Fiction Review


Paul McAuley (2017) Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 276pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21731-7


It is the 22nd century and the world has globally warmed, the weather feral and deranged, the seas wilder, heatwaves more frequent, rainfall more intense, drought more common: warm was warmer, dry was dryer (it was hotter) and wet, wetter (more ocean evaporation). Sea level risen due to Antarctica and Greenland melt, as well as thermal expansion, to well over three metres and – combined with the climatic change, water wars, civil unrest, fleeing famines – more than a billion been made homeless.

Stral, or Austral Morales Ferrado, is a husky: she is a genetically modified human containing some Inuit (hence Neanderthal) and Kawésquar genes. These mean that she is better at storing and burning brown fat and has an elevated metabolism, so has a higher core temperature. This in turn meant that she was well adapted to Earth's newest nation in this future, warmed world – the Antarctic Peninsula.

While the interior of the Peninsula was still snow and ice, ecopoets have transformed a fair bit of the coastal regions where the land had been warmed by the ocean. Ecopoets were those who were expert in fabricating self-sustaining ecosystems; an old technocratic dream of creating an environment for orbital colonies called 'ecopoiesis'.

Huskies were second-class citizens, ironically especially in Antarctica due to the current populist political regime. Austral had been on both sides of the law and now was a correction officer at a penal labour workforce constructing a railroad that was to run the length of the Peninsula's northern half. However one of the inmates, an inmate, who was small-crime king-pin both inside and out in the free world Xeever Bishop, Austral knew from before and Austral was obliged to do him favours and be his lover.

Then the day came when Xeever decided he would make a prison break. As it happened a disowned relative of Austral's, Alberto Toomy, was a businessman and currently a senior politician. He was coming to open the latest stretch of the railway and Xeever tasked Austral to publicly challenge Alberto Toomy for disowned her side of the family and this act would provide a distraction so help allow Xeever to make his getaway.

Austral did not want to do this because inevitably things would be bad for her, but you did not argue with the likes of Xeever.

And then the day came.  Long story short, Austral ended up with Alberto Toomy's daughter on the run being chased by the police and Toomy who thought she had kidnapped Toomy's daughter, as well as Xeever and his muscle protection for not following through with an escape distraction. And so Austral and Tommy's daughter traverse the Peninsula, struggling through snow and ice, passing through ecopoets' woodlands, seeking out the now illegal ecopoet's hideouts and trails, in a bid to get away and somehow to get a message to Alberto Toomy to return his daughter and perhaps get a reward (if, that is, it was not seen as a ransom request) for enough for Austral to leave the Peninsula for New Zealand, Austral's dream. But it was not going to be easy with both Toomy's goons and the police after them…

Austral and Toomy's daughter's journey down and across the Antarctic Peninsula is also an exploration as to how the Earth's newest nation came into being as well as, indirectly, the likely social effects of climate change. It is not exactly an optimistic picture and despite new technologies some things – such as the tension between obvious long-term goals being sacrificed for short-term economic greed – remain all too familiar to today's readers. This may not be the future we want, but it is all too likely to be the sort of future we will get.

In essence Austral is a thriller. It is also an excellent exemplar of good mundane SF. Some say that climate change SF is difficult to write as the warming processes happens so slowly compared to a novel's narrative time frame. McAuley is one of the few writers to prove such naysayers wrong. Yes, there is much information imparted as to this future Earth but, while there are a few info-dumps, much is imparted by the grass-roots, worldly Austral to her reluctant companion, the little rich kid naturally in the course of affairs.

Finally, as this review is in the Science Fact & SF Concatenation and as I guess I'm the SF² Concat's climate science bod, I should comment on the book's climate change environmental science. In essence it is very good with much there and on a single reading I could not discern one major error. This is perhaps not surprising given that Paul McAuley is himself a biologist by training. Having said that, this novel does not browbeat the reader with technicalities: yes, they are there but they come up in passing as the protagonists get on with trying to evade their pursuers and, quite simply, to live. How accurate this novel is was brought home to me the week I started to read it as that was coincident with a paper published in the leading multi-disciplinary science journal Nature by Jasmine Lee and colleagues (Lee, J. R. et al, 2017, Climate change drives expansion of Antarctic ice-free habitat. Nature, vol. 547, p49-54.)  That work provides a forecast as to the ice-free land on the Antarctic Peninsula we might expect under business-as-usual carbon emissions by 2098AD complete with a map. That ice map combined with the place map at the beginning of Austral would be very close to the 22nd century future McAuley describes (as I have noted elsewhere).

Austral combines a solid science scenario with a taught thriller in an all too plausible future. For an SF reader, or indeed any reader that considers matters beyond the day after tomorrow, what is there not to like?

Jonathan Cowie

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