My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books www.newtownreviewofbooks.com.au
Paul McAuley is a multi-award-winning speculative fiction author whose Quiet War series, which spawned four novels and a collection of short stories, is one of the most enjoyable space-based speculative fiction cycles to come along in the last few years. His latest venture, Something Coming Through, revolves around a fascinating premise. Starting just a few years in our future, Earth is going from bad to worse. You name it, we’re copping it: revolutions, counter-revolutions, civil wars, terrorism, water wars, netwars all mixed up with the growing effects of climate change and financial collapse. But everything changes when we are visited by extraterrestrial intelligence …
No one had ever seen one of the Jackaroo in the flesh. They could be devils with bright red skin and horns and hooves and barbed tails, or angels, or anything in between. Gas bags evolved to ride the frigid winds of an exoJupiter. Machine intelligences. Self-organising magnetic fields. No one knew. And no one knew whether or not the Jackaroo actually inhabited their floppy spaceships – the tangles of restless vanes that had somehow towed the mouths of fifteen wormholes, each mounted on the polished face of an asteroid fragment, into L5 orbit between the Earth and Moon. Soon after the Jackaroo revealed themselves, one of their ships had been vaporised by a thirty-kiloton nuclear bomb delivered by a Chinese Long March rocket.
Despite being attacked, the Jackaroo do not take offence. The wormholes are a gift to humanity, offering near instantaneous travel to 15 habitable worlds light years away, and well out of reach of our paltry chemical rocket spaceships. But these worlds had previously been inhabited by other aliens, previous recipients of the Jackaroo’s gifts, who have long since gone to dust: the Elder Cultures. Artefacts of these cultures are brought back to Earth as part of the regular Jackaroo shuttle service that supports Earth’s colonisation of the worlds, but some of these finds are dangerous, containing memes or eidolons, alien ghosts if you will, that place compelling ideas in the minds of those they infect.
It’s a huge starting point and plays immediately into all kinds of fears about the true nature of the Jackaroo gift and the effect on humanity of suddenly being given everything it desired without having to struggle for it: new worlds, untold mineral wealth, vast tracts of arable land, an end to overpopulation, hunger, scarcity as a whole. But what’s behind it? Is it meant to divert us or domesticate us? Or do the Jackaroo have some other purpose only they can understand? And did the Elder Cultures die out, were they destroyed by the Jackaroo or are they still out there somewhere?
Given the potential of these gifts for negative cultural impact and the very real danger from Elder Culture infection, it’s no surprise that a number of government and non-government enterprises emerge to study the effects of the Jackaroo appearance, while others attempt to monetise or weaponise the finds. It’s a potentially explosive situation for Chloe, the protagonist of the story.
Chloe works for a private research agency called Disruption Theory and it’s her job to sniff out potential Elder Culture flare-ups and outbreaks in the community so her colleagues can study them. One such event leads her into a dangerous search for a young boy and his younger sister who seem to have been infected by a powerful eidolon and who promptly go missing just as she tracks them down.
Meanwhile on one of the ‘gift planets’ that now hosts a burgeoning human settlement, ‘murder police’ detective Vic Gayle and his new rookie partner are investigating a suspicious death that has possible links to organised crime and in particular the illegal exportation of alien artefacts …
There’s quite a William Gibson vibe to Something Coming Through, with a thriller template being used to tell a story that goes to some very weird places indeed. In a quote provided for the book, SF author Alistair Reynolds says it’s ‘as tight and relentlessly paced as an Elmore Leonard thriller’. McAuley is a wonderful speculative fiction writer, but he’s no Elmore Leonard, and writing gripping thrillers requires a very different skill set. The Vic Gayle story thread reads like a fairly standard police procedural with a number of predictable plot beats and this is a distinct weakness in the book.
But McAuley’s description of the progress of human settlement on the planet Mangala has a depressing ring of truth to it. As we move out among the stars we bring all the bad along with the good. Crime is high on Mangala and the cities and residential areas are completely ‘McDonald-ised’ with every ounce of alien beauty seemingly wrung out of them on purpose.
On Earth, Chloe clashes with Chief Inspector Adam Nevers of the London Metropolitan Police’s Alien Technology Investigation Squad, who voices a similarly grim view of what ‘humanity’s greatest adventure’ has led to:
‘And what does it say about us,’ Nevers said, in a level, serious voice, holding Chloe’s gaze, ‘when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high? That when we find things that are a cross between animals and machines, all we can think to do with them is squirt extracts of their blood into our veins. That’s some sorry shit right there.’
‘And that’s an impressive speech.’
Chloe was wondering if she was supposed to agree with him, to renounce her work right there and then.
‘You and I know it isn’t all shiny toys, don’t we?’ Nevers said.
‘But the difference is, maybe, you see the worst in people, and I hope for something better.’
Chloe’s search brings her into conflict with a wider conspiracy that has some bearing on what Vic’s investigating out on Mangala, and as the story progresses, it’s the thriller aspect that more and more takes centre stage until the inevitable conflict between those who seek to use the alien artefacts for their own gain and those who just want to protect humanity.
Something Coming Through riffs on a lot of interesting concepts about cultural appropriation, the dangerous attraction of ideas – particularly ideas of alien origin – and the tawdriness of reality compared with our dreams. The engine room of the novel is powered by the central question set up at the beginning: what on Earth are the Jackaroo really up to? The ending of the book sidesteps an answer by focusing on the unexpected outcome of Chloe’s quest, which – frustratingly – is recounted via a third-person account. So I finished the book feeling somewhat perturbed. It was only while researching the title for this review that I discovered a (perhaps inevitable) sequel is in the works, Into Everywhere, which promises an answer to the central question. So, on reflection I’m not so annoyed. I’m hooked.
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