Fiction Reviews

Beyond the Burn Line

(2022) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, £22, hrdbk, 455pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60371-3


Many thousands of years ago there was the age of giant ogres. The signs of their fantastic cities remain in just a few places: mostly there is just a burn line in the strata. Today, there is a new species on Earth that are just beginning their own industrial revolution. This new species, just six centuries previously, itself became emancipated from the slavery of once-intelligent bears: the bears seemed to have suffered from some sort of mind disease that robbed them of much of their sentience (cf. The Planet of the Apes re-boot films).

Pilgrim Saltmire is an assistant to a famous academic who has just died. Pilgrim decides to complete the academic's work researching into strange giant, mysteriously dressed and helmeted visitors from the sky who have occasionally appeared to individuals in remote places over many years. Yet, frustratingly, there is no real hard evidence; much is little more than hearsay. However, with many of this 'visitations' there are certain elements in common. Could these stories be more than fanciful fabrication? Or do they relate to something else going on?

Returning to his home tribe, Pilgrim is caught up in a violent act (albeit he is defending himself) and sentenced to a year auditing a remote library. There he discovers something that spurs him on to complete his late academic superior's work…

All this takes us much of the way to the novel's middle and is effectively a complete novella. The second half is another novella set a few decades on and is in essence a spy thriller, but let's not go there (spoilers sweetie).

So what we have is a diptych book of two connected novellas. It is also an exploration of a number of themes we ourselves are facing, using SF as a distancing device to look back at ourselves from an alternate perspective. There is the fragility of our supposedly robust society of which technology lends the illusion of solidity. There is also the way we in the developed west patronisingly treat those in less-developed nations, not to mention indigenous cultures, and the injustices that arise. Finally, if I am not mistaken, there is a nod to the current China Hong Kong situation.

Beyond the Burn Line itself stands on great world-building laid down in its first half. Later, McAuley slowly adds other SFnal tropes, enriching the mix to deliver a cracking story that, though set in an epoch's time hence, is relevant to today. A fine use of the genre.

Jonathan Cowie


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