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A Conversation With Paul J. McAuley
An interview with Nick Gevers
March 2001

Paul J. McAuley
Paul J. McAuley
Paul J. McAuley was born in England in 1955 and currently lives in Scotland. He worked as a researcher in biology at various universities before going to St. Andrew's University as a lecturer in botany for 6 years. He's chosen to move on to become a full-time writer.

His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award and several subsequent novels have been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, winning one for Fairyland which also won the 1997 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best SF Novel. His short story, "The Temptation of Dr. Stein," won the British Fantasy Award. Pasquale's Angel won the very first Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Long Form) in 1996. McAuley also produces a regular review column for Interzone and contributes reviews to Foundation.

In June 2001, Tor will publish The Secret of Life in the USA.

Paul J. McAuley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Reading List: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Review: The Secret of Life
SF Site Excerpt: The Secret of Life
SF Site Review: Shrine of Stars
SF Site Review: Pasquale's Angel
SF Site Review: Ancients of Days
SF Site Review: The Invisible Country
SF Site Review: Child Of The River
SF Site Review: Fairyland
SF Archive: Paul J. McAuley
Star Makers - Paul J. McAuley
Mark/Space: Paul J.McAuley

The Secret of Life
Shrine of Stars
Ancients of Days
Ancients of Days
Child Of The River

Art: Dennis Lyall
The Invisible Country
Pasquale's Angel
Eternal Light

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The British SF writer Paul J. McAuley, born in 1955, has over the last decade and a half 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 sub-genres, 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 major literary campaign was in the territory of Larry Niven-esque 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. 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, revitalized 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.

Paul McAuley's latest novel is The Secret of Life, published in 2001 by HarperCollins in Britain and by Tor in North America; it very distinctly gives voice to the agenda of "radical hard SF." I discussed McAuley's new book and related issues with him in an e-mail interview in March 2001.

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?

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 sub-genre 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.

Your scientific background is as a research biologist; how has this grounding shaped your SF?
I'm a science junkie -- 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 start of the twenty-first 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.

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"?
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.

You came to writing The Secret of Life, a stand-alone near-future Hard SF novel, straight from producing the ornate multi-volume far-future epic Confluence. How did you find the transition?
The Secret of Life is also written in the present tense, and the protagonist is a woman, so the transition was even more one-hundred-and-eighty-degrees than you imply. And in fact, it was kind of refreshing to be back in the quasi-familiar landscape of the near future, and not that difficult -- getting back into serious research for the background was more difficult than the actual writing. After all, Confluence wasn't the only thing I had been writing -- there were a bunch of short stories written in breaks from drafts of the trilogy, and they were very varied exercises.

Despite its status as a singleton, The Secret of Life does have certain connections with your major 1995 novel, Fairyland, and not only in respect of their common concern with biotechnology. How are the books related, and how do they differ?
Both revolve around a biotech theme, and both do have one character in common, but the future history of Fairyland is not the future history of The Secret of Life. While Fairyland was full of gothic biotech riffs on nanotechnology, which is still in the vapourware phase, The Secret of Life is firmly embedded in hard-headed extrapolations of current biotechnology. In fact, in the 18-odd months since I turned the novel in, I'm beginning to think I've been a little too conservative, given what's around the corner in the biotech market. And Fairyland is very much about the garage science ethic, while The Secret of Life is set in the slippery interface between academic and industrial research. Mariella, the protagonist, is an eccentric rather than a rebel -- she works the system rather than walks away from it.

The Secret of Life is your second Mars novel (following Red Dust in 1993), but after the whimsy of Red Dust, The Secret of Life is resolutely realistic, or at least speculatively restrained. Why this change of approach? And did you have any sense of working in the shadow of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy when you were writing The Secret of Life?
Not really. The realistic approach to the landscapes of Mars fits in with the way I handled the culture of science and speculation about science; and while Red Dust is set on post-Viking Mars, The Secret of Life is set on post-Mars Global Surveyor/post-Mars Pathfinder Mars. We've tremendously expanded our knowledge about Mars since the early 90s, when Red Dust was written, and I hope some of the detailed complexity of the Martian landscapes comes across in The Secret of Life.

Your conception of (indigenous) life on Mars in The Secret of Life is an intriguing one, comparable with the possibilities proposed in Brian Aldiss's recent novel White Mars. Can you expand on the thinking behind your Martian organisms, and the Chi derived by human scientists from them?
I have to admit that I haven't read White Mars, so I can't comment on it. I've always thought that bacteria, which make up 90 percent plus of Earth's biosphere, and which for two billion years were the only life on Earth and still drive Earth's biocycles, haven't been given their due in science fiction. Viruses, sure -- they're a handy metaphor for the informational interface between life and non-life. But not bacteria. The problem is, of course, that until we fall ill, we don't think much about bacteria; they do their humble thing very much out of sight, like the Morlocks. So to try and dramatize their versatility, I thought I'd write about something which had a supercharged version of the ability most bacteria share, the ability to borrow genes from each other. That's the relict species found on Mars, a kind of compendium of the variety of Martian life collapsed into a single genetic volume. And obviously, something that could self-select its genetic constitution depending on its environment would be of tremendous interest to the biotechnology industry, and a neat MacGuffin. It occurs to me now that reading Kate Wilhelm's and Ted Thomas's The Clone at an impressionable age may have been an influence.

Would it be correct to say that The Secret of Life is your most personal novel to date, dealing as it does with situations analogous to those you no doubt encountered (if more mundanely) in your own career as a biologist?
Little bits of my biography do echo little bits of Mariella's biography because I was lucky enough to have worked in research both in the USA and in Britain and I've reached an age where I have a perspective on it. It's pretty thoroughly mixmastered though, and there's a whole bunch I didn't put in, because this quite deliberately isn't a campus novel, and some parts are quite frankly sheer wish-fulfillment, mainly because I'm not a genius level scientist with a chance of winning the Swedish Prize.

The Secret of Life contains much discussion of the parts played by corporations and governments in the funding and use of scientific research. Do you see governments as inherently more benign or at least more responsible in this respect than private companies?
Governments were dealing with biowarfare long before private biotech companies started to work with genetically modified organisms, so I'd hardly say that governments were benign. On the other hand, for the most part they've not tried to direct theoretical research, which is probably a Good Thing, although, of course, there was and still is tremendously gnarly political intrigue around the Human Genome Project -- Robert Cook-Deegan's The Gene Wars gives a terrific insider's view. What's interesting is that private companies now have the ability to do Big Science projects -- for instance, Craig Venter's private company, Celera Genomics, was in a hotly contested race with the government-funded Human Genome Project to complete the sequencing of the human genome -- which might mean some Interesting Times ahead. .

Your protagonist in The Secret of Life, Mariella Anders, is altruistic and heroic enough, but also prone to risk-taking that isn't always altogether justified. Did you base her on any actual person? Is she, in some sense, the epitome of the committed scientist?
I think she's on the far edge of the curve, but she does embody the kind of single-minded commitment necessary to any working scientist, although not any particular scientist. Sure, she takes risks; she wouldn't be very interesting if she didn't, and I think her risk-taking seems a bit exaggerated because she's a woman and a scientist.

On other recent works: you've been producing a set of stories located in a future Solar System racked by a so-called Quiet War and its consequences; one novella, Making History, has appeared as a chapbook in Britain. Why is the Quiet War quiet? And are you thinking of developing this sequence into a novel?
Not right now; although I do have an inkling, I don't have a hook to hang it on, and for now I'm content to use these short stories to explore the lesser known corners of the Solar System. It's called the Quiet War because that's what the victors on Earth call it. It was pretty quiet and unspectacular for them, and it involved espionage and economic sabotage as much as conventional warfare.

Your next novel, Whole Wide World, is about surveillance. Can you say anything more about this book, and further projects you may have in mind?
Whole Wide World is set even closer to the present than The Secret of Life, and uses a lot of what I've learned about London since I moved here a few years ago. I think the shoutline will describe it as a crime novel about ultrasurveillance and cybersex, but it also has a thread of dystopian SF running through it. I like the lead character a lot, and hope to write about him again, but right now I'm thinking about a novel about thinking.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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