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


 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


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 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

World-Building The Built World

'World is crazier and more of it than we think' Louis MacNeice, Snow

Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.

Most of the heavy lifting for the worldbuilding of War of the Maps was already done for me in a speculative scientific paper, 'Dyson Spheres around White Dwarfs' by Ibrahim Semiz and Selim Oǧur. That gave me the basic idea: a very large artificial world wrapped around a dead star, its surface a world ocean in which maps skinned from planets were set. Almost everything else was tipped in as the story progressed. Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.

And because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others. The fighting staff he carries isn't described in any particular detail until someone else becomes interested in it; as a child living in a desert village he helped herd cacti up and down a mountain but doesn't think of the specifics of cactus herding until he's questioned about it; his desert childhood makes him pay particular attention to water, providing a theme running through the narrative, stitching character and world together.

Some of the furnishings came from searches for specific items, but the method I most prefer is a kind of bricolage, tipping in places as disparate as a spring in Death Valley, a courtyard glimpsed in Shanghai, Fay Godwin's photograph of a canal in the Pennines, the patina of the snout of a statue of a dog in Edinburgh, radio telescopes in a Cambridgeshire field, a square in one hilltop village in Italy and the painted doors of houses in another, mangrove islands off the coast of Florida . . . Chosen for their evocation of atmosphere and emotion, and because they seemed, somehow, to fit the internal consistency, the feel, of the novel. Subjectivity over objectivity, because we are not cameras, and novels aren't diagrams or photographs.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Out Today!



Released today in the UK, the relatively inexpensive paperback edition of War of the Maps, in which a retired lawkeeper sets out to recapture an old enemy, and stumbles into the middle of a strange invasion of his strange, vast world. One of the Washington Post Book World's and the Guardian's science fiction novels of the year.

'The spectacle is undeniable, but it's that rich cast of characters who give their world texture and resonance, and who finally turn War of the Maps into a fine, compelling novel' ― Locus

'Narrative drive and a sense of wonder come together in McAuley's graceful prose'Guardian  

'McAuley is without peer' ― The Times

And over on Twitter, a reader just compared it to Iain M. Banks' fiction; I can think of no higher praise.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Some Of The Books From 2020 That I Especially Liked.


Friday, September 25, 2020

Here And Now

I recently wrote the last words of the patchwork draft of a novel I have been working on for the past six months or so. It isn't the novel I intended to write this year -- that has been put on hold because it deals with problems that spring from our common now, and for obvious reasons it's not possible to know how the current great changes will work out. Instead, I've been working on something located in the cloudy heights of a distant future shaped by, and trying to escape from or at least make sense of, the multidinous legacies of the Anthropocene. It started out as a throwaway idea, a fun little notion that developed and deepened in the telling along lines and themes that may be relevant to some of our concerns in the here and now. Those last words will almost certainly change in the redrafting, but they'll do for the moment.



Sunday, July 26, 2020

Hampstead Heath, January - June 2020

Snapshots from Sunday morning walks in the grasslands and woods of Hampstead Heath, in the first half of the year.







Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Writing The Anthropocene

An interview I did with the novelist Eliot Peper about Austral and writing about geopolitics and the Anthropocene is now up on his site.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Random Items From The Library #6

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1972.

Friday, June 19, 2020

'Could You Kill Monsters With It?'

From War of the Maps:
The lucidor slept surprisingly well. He had placed his fate in the hands of others and had nothing to do now but wait. He woke when the stable boy brought his breakfast – pickled fish fillets rolled around slices of gherkin, thin dry slices of black bread, and chai with butter melted into it. The boy set the tray on the stand and at the door hesitated and asked the lucidor if he was a soldier.
Not exactly. But I am heading towards the war.’
Do you fight with that stick?’
The boy was looking at the staff, which leaned against the wall by the head of the bed. It was a single piece of supple black oak a little under two spans in length, shod with iron at both ends.
It’s called a staff,’ the lucidor said. ‘Haven’t you seen one before?’
The boy shook his head. He seemed to be about eleven or twelve, a skinny creature with milky skin, curly red hair shaved high around the sides, wire-rimmed spectacles. The legs of his denim coveralls were rolled at his ankles and the corner of a thin paperback book stuck out of one of the pockets.
He said, ‘Have you ever killed people with your staff?’
I prefer to disarm and subdue them.’
Could you kill monsters with it?’
I don’t know. I have never tried.’
I want to fight the monsters,’ the boy said, ‘but people like me aren’t allowed to join the army.’
By people like you, you mean wights.’
The boy nodded. From somewhere below, a man’s voice called out something in the wights’ language.
The lucidor said, ‘What’s your name?’
There are other ways of fighting the invasion, Panap. A woman I met yesterday is making a study of monsters. Different kinds of small ones, from the sea. She is trying to find out how they were made and how they live, and how to stop them spreading any further. It seems to me that it might be the best chance of defeating the invasion.’
But you’re going to fight,’ the boy said.
I am not a philosopher, and it’s too late for me to learn how to become one. But a boy like you, bright and curious as you are, might make a go of it.’
The man’s voice called out again.
I hope you kill lots when you get to the other side,’ Panap said with sudden fierceness, and was gone.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Virtual Chat

I was supposed to appear at the Cymera convention in Edinburgh this year. For obvious reasons the physical meeting was cancelled, but the organisers have put in a huge effort to create a digital festival instead. As part of that, I've been interviewed by fellow author Ken McLeod, and our pre-recorded conversation will go live at 4.15 pm Sunday June 7th.

The full timetable and other details about the digital festival can be found here.

[Added 10/06] A recording of the interview has been uploaded to Cymera's YouTube channel.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Out In The World

War of the Maps was published a couple of days before the coronavirus lockdown swung into place here in the UK; as a consequence I haven't been able to see copies in their natural habitat -- the shelves of bookshops -- out in the wild. A very minor personal disappointment, noted only because I have just now signed and sent off a small stack of bookplates to the mail order division of Forbidden Planet, so signed copies of the book should, shortly, be available.

Meanwhile, it has been accumulating reviews.

Some links to pieces in Crime Time, SF Crowsnest, SFF World, Salon Futura and the Times (this last paywalled).

There are two long reviews in Locus, one from Gary K. Wolfe, and the other from Paul Di Filippo.

Adam Roberts has posted a chewy and insightful analysis on his blog.

And a review in SFX concludes  'Following on from the extraordinary climate change novel Austral, this is further evidence that Paul McAuley may just be the best SF writer we have.'

For balance, I've been interviewed on the Coode Street podcast about a few books I have recently enjoyed, including Lavie Tidhar's By Force Alone, Alastair Reynold's Bone Silence, Denise Mina's The Long Drop and Kate Atkinson's The Big Sky. And I've just finished Evie Wyld's intricate and compelling cross-generational novel about persistent patterns of toxic masculinity, The Bass Rock, and am about to start James Bradley's new novel Ghost Species.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Random Items From The Library #V

Phase IV (1974, dir. Saul Bass), limited edition Blu-ray, 101 Films, 2020.
Phase IV, Barry N. Malzberg Pan Books, London, 1973.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Twitter Interview

I took part in an interview about War of the Maps over on Twitter this week. What follows is a transcription of the questions and answers. Some questions are from my publisher (Gollancz); others are from readers -- I've used their first names rather than their Twitter handles. I am, of course, 'PM'. Spelling mistakes and abbreviations have been tidied up; otherwise the answers are as I typed them up at the time, with only a brief pause (or none at all) for reflection; as in a face-to-face conversation, there is, I hope, a nice degree of spontaneity.

Gollancz: Firstly, to kick things off, tell us a little about yourself.
PM: Old white guy who has just published his, what, 22nd, 23rd? novel. Now working on the next one, as I still haven't learnt any better.

G: Speaking of novel ideas...can you briefly tell our followers what War of the Maps is about? 
PM: Deep time, obsession, the fine line between justice and revenge, things falling apart.

Lucy: What was the inspiration behind the world building? 
PM: From the initial ideas? The central character is journeying across a country not his own. Apart from a few facts -- scale, a very basic history and so on -- the details of the world developed through the people and situations he encountered. I had no idea that there would be giant crabs until they popped up. The background is borrowed from a research paper about building relatively small Dyson spheres around white dwarf stars. What if the white dwarf star was the sun, in terminal decline? And that merged with a picture of a wounded lawkeeper pausing at a desert spring, in a country not his own.

Lara: Why did you chose to create the word 'lucidor'?
PM: I needed to translate an official rank that doesn't exist in our culture or time. 'Lucidor' sounds a little like some ancient title, I hope.

Lara: It is biologically possible to get 'infected' by an outer world plague?
PM: Depends on whether panspermia is true or not. That is, if the off-world plague has its roots in a biology that shares a common ancestor with ours. But it's difficult to catch stuff from most animals (eg ants), let alone plants; more so for something separated by billions of years. My old novel The Secret of Life turns on this question, by the way.

Borja: Would you say War of Maps is fantasy, science fiction or both?
PM: Science fction, definitely. The thing about the far future isn't that anything is possible, but anything that is possible may have already happened. Which does inform the lives of the people inhabiting an improbably (but possible) large structure.

Andy: Do you write while listening to music, and does this book, for you, have a soundtrack?
PM: Some of my books do have a fairly specific ambience, but War of the Maps didn't, especially. Apart from frequent periods of silence.

Lara: In this book you use the word MAP with different meanings (DNA, islands...) It was a conscious decision or it was playing with words?
 PM: Oh, that was conscious. I didn't plan in a huge amount of detail, but the nature of the invasion was clear to me before I began. As was the title.

G: What is your current quarantine reading? 
PM: A lot of crime novels (currently rifling through Denise Mina’s work). And some nonfiction research for the next novel, such as David Farrier's In Search of Future Fossils.

G: If you didn’t write science fiction, what other genre would you be interested in dipping into? 
PM: Well, I have written a couple of crime/thriller novels. Players, Mind's Eye etc. And although I've written a fair number of horror stories (my way of dealing with the happening world), I haven't yet written a straightahead supernatural novel.

 G: If you could pick a character from a different author/film’s work and put them into the lucidor’s world, who would you choose? 
PM: Clint Eastwood, maybe. His lone avengers, especially from Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter, do inform the lucidor's character. Although the lucidor isn't as remorseless, or otherworldly.

G: Avoiding spoilers, but do you have a favourite moment in War of the Maps
PM: One of the quieter passages. Perhaps when the lucidor is walking through the coastal landscape, after the spot of trouble with the diggers. It has a bit of (M.R.) Jamesian hauntology, that passage. The novel and its world are patchworks.
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