Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review - Into Everywhere - Paul McAuley

Into EverywhereInto Everywhere by Paul McAuley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Paul McAuley is a British speculative fiction author, best known for his Arthur C Clarke award-winning science fiction novel Fairyland, which has just been re-released twenty years after its initial publication under the Gollancz ‘SF Masterworks’ imprint. His Quiet War series of books chart a Solar System-spanning war between Earth-born humans and the ‘differently evolved’ descendents of early settlers on the asteroids and moons of the outer planets. It’s a richly detailed work that combines big science with fantastic descriptions of desolate and surprising alien environments.

His latest ‘Jackaroo’ series begins a few years in our future when Earth, facing all the problems we can see today, is ‘rescued’ by the alien Jackaroo who gift humanity fifteen wormholes linked to fifteen habitable worlds. The Jackaroo say they want to help, but what are their motivations and what happened to the Elder Cultures – previous recipients of aid from the Jackaroo – who seem to all have died out?

In the first book, Something Coming Through, which I reviewed last July in the Newtown Review of Books [], researcher Chloe helps a young boy infected by an alien ‘information virus’ – or eidolon – to travel to one of the gift worlds where he discovers Elder Culture spaceships that humanity can fly without the help of the Jackaroo.

If you’ve read my review, you’d know I had some reservations about the book and it ended with a lot of the questions it raised unanswered. Unfortunately Into Everywhere shares a few of the issues of its predecessor as well as some problems of its own, which means that I really didn’t enjoy it.

Into Everywhere has two story strands. The first is set some years after the first book, with Lisa, a retired Elder Culture artefact hunter, being drawn into an investigation mounted by Chloe’s nemesis, Adam Nevers who is now investigating a series of fatalities linked to an alien dig run by Lisa’s estranged husband Willie.
After Lisa is visited by Nevers and one of the Jackaroo’s avatars, she contacts Chloe to find out what is going on.

‘Was it Bob Smith?’ Chloe said.
‘Excuse me?’
‘That’s what the avatar Nevers was working with back then called itself.’
‘We weren’t introduced,’ Lisa said. ‘It was mostly tagging along as an observer.’
‘Nevers was carrying a kind of wire that generated a copy of that avatar,’ Chloe said. ‘It got into a fight with a Ghajar eidolon that called down the ships, and it lost. One of the !Cha once told me the Jackaroo made a thing of preventing us finding and using certain kinds of Elder Culture technology, because they know it will make it seem all the more desirable to us. Forbidden fruit, the apple in the Garden of Eden and so on. I don’t think Nevers understands that. That he may be helping the Jackaroo to manipulate us.’
‘You make him sound like some kind of fantatic,’ Lisa said.
‘He’s deadly serious about the dangers of Elder Culture technology. And he more or less lacks a sense of humour. Goes with his vanity, the way he presents himself.’

The second strand is set a hundred years further in the future in the rim worlds, settled by humans who utilised the alien spaceships discovered in book one.

Tony Okoye is the wayward son of one of the original founding families and he’s engaged in a piece of illicit research on alien artefacts to try to discover a cure for ‘sleepy sickness’, an alien plague that is infecting children in alarming numbers. His hope is that by finding the cure he will return the honour of his family to its former glory. When his research dig is attacked, he returns to his home in disgrace, where he is placed under house arrest.

Although Tony is described as a daring ‘freebooter’ he’s fairly passive as a character, straining against his familial bonds but still trapped by them until he’s offered a chance to escape and work for the shadowy Captain X. Lisa is also very passive. She wants to find out what happened to her husband but increasingly she is under the compulsion of an eidolon that infected her and Willie years ago to go on a journey. It’s a compulsion that is facilitated by Captain X’s enemies. The other problem with Lisa is that her story is basically the same as the story in book one: a person infected by an eidolon is compelled to go somewhere to discover something.

Neither Tony or Lisa are in control of their fates. In Lisa’s case her goals and desires are subservient to the eidolon and Tony seems to discard his espoused goals to suit the plot. After the initial chapters he isn’t actively trying to find the cure for sleepy sickness and the entire sub-plot with his family is discarded as easily as the new lover he also leaves behind. He’s firmly under the thumb of Captain X and – later – his own eidolon compulsion. Also Tony and Lisa are probably the two characters in the story that know least about what is going on and they have nothing of value to bargain with in order to find that information out. Instead they have to be told what’s happening when the time is right, and one of the final scenes in the book has them basically watching from the sidelines as the story’s real movers and shakers have an argument.

It’s also true that not a lot seems to happen, or not a lot that is particularly engaging. Whenever the Jackaroo turn up they spout the same unhelpfully enigmatic epithets, which become grating after a while. Much of the action has to do with travel through a variety of wormholes towards a ‘destination’, but as we have no access to the reason for the journey or the forces at play on the way there it feels drawn out.

There are some flashes of interest along the way, for example when Tony escapes into a series of tunnels cared for by a strange underground society, but these highlights are few and far between. Lisa’s home planet has – as with the gift worlds in book one – been McDonaldised, so it’s not a good source of wonder either and her encounter with a bikie gang echoes the kind of stereotypic treatment the detective story in book one contained.

And now men were standing up, big and muscled in leather and denim. Shaved heads, beards, tats. Wolfman Dave. Little Mike. Mouse. And Sonny Singer, unfolding from the shelf of stone where he’d been sitting, strutting over to Lisa as she swung off Bear’s bike.
Sonny addressed Bear first, punching him hard on the shoulder, asking him if he remembered what he’d been told.
‘Come on,’ Bear said uneasily. ‘When I phoned you said I should bring her in.’
‘I also said you shouldn’t have let yourself get compromised.’
‘This is Willie’s old lady, dude. I don’t see how she compromises anything.’
Sonny ignored that. A black and white doo-rag was knotted around his shaded skull; his eyes were masked in mirrorshades. ‘I trusted you to do the right thing, Bear.’

But the thing I found most unforgivable in Into Everywhere was the lack of answers. There’s a contract entered into between writer and reader at the beginning of any book. The author introduces questions or mysteries to the reader to draw them into the story and keep them reading. The reader trusts the author will provide entertaining answers to those questions after they have invested a sufficient amount of effort in reading the narrative. But after a combined 700 pages across two books, we are no clearer at the end about who the Jackaroo are, what their game plan is and what happened to the extinct Elder Cultures they ‘helped’ previously. It’s deeply disappointing.

There will be a third volume, but I’m no longer sufficiently invested in the story to look forward to its release.

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