Austral by Paul McAuley (book review).

October 19, 2017 | By | Reply More

The partly-thawed Antarctic Peninsula seems like an obvious place to set a novel in a globally-warmed future, but it’s never crossed my mind and I can’t say I’ve come across it in any other book before. Paul McAuley describes a wondrous wilderness of retreating glaciers, hardy frontiersmen, burgeoning greenery and blossoming towns that are working their way inward from the tip of the peninsula. It’s a magnificent setting for a tale of survival, human intrusion into nature and the fight against repeating history’s mistakes.

‘Austral’ is the name of the main character, a young woman born in Antarctica and genetically modified to withstand the cold. Known as ‘huskies’, her kind are feared, vilified or mocked by many. Her hard upbringing had led her via several bad choices to a situation where she has the chance to rescue/kidnap the daughter of a rich businessman in the hope of ransoming her for the money to make a new life. Their trek across the wilderness, while evading the authorities, crazy hermits and the henchmen of the mobster she has betrayed is a fabulously told tale. I was immediately pulled into Austral’s world and the enchanting descriptive work kept me immersed throughout the whole novel.

There’s always a fine balance to be had between explaining the historical and political background of your book and leaving the reader to get on with it. In this case, Paul McAuley fills in the history of the peninsula’s gradual transformation and the social changes that followed in its wake through the expedient of Austral recounting stories of her own youth and of her parents and grandparents. She tells these tales both to her unwilling travelling companion and as part of the record of events she is writing for her unborn child. Her family has a history intimately linked with the fledgling country’s development, having worked as ecopoets, the free-spirited ecologists who worked to bring the thawing tundra to life. Through Austral’s reminisces, we see their struggle to create something new and wonderful while fighting against the seemingly inevitable tide of human greed and politicising. While these ecopoets are idealistic and somewhat scathing of the political and commercial world, Paul McAuley doesn’t allow this to become a novel of sermons and lectures but filters everything through the life of Austral, her youthful naiveté and subsequent disillusionment and the tough existence she has come to accept.

There are some great characters encountered along the way, from prison guards and flunkies to backwoods anarchists and glimpses of the almost-legendary free ecopoets who live scattered lives in the wilderness. There are whole layers of well-thought-out society here, filling all kinds of niches in unique and interesting ways, all of whom live harsh lives in a land that has yet to admit to being tamed. The main character Austral is a masterpiece, a multi-layered character with a complex past and conflicting motivations, unsure of herself sometimes, trying to make the best of a bad situation, trying to help other huskies like herself and dreaming of something better. I didn’t want the book to end. It’s the kind of book that you have to sit and contemplate when you’ve finished reading, a book full of haunting images that are vivid in the mind’s eye. There are so many details built into this future

Antarctica is often mentioned only in passing and that I couldn’t begin to mention them all. With this book Paul McAuley has created something wonderful.

Gareth D Jones

August 2017

(pub: Gollancz. 275 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-47321-731-7)

check out website: www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.unlikelyworlds.co.uk

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Category: Books, Scifi

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