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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.