Profile of Paul McAuley

This guy is great!

So why is it so hard to explain why I like him?

This should be an easy introduction to write and yet, oddly, it’s not. I find it surprisingly difficult to articulate why I so intensely admire Paul McAuley’s work. Perhaps the problem is simply that it is so uniformly excellent. Once I say that I admire his fine, clean prose, the clarity of his plotting, the originality of his ideas, his understanding of science, and the quality of his characterization, what else is there to say? To list his good qualities is the same as to list those things I like about science fiction. Heck, those are the things I like about fiction, period.

So let’s take a step back for a moment and approach the subject in a roundabout way by examining the group of writers of which he is a part, the proponents of Britain’s "radical hard science fiction."

Now, normally, a writer’s literary taxonomy is one of the least important–and least interesting–things about him. But since the radical hard science fiction movement is so significant to SF and since it has received so little press, it’s worth lingering here for a moment to give the background.

British science fiction has a long and honorable tradition, from H.G. Wells or Mary Shelly or Jonathan Swift (depending on which critic you listen to) onward. Blurring over a few details, the cogent thing to keep in mind is that for most of the history of our genre half of all the important writers came from the British Isles. Indeed, for those of us who love the literary qualities, it sometimes seemed they had the better half. Where America had mega-sellers like Asimov and Heinlein and Niven and Pournelle, Britain had Aldiss and Ballard and Moorcock and Roberts and Priest and ... oh, too many to list. Suffice it to say that British science fiction held up half the sky.

Until, that is, sometime around 1980.

I remember 1980 well, because that’s when my first published story appeared. And like any new writer, I looked around to see who else was breaking into the field at the time, who my peers and coevals were. So I couldn’t help but notice that there were no new writers coming out of the Isles. None. It was as if half the wellsprings of the world had dried up.

Not that writers had stopped writing. There were no new writers coming out of Britain for the very simple reason that nobody in America would publish them.

In the aftermath of the New Wave, a lot of urban legendry was cobbled together from the wreckage. The successes of that movement were forgotten, and the excesses exaggerated. In Manhattan publishing circles, where perception trumps fact every time, the following assertions became gospel: British SF is too literary. It’s dull and plotless. The Brits can’t create a bright and exciting future. They can’t do space. They can’t write adventure. They can’t handle hard science. Above all, they can’t sell.

This was a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, and it hurt a lot of people. Even J. G. Ballard was frozen out of the American market, until Stephen Spielberg’s movie scrapbook of Empire of the Sun catapulted him to literary superstardom.

The loss to science fiction was incalculable, not just in terms of works unseen, but of influence unfelt. American SF was the poorer for it.

But just when things looked bleakest, a new generation of Brit writers arose to put the lie to all that had been said. I am no keeper of the lists, but anybody’s roster of those central to the radical hard SF thing would have to include Iain Banks, Greg Egan (who’s Australian, but included as a courtesy), Stephen Baxter–and Paul J. McAuley.

In many ways, Paul is the exemplar of the movement. He can do it all–space, hard science, adventure, and excitement–and, I would argue, his range is the greatest of the lot. Paul can write just about anything. He can do space opera, as proved by his first three novels, Four Hundred Billion Stars, Secret Harmonies, and Eternal Light. He can do future history, as proved by those same three books, and he can do hard science, as proved by pretty much everything he’s written. He can do hot, crammed-with-ideas near future fiction, as proved by Fairyland. More importantly, he can do things that defy easy categorization, as proved by Red Dust, and Pasquale’s Angel. The former is set on a Mars colonized by Chinese Communists (it is the Red Planet, after all), with cowboys, data ghosts, dust whalers, feral children and even Elvis himself. The latter, and my own personal favorite, is set in an alternative Renaissance in which Da Vinci, known as the Great Engineer, abandoned art at an early age and dedicated himself to aggressively industrializing Florence.

Most recently, Paul has finished writing The Book of Confluence, a three-volume novel comprising Child of the River, Ancients of Days, and Shrine of Stars. From what I’ve heard, it’s a strange one. It’s set in the post-transhuman future on Confluence, a flat world 1,000 kilometers wide by 20,000 kilometers long, whose inhabitants are all artificially evolved animals with human intelligence. I’m looking forward to reading it.

The critical consensus is that Paul’s been getting steadily better with each novel. I don’t know about that. My feeling is that once you’ve achieved a certain level of excellence, it’s impertinent to pit book against book like scorpions dropped in a jar. What I do know is that Paul hasn’t peaked yet. He’s still learning, still growing, still evolving. Every new work is an adventure.

So who is he?

The stock bio goes something like this: Paul J. McAuley was born in England and lives in Scotland. He worked as a researcher in biology in various educational settings, and was a lecturer in botany at St. Andrew's University for six years. He was an expat in Los Angeles for a time, and is now a full-time writer.

Alas, I’ve never smuggled guns, dropped acid, or ripped through the brothels of Marrakesh with the man. So I have no exciting stories or subtle personal insights to offer. I’ve met him twice, briefly, and he seems pleasant enough. Fun to hang around with. Good company, fast wit, and (it goes without saying) smart as smart. Pretty much what you’d expect.

All of which explains very little. I could mention his Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and his Arthur C. Clarke Award and his John W. Campbell Award and his British Fantasy Award and even his Sidewise Award. But once they’ve alerted you to the possibility that there’s Something Going On with a particular writer, awards tell us nothing.

In the end, I’m back to where I was at the beginning, with nothing to fall back upon but "Making History" itself. Which is no bad place to be.

Paul is one of that select few (I’m another) who believe that short fiction is important enough to justify the time and effort that writing it takes, despite the fact that it pays (by the word or by the hour) only a fraction of what any moderately successful novel brings in. There are only two reasons for an accomplished novelist to even touch short fiction. One is from love of the form. The other is to learn.

"Making History," is chronologically the first of a brief series of stories ("Sea Change, With Monsters," "Second Skin," and "The Gardens of Saturn" have already appeared elsewhere) dealing with the aftermath of the Quiet War, and, more importantly, with the biotechnology bubbling underfoot which is rapidly transforming the Solar System. The series may well inspire a novel somewhere down the line. That’s one way Paul works. His stories often serve as scouts in the mental space of his imagination. He despatches them into what look like promising ideas in order to see what lies out there, and whether there’s sufficiently rich material to justify more. If there is, he follows through.

But "Making History" doesn’t need any of the other stories or even the hypothetical novel to justify itself. It stands alone. It’s one terrific story. It confirms, in fact, everything I’ve managed to say about McAuley. That he’s a hell of a good writer. That his prose is crisp and clean. That his plotting is clear and involved. That he’s full of original ideas. That he knows his science and his people as well. If you want to understand McAuley, I can offer you no more better advice than this: Read and enjoy.

This is why I like science fiction.

This is why I like fiction.


© 2000 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared as the introduction to Making History, by Paul J. MacAuley, PS Publishing.

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