Science fiction has always been a wonderful way of exploring where the cutting edge of science might take us in the future, and one of the best authors in that genre is Paul McAuley. From ground-breaking gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR, to the emergence of space mining as a serious concern, McAuley’s novels over the past two decades have consistently been ahead of the curve – not just in predicting these futures, but understanding how they might reshape our world and affect us, as human beings.
McAuley’s science cred is hardly surprising though, as before he became a full-time writer, he worked as a research biologist and university lecturer. As of 2018 he is now the author of more than twenty novels, several collections of short stories, a Doctor Who novella, and a BFI Film Classic monograph on Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil.
His latest novel, Austral, a novel about post-global warming Antarctica, was published in 2017 (you can grab a copy now from Amazon US or Amazon UK). The Daily Grail had a quick chat with him recently about the new book, his previous novels, and related topics.
DG: Hi Paul, thanks for chatting with us. Let’s ease into the discussion by talking about impending apocalypse: both Austral and your acclaimed Quiet War series are set in a future in which the Earth has suffered an environmental disaster. Given your own experience as both a sci-fi writer and a scientist, I want to ask, firstly, if this recurring idea of a near-future environmental ‘apocalypse’ in your work arises from enjoyment (for want of a better word) of the popular sub-genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, or simply from – in your own view as a scientist – the gloomy fact that it seems a very likely future for humanity?
PM: The effects of global warming and climate change, encroachment on natural habitats by urban expansion and agriculture, global pollution, so on, so forth, aren’t tropes in a disaster novel. They’re ongoing right now. We’re some little way past the beginning of a new geologic epoch in which human activity is the prime driver of global change, and even supposing there’s a massive effort to curtail the human causes of pollution and global warming it will take a long time for that kind of reversal to work through. It’s inevitable that the near future – the next couple of centuries, at least – will be riven with environmental change, so writers of near-future science fiction are now in the weird position of knowing, absolutely, what a major component of the future will be. The only uncertainties are the degree of change, and how it will affect global politics and ordinary human life.
Austral wasn’t conceived as a Dreadful Warning about the inevitable, but as a best-case thought experiment about how it might be possible to adapt to climate environmental and change; how to try to have a ‘good’ Anthropocene. The ice melting in Antarctica creates problems across the world associated with rises in sea level, but it also reveals land that can be colonised and used as a refuge for species displaced by environmental change. A new opportunity for a different way of living.
DG: Some commentators have suggested that becoming overly fascinated with ‘disaster’ or dystopian sci-fi might ‘imagine’ these futures into being. Do you think, as some have stated, that there is a need for science fiction to also address protection against, or solutions to, these scenarios (as you do at times in your novels), or is it silly – and somewhat authoritarian – to expect authors to do so?
PM: Like the rest of literature, science fiction is rooted in the time it’s written, and at present there’s a general feeling of pessimism and despondency. Fundamental principles of democracy, liberalism, capitalism and liberty are being challenged or undermined just about everywhere, and there’s a growing threat of some kind of nuclear war (in the week that I’m writing this, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to within two minutes of Armageddon’s midnight). So it isn’t surprising that many current novels and stories plug into the current angst, amplifying and playing with it, projecting it onto the blank screen of the future.
But while dystopias, post-collapse survival fantasies can be satisfying and stimulating, and maybe can even useful as Awful Warnings, SF is also a contrarian literature. It’s just as satisfying and stimulating to write against the grain, to examine alternatives to our current unbounded global capitalism, or to suggest that there may be fixes for climate change, or that changes caused by global warming may be survivable.
Awful warnings and hopeful futures aren’t mutually exclusive, just different kinds of thought experiment rising from the same root. Both are useful ways of interrogating the present, and the idea that authors should be encouraged to write one kind of fiction at the expense of the other is, I think, rooted in a fantasy that SF has more influence than it does.
DG: In a number of your novels, including your most recent Austral, a key concept is the idea of ‘edited’ humans via genetic modification. In recent months, with CRISPR, the idea of editing seems to be quickly jumping from the realms of imagination into reality. Do you think Paul McAuley circa 1995 – writing about some of these fantastical ideas in books like Fairyland – would be surprised at where we are at in 2018? And, given your many years speculating about where genetic modification might take us, do you have any ideas about how humanity might be able to successfully navigate the murky ethical waters that surround changing our genetic make-up?
PM: The future is always surprising in ways small and large. Once, we expected the major societal disruptors to be flying cars and space travel; instead, we get social media and phones equipped with GPS, internet access and high resolution still and video imaging. But I think the 1995 version of me would be legitimately surprised at the rate of evolution in biotechnology, and also amused that the idea of memes propagated by viruses might be validated by the recent discovery of the involvement of retrovirus-like particles in synaptic transmissions. Not to mention the cloned monkeys, in China.
Bioethics is a growing field, both in academia and practice, although if a command economy like China decides that it wants to take a shot at creating super-soldiers or editing certain genes out of its population, it’s hard to see how it can be stopped. Still, on the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The New Prometheus, maybe we should remember that all the trouble began because the creator refused to take responsibility for his creation.
DG: On a rather different note, I was intrigued in Austral with the inclusion of a (very minor) recurring thread of “elf stones” dotting the landscape of Antarctica, later explained as just a “mad art project or some kind of elaborate prank”, but which, through the stories that grew up around them, “helped to humanise” a bleak location. I thought it was a lovely addition to the book – a nice device to humanise the often ‘sterile’ landscape of science fiction narratives, as it were – and so I’m interested to know how that idea came to you.
PM: I first used the idea in a story, ‘Elves of Antarctica’, in which they were a way of giving human meaning to a raw landscape that had very little human history. As in the story, the idea came from Icelandic folklore about the Huldufólk, which embodies respect for the landscape, and an ethos of living in harmony with nature. The site-specific art of Andy Goldsworthy probably had something to do with it, too.
DG: After the initial ‘Space Race’ between America and the Soviets, in recent decades space exploration has been seen more and more as an area for peaceful collaboration in the spirit of science. But in your Quiet War series (and in the recently popular, and rather similar, The Expanse book and TV series) the very realistic future of space is that it is just another resource-rich frontier, mired in political scheming and military confrontations. Looking at recent real-world suggestions of asteroid mining and the like, do you think it’s even possible for these science fiction scenarios not to become reality in the future?
PM: There’s currently renewed talk about building lunar bases – or at the least, a space station in orbit around the Moon – as a first step towards landing a human expedition on Mars; even so, getting out of low Earth orbit and expanding into the Solar System always seems to be just out of reach. So in terms of the near future, I like to think of the Quiet War series as a kind of aspirational fantasy, inspired by the images of planets and a wildly unexpected diversity of moonscapes captured by robots operating out in the high frontier. But in two or five hundred years, why not?
DG: While many of your novels explore where we are going with our cutting edge technologies such as genetic modification, recently you’ve written a couple of novels (Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere) that use the theme of contact with an alien ‘benefactor’ culture (the ‘Jackaroo’). Given this is a well-known trope of sci-fi – Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End comes to mind immediately, and more recently Story of Your Life/Arrival – what approach do you take to making the inclusion of that theme fresh and thought-provoking?
PM: I thought I’d try to blend in a little comedy. The aliens are aware of the deep and rich pop culture that’s grown up around the idea of aliens, and are playing up to it. At the same time, like NGOs, they are trying their best to be benefactors, but aren’t always in control of the unexpected consequences of their interactions with the hapless natives. (This is what happens if you read both Arthur C. Clarke and Graham Greene at a tender age.)
DG: You’ve written both ‘hard’, relatively-near-future science fiction novels rooted in realistic and detailed science, and also more speculative stories based in the far-future or parallel worlds/alternative histories. Do you have a preference for one or the other, both in your own writing, and in reading for your own pleasure?
PM: If you sort and count the novels I suppose you’d conclude that I have a preference for writing space operas set either in the solar system or the wide reaches of the galaxy, although none of them are especially straight forward space operas. They’re generally told from the point of view of characters caught up in the sweep of history, for instance, rather than by those who, because they are in positions of power, believe that they can shape it. In his essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ Isaiah Berlin postulated that there are two kinds of writers and thinkers: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single idea, and foxes, who draw on all kinds of experiences and viewpoints. There are a lot of hedgehog science fiction writers; it’s a characteristic of rationalists who want to try to make sense of the world. But I guess I’m more of a fox, especially when it comes to history. I very much like Berlin’s analysis of Tolstoy’s theory of history in War and Peace; that there’s no single definable cause for major historical events because they arise from a complex web of interconnecting events, and that likewise no individual can control or escape history, because they’re inextricably caught up in that web. I guess that’s the nearest thing to a common theme in my novels.
DG: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Paul!