Fiction Reviews

Something Coming Through

(2015) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 374pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20394-5


It was after the troubled times, after the terrorist nuke in Trafalgar Square, that the alien Jackaroo came. They came in peace. They did not want to interfere but they did give humanity a wormhole in the L5, Earth-Moon, Lagrange point and access to 15 other worlds in star systems up to tens of thousands of light years away. Worlds that had the ancient remains of previous Jackaroo client species. Some of these artefacts made their way back to Earth. Some affected people in weird psychological and psychophysical ways. Some were positively dangerous.

Chloe Millar works for Disruption Theory, a non-governmental organization that aims to map the impact alien technology has on Earth. Her latest case involves young Freddie Patel (an alias of Fahad Chauhan) who seems to have been infected by something alien and has uncontrollable urges to paint alien landscapes: the same landscape over and over from different perspectives. But the authorities also are interested in young Peter / Fahad and his little sister. The question is who will get to them first?

Meanwhile on the colony world of Mangala, police Vic Gayle and his new young partner Skip Williams are investigating the murder of John Redway, a supposed consultant who only just arrived on the planet. And somewhere in the mix is a ray gun, presumably of alien origin.

The story is told in two alternating strands: from Chloe's perspective and Vic's. At the beginning of each short chapter there is a date. At the beginning of the book the Earth timeline is 20 days ahead of the Mangala strand. But as the story progresses this gap narrows and events merge: what earlier on seem to be quite separate now make sense as different perspectives on the same things. Ultimately, events conjugate on Mangala.

This is narrow-focus, in-your-face detective/thriller SF with perhaps a hint of a noire-ish undertone set against a background of widescreen space opera. The aliens, aside from a few cameo appearances are (especially in the book's first three quarters) largely in the background; after all, they claim not to want to interfere. But when they do make a showing their presence has impact. The Jackaroo themselves only appear as avatars though we do meet the !Cha, another alien species accompanying the Jackaroo. One !Cha is even a long-term guest of Disruption Theory's multibillionaire patron and called 'Unlikely Worlds'. And here McAuley fans will immediately recognise that 'Unlikely Worlds' is the name of author Paul McAuley's blog.

It takes just a quarter of the book for the story to properly get going as there is a fair bit of background especially given that the two threads for the most part on different worlds. McAuley himself has developed the Jackaroo narrative over many years in half a dozen short stories and this is the first Jackaroo novel (though as indicated the focus is firmly on protagonists Chloe and Vic). Fortunately, you do not need to have read these earliers stories – I did not – to enjoy Something Coming Through. And, though it takes time for the plot properly off the blocks, when it does get going it rapidly gathers momentum with plenty going on: just don't get too attached to any of the characters as there is some attrition along the way; this is a gritty, action-packed ride. As such this is nothing particularly new for McAuley regulars who will be pleased. Indeed, SFnally, he re-visits some tropes of previous novels especially the notion of visual glyphs having a psychological impact (cf. Mind's Eye) and the newly colonised alien world with mysterious alien presences (cf. Secret Harmonies).

It should be said that McAuley, for Big Bang Theorists who enjoy the Concatenation of science fact and fiction, does not go the extra mile: he never brings his real-life botanical expertise to bear on his novels. (Unlike, say, fellow Gollancz novelist Alastair Reynolds who dopes his stories with a generous sprinkling of science speculation.) Now this is not a criticism but an expression of personal preference: Paul McAuley is a life scientist and personally I'd just like to see a little of that knowledge exhibited more prominently in his fiction as I have a feeling that it would genuinely add a lot for hard SF enthusiasts. (And I am not sure he has got his Lagrange points properly sorted: sorry Paul, geeky buffs (not to mention readers knowledgeable of the physical sciences will briefly stumble here).

Having said that, and talking of hard SF, with Something Coming Through Paul McAuley almost achieves that near-iconic goal most SF writers must surely have of predicting real science fact research. In Something Coming Through, Mangala orbits an orange sun. Such stars are cooler than Earth's yellow Sun and so Managla must have an orbit closer to its sun than Earth's to the Sun. However such orbits tend to tidally lock the planet, but Mangala has a day of a few weeks. Now the latest research, published just afterthe pre-launch promotional copies of Something Coming Through were circulated, is that planets with even thin atmospheres have atmospheric thermal dynamics that impede tidal locking. McAuley could have claimed in this instance his SF predicting science fact but for halfway through the novel he mentions another human colonised world courtesy of the Jackaroo that is tidally locked… So close, Paul, so close… However I do live in hope for the day when he brings some of his botany expertise to bear on his novels especially as there is much of SF trope relevance in that specialist area on the border of botany with geology, Earth systems science, which is also of exo-biological relevance (cf. Revolutions that made the Earth).

As said Something Coming Through is a thriller: firmly so. But Paul says in his own blog that it was inspired by:-

Something Coming Through isn’t about explaining away the alien: it’s about the difficulty of understanding it. The Jackaroo step in to give aid to humanity at a moment of global crisis. They are, they say, here to help. But they’re also wilfully enigmatic…

It’s also about that very twenty-first century anxiety: how we are being changed by technology we barely understand or control. Cities established by settlers on the Jackaroo gift worlds possess Starbucks and shopping malls, but the familiar is stretched thin across geological layers of older alien civilisations, and ruins haunted by fragments of alien memory and phantasms.

I have to say that I did not get this 'twenty-first century anxiety: how we are being changed by technology we barely understand or control' bit. True, I openly to confess to some such anxiety, but this did not come through the novel to myself (though now that it has been pointed out the metaphor is clear). This is arguably a good thing: McAuley is not preaching to us, he is giving us a story. That there is this substance to the author's inspiration is, if nothing else, interesting: but it is not at all necessary for enjoying the novel. And enjoy the novel I did. In fact I would welcome a return visit to this Jackaroo future.

Jonathan Cowie

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