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Whole Wide World
Paul J. McAuley
HarperCollins Voyager, 388 pages

Whole Wide World
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.

Paul J. McAuley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Reading List: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Review: The Secret of Life
SF Site Interview: Paul J. McAuley
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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson


"The whole wide world is no longer big enough to hide in.  Everywhere is connected to everywhere else.  Everywhere -- the air of the most desolate desert, the wind above the waves of the most remote part of the oceans: everywhere -- is laced with electronic chatter.  We once believed that the world was packed, wingtip to wingtip, with invisible and omnipresent angels whispering the word of God to His entire creation, leaning through our skulls to speak to our souls.  Now, our flesh is continually swept by an invisible and omnipresent rain of information, quantum packers, strings of zeros and ones, on its way from somewhere to somewhere else.  How different are out dreams?"
While perhaps not the most profound moment in this work, in many ways this statement paraphrases the world and setting of Paul J. McAuley's most recent book, a world in the not too far distant future  just around the bend so to speak -- London after the Infowars, its former financial district in ruins, society monitored by security cameras constantly surveying the streets, a landscape whose architecture is decaying while technology and information has outpaced the very civilization it supports.  In the aftermath of rioting, computer-generated fires and microwave bombs that wiped every hard drive within their targeting radius, within a moment crippling the information infrastructure of corporate London, every police department has a computer crimes division, watching behind search engines whose sole purpose is to seek out and monitor information traffic.  Closed circuit television has become intelligent, able to locate a person anywhere simply from their photo ID, continuously tracking every citizen's movements, storing the moments of their lives in digital and retrievable archives.  Peace patrols walk the streets, the Decency League monitor neighborhoods from their windows, and strict laws have been passed regarding acceptable content for information.

Knowledge, both legal and even more so, illegal, is now the currency of the whole wide world (world wide web).  It is the realm of "script kiddies, stringers, programmers, coders, Web designers, video editors, streaming media jockeys, database analysts, channel editors, online researchers and graphic designers, a loosely affiliated tribe of technocrats careless of national boundaries."  Anonymous e-mailers reside in the third world, routing messages untraceable.  Freeware mail spiders lurk among attachments, waiting to be activated before overwriting every e-mail file, as well as itself, with random zeros and ones.  Illegal data spikes are hawked on the streets, and pornography has found a new venue.  The Internet has become a shadow realm, denizened by hackers, spooks and criminals.  "Information wants to be free," but someone is always watching, and privacy has become a delusion, so much so that becoming invisible is the measure of real freedom.

Into this realm McAuley inserts the detective novel, in part traditional crime story, its cynicism and gritty realism readily familiar to any that have shadowed that genre, in part science fiction in its critical, if jaded, predictions of a world gone wrong, and that could easily become our own in the not too distant future.  Our protagonist is a man at the end of his career, measured more by his failures than successes, called in on his day off to pick up evidence at a particularly brutal crime scene that involves the use of video cameras and the theft of computer hard drives.  For reasons not immediately clear, our detective intrudes himself in the case, an involvement that soon becomes a personal obsession, as well as a last, and some would say desperate, effort to vindicate a life that has slipped from its track.

My first read of McAuley (I know... where have I been!), I will admit to approaching this work with a certain degree of suspicion.  So many authors associated with science fiction display a tendency towards burying their story beneath an excess of conceptual or technical exegesis (or, alternatively, littering their alien landscapes with creatures exhibiting the worst excrescences of a Harryhausen -- ok, I'll lay off the prefixes, but you get my point), forgetting at times that one of the primary purposes in fiction is to provide narrative, a quality that science fiction's companion genre, fantasy, tends to wallow in without always point or purpose.  Therefore, I will confess to being excited in the opening to this work.  Written with a style and panache unexpected for the genre, the use of language and description is vivid and memorable, as is McAuley's main character.  True to the best detective novels, this work is as much a character study as an investigation of a crime, and the world the author has created is grounded in a depth of realism, psychological insight and detail representing the best of both genres blended.  McAuley explores his vision of the future with an imaginative yet critical eye, leavening his narrative with perception and, as another reviewer has observed elsewhere, "that rare balancing act of exploring big concepts while telling an absorbing and entertaining story."  And McAuley recognizes that perhaps the greatest seduction of the Web resides in an illusion promoted by the Internet itself: "that I can have everything, and go anywhere."  There may well be already too much information in the world.

 This is not a big book, more smart than profound.  Yet I doubt anyone will be disappointed, unless it is perhaps by comparison to the author's own and previously established standards.  The only thing that I could have wished for differently, is that, in the opening chapter, the reference made to Elvis Costello had been to My Aim Is True, rather than Armed Forces: Watching the Detectives seems more apt.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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