Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Paul McAuley
Gollancz, 375 pages

Paul McAuley
Paul 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 Review: Cowboy Angels
SF Site Review: Mind's Eye
SF Site Review: White Devils
SF Site Review: Making History
SF Site Review: Fairyland
SF Site Reading List: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Review: Whole Wide World
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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

The speculative elements of science fiction tend to age badly, and each passing minute of the real world causes futures that once attracted us with their visionary wonder to now offer only the amusement of yesterday's tomorrows. Near-future SF that attempts plausible extrapolations is particularly vulnerable to senescence, and it is rare to encounter such a book that is more than ten years old and still possesses the power to dazzle, because so often the writer has emphasized the speculation more than other, more durable, qualities.

Fairyland was first published in 1995; it dazzles still. Though some of the props of its future have been churned into clichés by many subsequent novels and movies, few of those props have gathered dust in the intervening years, and much of the speculation and extrapolation seems, even now, to require no great effort for the suspension of disbelief. This is remarkable, but even more remarkable is that, at least for its first two thirds, the novel succeeds as much on the strengths of its structure, characters, and themes as it does on its whizz-bangs and gosh-wows. These strengths won it both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award when the book first appeared, and now justify its reissue as part of Gollancz's Future Classics series.

The effort to distinguish between "science fiction" and "fantasy" is a futile and exhausted one, but part of the fun of Fairyland lies in watching Paul McAuley take words common to the vocabulary of high fantasy stories -- "fairy," "fey," "trolls," etc. -- and employ them within the unambiguously science fictional setting of a nanotechnologized future of virtual realities and designer diseases. It's a simple conceit, but not a jokey one, because the terms lend the novel depth, linking the forward momentum of the future world to the backward glance of legends and folktales. (It's particularly appropriate that Fairyland won the Clarke Award, since one of Sir Arthur's most famous statements was that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.") There's a metafictional effect, too, drawing our attention to the novel's genre play, daring us to impose our assumptions about what is possible and what is not, both in reality and in fiction.

The basic plot is a simple thriller-quest: a man goes in search of a woman who bewitched him with something he considers love (though it might be the residual effect of being sprayed with nanobots; the cause doesn't matter so much as the effect), and he encounters numerous nefarious obstacles on his way. The man is Alex Sharkey, an overweight engineer of psychotropic viruses, and the woman is Milena, the Fairy Princess/Queen Mother of a new species of something-beyond-humans. There are no dragons to slay, but there are governments and gangs that unleash wolves in Alex's path every time he seems to be close to whatever it is he desires. Among the many intelligent complexities of the novel is that Alex's quest becomes one of habit, the one way he has found to give his life purpose and meaning, and as time passes his searching becomes its own justification, the original goals so mutated as to be nearly lost.

The fairyland of the title begins as a tale told by Alex's alcoholic mother to her son as a child, a dream of endless possibility uttered in a world of definite limits, but it evolves through happenstance and luck into a metaphor and then, eventually, a kind of reality, suggesting that as our technologies and cultures change, the meanings of our myths metamorphose as well. Along the way, McAuley gives us a vision of EuroDisney that is as disturbing as the visions of its American counterparts in Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingdom and Carl Hiaasen's Native Tongue. The chapters set here are among the most compelling and vivid in the book, a posthuman primordial ooze fueled by excesses of capital and biology in the ruins of a labyrinth built by corporate "Imagineers" from the materials of commodified desire and myth.

It's worth noting that McAuley does not limit the complexities of his future world to technology. One of the reasons the book still reads well is that it feels nearly as globalized and multicultural as our world has turned out to be. This is not your standard story of the Great Future of Middle-Class White People, nor is it a tale of characters who could come from anywhere -- these characters come from specific everywheres, places with different cultures and languages and classes. Alex may be as pale as the average SF convention, but he's also unapologetically fat; the human morphology in Fairyland is diverse. In fact, the only thing that feels oddly monocultural is the human sexuality, which stands out as amazingly heterosexual in a story with such a wide variety characters, although few of the main characters seem to possess any libido at all and the most sustained mention of sex has to do with the use of cloned "dolls" as advanced sex toys.

McAuley breaks the novel into three parts, keeping Alex as a consistent viewpoint character in all three, and adding other viewpoint characters to an already well-populated narrative in parts two and three. It almost works, but where the addition of a character in part two is effective in broadening the scope of the story, adding a character in the last third -- particularly a character who offers little new or necessary perspective -- elongates the tale into tedium, because it is difficult in the last pages to care much about a new person, and a reader could be excused for skipping to the chapters told from Alex's point of view. The novel dissipates as McAuley struggles to bring everything together in a satisfying way, and the plot gears grind, churning out battle scenes that feel twice as long as they actually are. The final revelations can't compete with the wonders of the first part of the book, because the epic scope strains the speculations into abstract pronouncements and awkward infodumps, and the character development gets numbed by the clamor of action.

Plenty of great novels sigh and groan in their last chapters, though, and it's a truly rare book that begins brilliantly and ends the same; Fairyland achieves enough rare wonders that it would be churlish not to excuse the flaws of its final section, a final section that would be a gem in a lesser novel.

Fairyland, though, is not a lesser novel. It is a baggy monster made of equal parts myth and magic, science and tech, dream and vision. It is a story propelled at its best moments by ideas, and yet it doesn't neglect to present characters who are, more often than not, individual and unpredictable, and so it helps break down the supposed barriers between the novel of ideas and the novel of psychology in the same way that it breaks down the more intractable barriers between hard science fiction and high fantasy. It never really becomes a psychological novel any more than it becomes a fantasy novel, but it consistently makes gestures and noises more common to one or the other and so shows just how unhelpful such limiting categories are, because, as with all great fiction, we are left having to take Fairyland on its own terms or we will miss the many pleasures it can offer.

Copyright © 2008 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney's reviews and interviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Rain Taxi, and his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He has published fiction with One Story, Electric Velocipede, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet,, and the anthologies Logorrhea and Interfictions. He is a regular columnist for Strange Horizons and the series editor of Best American Fantasy from Prime Books.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide