Skip to main content

Austral (SF) - Paul McAuley ****

When I was a teenager, I devoured post-apocalyptic disaster novels, but as an adult I've tended to think that life is too short to read depressing books. Luckily, despite Paul McAuley's Austral being set in a world that has been reshaped by catastrophic climate change, it hasn't got the entirely miserable feel of some of science fiction's more hangdog works - but it certainly isn't a bundle of laughs either.

Central character Austral is an outcast, genetically modified by her eco-poet parents (not writers of verse, but involved in shaping the environment to naturally deal with what hits it). She is bigger, stronger and far more able to cope with the cold of her Antarctic home than normal humans. And for most of the book she is on the run, taking with her cousin, a young woman she has saved from being kidnapped by kidnapping her herself.

The structure of the narrative is multi-layered. We get the straight Austral story, Austral telling her cousin the story of their mutual grandfather (each has their own very different version of this), the story of Austral's parents and, somewhat bizarrely, a story that her cousin (almost always, and rather irritatingly just referred to as 'the girl' throughout the book) is reading, which is a modern myth (set on a greened Antarctic where the ice has melted) that seems to combine Tristram and Isolde with aspects of Theseus.

What we get is a beautifully written book that immerses the reader in the harsh Antarctic environment which is Austral's natural home. It's impossible not to be pulled in to Austral's story and want to see it through to its conclusion - it manages to have both literary merit and a page turning draw in the main storyline. I did find those multiple layers a little frustrating - and in the end, Austral's repeated negative warnings about how things will turn out mean that her flight seems doomed from the start. However, this didn't stop this being a haunting and engaging piece of science fiction that is every bit as good as a piece of writing as the best literary fiction.


Paperback:  

 
Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…