Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Learning To Love The Alien

It's one of the chief signifiers of science fiction, the other, the alien, but in literary sf at least, it's a signifier that's fallen out of favour. There are still plenty of aliens in turning up in TV and film sf, and some even escape the cliches of messiah, seemingly unstoppable menace (until they catch a cold or get 419'd), or comedy sidekick.  But in literary sf, at least on this side of the Atlantic, where we don't have a tradition of military sf and the need for ravening hordes of easy targets, not so much. Oh, there have been a few, of course. Even some good ones, such as the bleakly inimical gene machines in Peter Watts' Blindsight, or the cruel and elegantly wasted aristocrats in Gwyneth Jones's Spirit. But on the whole, they've fallen out of fashion. My first three novels are a case in point. In Four Hundred Billion Stars, aliens were a tangible presence; a puzzle to be confronted and solved. In Secret Harmonies (aka Of The Fall, in the US), they were admonitory presences that may or may not have been intelligent, and died if human beings hung around them for too long. And in Eternal Light, they'd quit the universe, become as untouchable and about as understandable as angels.

After that, I more or less gave up on the alien business for the next fifteen years, but now I'm giving it serious thought again. It started with a short story, 'Dust', and grew from there into what's more of a scenario than any kind of future history. Just suppose we get one of the things we always thought we'd get in the future, back when the future was still a good place to be travelling towards. Suppose we get easy travel to other planets, right now. Suppose it's a gift from aliens who want to give us a helping hand. It isn't much of a gift - a few cold and dusty and barely habitable planets littered with ancient and mostly useless artifacts, but hey. What do we do with it? How would it change us? Would it change us?

I've been writing a few stories to explore the edges of this frame, but now I'm beginning to think that, after the next novel, I need to go a bit deeper. I need to take a good look at those aliens. What do they want? What are they? Not monsters from our ids, or distorted reflections of ourselves (or of our pets), that's for sure. Maybe in the end they're what they've always been - an articulation of the inhumanness of the universe. Or maybe they are their own selves, just as we are. I think it might be fun to find out.

Meanwhile, just to remind you, you can find one of those stories in my new ebook, City of the Dead.


Anonymous talkie_tim said...

Does "The Choice" fit into this also? I REALLY enjoyed that story in Asimov's, so I'd happily consume any other related-by-a-theme stories you write.

March 04, 2011 1:42 pm  
Anonymous Mark Pontin said...

"The Choice" fits into what a few readers are starting to call McAuley's 'Jackaroo' universe, and so does "Crimes and Glory" and a few other McAuley stories of recent years -- "City of the Dead," "Dust" and maybe a couple more.

"Crimes and Glory" you can find online here at Subterranean magazine --

Like yourself, Talkie Tim, over the last month I read a story set within this 'Jackaroo' background -- "Crimes and Glory," in my case -- and wanted to see more.

It's these SFnally innovative, fully worked-out technological worlds that McAuley first builds up in a bunch of shorter fictions, then turns into novels that are perhaps his strongest suit in terms of getting out in front of the competition. There were a bunch of McAuley bio-related stories preceding FAIRYLAND and, similarly, a whole bunch of 'Quiet War' solar stories before THE QUIET WAR duo themselves.

So, Paul, the early signs seem to be -- i.e me and Talkie Tim -- that your instincts are correct and that the Jackaroo backgrounds holds promise in terms of gaining readers.

March 06, 2011 6:11 am  
Anonymous Miles said...


Just finishing (and enjoying) "Gardens of the Sun" on Kindle (I can't manage paperbacks these days !).

I think you mentioned this before - any plans to release an ebook of the 'Jackaroo' stories ?

If it was on Kindle I'd definitely 'pick up' a copy.


April 04, 2011 12:31 pm  
Blogger hughesy said...

You could write it from the Alien's POV with a pack of ravening humans popping up in their quiet culdesac of the universe.

Humans can be utter bastards if you strike the wrong ones, and these unfortunate, godfearing reasonably advanced but not as much as humans 'aliens' (not the ones who've given the humans a leg up, but their country cousins in the outter star zone of their galaxy if reaping the horror of the arrival of the Earthlouts.

April 05, 2011 12:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely love the Jackaroo short stories. A novel please!

September 08, 2011 4:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Jakaroo stories haunt me, and force me to think about aliens in my writing- which I frankly have not for some time. I scan TOC's for more. Give us more!

October 27, 2011 12:14 am  

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