(1991) Paul J McAuley, Millennium, £6.99, pbk, 463pp, ISBN 1-85798-910-4
(2009 reprint) Paul J McAuley, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 419pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08640-1
This is an epic space opera in the grand SF tradition. There is so much going on that you are amazed that McAuley can fit it all into a finite number of pages. There's a race that left the galaxy millions of years ago, abandoning advanced technology around the black hole at the galactic core, who send a sun orbited by a holed world hurtling toward our solar system long before we even evolved. Another race, the Alea, whose family nation states are forced to leave their homeworld when it is threatened by an expanding red giant just a couple of million years ago. And the human race who encounter some of the Alea around another star, 'now', and get into a war that is only won when we wipe them out. But that's just one of their families, one of many that have scattered throughout the galaxy, fleeing one of their own species' families that have exploited the core technology to wipe out the rest... Dorthy Yoshida is a human telepath who has encountered living Alea and had something implanted in her brain. She is being kept virtually prisoner by the Navy, as an advisor at archaeological sites, until she is busted out by agents of one of the Golden, one of the few super-rich humans who can afford the anti-ageing drug, agatherin. He plans to take her to the holed world, still light years away, to discover its secrets in a bid to loosen the stranglehold of the Re-United Nations, the fanatically religious Witnesses and the Brazilian Navy on the Earth. Along the way he loses his pilot, Suzy Falcon, but she, having stolen an advanced singleship and picked up the human, bicamerally challenged, self-named Robot/Machine, has nowhere else to go and so follows the Golden and Dorthy to the same speeding star and holed world. It transpires that the Navy are there ahead of them, but have so far failed to enter the holes of the orbiting world, which turn out to be wormholes to the galactic core, the abandoned technology there and the Alea marauders that occupy a structure half a light year in length that orbits the galactic black hole. Why have the departed race sent these wormholes throughout the galaxy, and just what are the humans expected to do about it, even if they can discover the secret...?
Unlike some writers, whose space operas are little more than a hodge-podge of SF tropes hung on weak plots of sex and violence, McAuley has created a thoughtful 'world', just as full of ideas, but all in the service of a strong plot with a genuine sense of wonder. He is also very strong on the science, using facts to elicit awe, rather than relying on the gosh-wow of some SF which seems televisual in its mindlessness. With so much going on it would be easy to skimp on character development, but McAuley manages this too in a way that seems effortless and almost subliminal. What seems at first a daunting amount of detail actually slips into the reader's brain very easily, and everything dovetails in effectively at the end. McAuley, still writing today, was one of the better British writers to come out of the Nineties, making his mark with the likes of Pasquale's Angel and Fairyland, but Eternal Light also deserves to be remembered as one of his highlights, and I am happy to recommend it to one and all.
See also Jonathan's take on Eternal Light.
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