to form 0.2 -- 0.4 billion years after the Big Bang. None have yet been imaged (it's one of the tasks planned for the JWST), but it's likely that they were large, 30 - 300 times the size of the sun, and burned hot and briefly, lasting only a few million years. Any more than 250x the mass of the sun collapsed into black holes; the rest either burned out or blew up in supernovae that scattered newly-forged metals into space. And in addition to forging heavier elements, their fierce radiance, most of it UV light, turned the opaque soup of neutral hydrogen and helium that filled the universe into a transparent plasma by reionizing hydrogen atoms, a process that was largely over a billion years after the Big Bang.

By then, the universe had begun to be enriched by metals, too, including the stuff of life. But the composition of surviving members of the subsequent Population II generation of stars suggests that around a billion years after the Big Bang the universe was still extremely metal-poor;  even the oldest Population I stars, formed 2 - 3 billion years later, contain only a tenth of the metal content of youngers stars like our sun.

So it's likely that those dim red crescents imaged by the JWSR are ancient light from a prebiotic universe, because as far as the building blocks of life and their universal solvent, water, were concerned, that early universe was a desert. And even if a few planetary systems of early Population II stars condensed out of dust and gases excessively rich in water and the stuff of life, there'd be only a few scattered oases containing the unicellular equivalents of bacteria and archaea. It wasn't until much later (how much later is still being debated)** that cosmic metal enrichment reached levels that could support life across the universe.

And of course, there's a chance that life on Earth is the only life in the universe. That until it arose here on this little blue planet, 10 billion years after the birth of the universe, the universe contained no life at all. But given that all the galaxies in the JWST's grain-of-sand peephole are just a fraction of the two trillion or so galaxies in the universe, each with their several hundred billion stars and several thousand billion planets, how likely is it that the spark of life caught fire only once, in the billions of years following the emission of the red-shifted, gravity-lensed light of the early stars captured in that extraordinary image?

*That is, squishy carbon-based life-as-we-know-it, not life based on (say) space-time defects or dark matter, like the Xeelee and the Photino Birds in Stephen Baxter's Xeelee sequence.

**Update July 19: it turns out the JWST was able to capture the red-shifted spectra of several of those ancient proto-galaxies, which will give insights into their chemical composition and how that changes over time. It seems that even the oldest of the galaxies imaged contain oxygen and neon, but differences in relative abundance of that element between galaxies of different ages aren't yet clear.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Cover Me

Cover for my post-anthropocene First Contact novel, out in the UK in September. Credit to the designer, Tomás Almeida. Hope you like it!

Monday, June 13, 2022

There Are Doors (27)

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Slight Return

Most of my online presence is over on Twitter (as @UnlikelyWorlds) these days. But as there's a new novel on the horizon, and two new editions of older titles, I've returned to blogging, which these days has all the quaint charm of, say, willow weaving. Maybe it's due for a revival, an alternative to the frantic blipverts of TikTok, or the transient reactiveness of Twitter. A slower, calmer polder in the internet's ever-changing architecture.

The first reissue is an ebook edition of my second novel, Secret Harmonies, first published in the US, in 1989, as Of the Fall. A title whose slight pun wouldn't, my then-editor Malcolm Edwards said, be appreciated by British readers; and thus the title change.

1987 US edition and 1997 UK reprint

It was a sort of prequel to my first novel, 400 Billion Stars: an earlier episode in a future history of interstellar exploration and colonisation that spanned about a dozen short stories and three novels. Like 400 Billion Stars, it featured a species of enigmatic alien, but the story was mostly concerned with the collapse into civil war of a colony that had established only a precarious foothold on an exoplanet orbiting Tau Ceti.

400 Billion Stars was banged out on a portable typewriter; Secret Harmonies was written in WordPerfect 4.2 on an Opus desktop computer that, as was standard in those early days, lacked a hard drive; instead, it had two disk drives, one for the disk which ran the WP programme, and the other for making copies of the WP file. And since my publishers did not then have the capacity to accept electronic files, it was printed out, one page at a time, using a dot-matrix printer (since it cost as much as the computer, I couldn't run to the extra expense of a paper feed). It was still a lot easier than typing and retyping every draft, though.

It was published as an original paperback in the US, but in the UK was, like 400 Billion Stars, first published as in hardback by Gollancz, one of the last of the yellow-jacket editions that I used to borrow from my local library when I was a spotty teenager. It was published in paperback by Orbit in 1991, with a lovely cover by Peter Ellson, reprinted in 1997 and thereafter fell out of print. Until now, when it has been revived as an ebook edition by the Gollancz Gateway, some 33 years after its first publication, in this wonderful, strange, terrible future of ours.

Orbit paperback edition and Peter Ellson's cover illustration


Monday, May 24, 2021

War Of The Maps Audiobook

 ... is now available from Audible. Narrated by the inestimable Jonathan Oliver.




Saturday, May 22, 2021

Regooding.

 Currently, somewhat slowly and erratically, redoing my website so that it's more user friendly and also easier to read on mobile phones, which I hear are all the rage now. Still a couple of main pages to fix, and the cached stories and non-fiction will take a little longer, but it's getting there. This is the third iteration; the first was handcoded in basic HTML back in the 1990s, when it was still mostly fields around here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Make It New

 

This painting by Stanley Spencer popped up on my Twitter feed recently, and elicited an instant thrill of recognition. Spencer is best known for his paintings set in and around the Berkshire village of Cookham, where he was born and spent much of his life, but in 1939 he was lodging in the Gloucestershire village of Leonard Stanley, and that's where he painted this landscape of rolling fields breaking against the edge of the Cotswold escarpment. It's a view of part of the territory of my childhood: the treeless spur on the far left is Selsley Common, one of my playgrounds. I attended the little Primary school in Selsley village; my childhood home was at the base of the spur's steep rise. But while Spencer's version of this landscape evokes a strong sense of place and memory, it's also transformed, like his images of Cookham, into a vision of a verdant Arcadia. Fields are smoothed into sensual curves; forested slopes are as lush and exotic as one of Henri Rosseau's jungles. A lovely example of the metamorphic power of imagination, evoking the familiar and simultaneously making the viewer see it afresh, aslant.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Award Season

War of the Maps, my novel about a long walk on a strange world in the very far future, is one of the top ten finalists for best science fiction novel in the 2021 Locus Awards. Thanks to everyone who voted! It's an especially cool tick mark given the intimidatingly excellent company on the list.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

There Are Doors (26)


Sunday, January 31, 2021

World

There was a small commercial area a little further on, clustered around a crossroads where a huge latticework globe stood on a plinth of black baserock. Maps, some entire and others patchworked from islands or continents, none bigger than a child’s hand, were scattered thinly across its surface. The home map, Gea, was a squarish red tile close to the equator, smaller than most of the rest, and a silvery ball representing the Heartsun was spindled at the centre, and everything was spattered by the droppings of a fractious parliament of vivid green birds which had colonised the globe’s pole, chattering each to each and scolding passers-by.

 From War of the Maps 

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