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Recreating the Future
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, August 1998)
Photo by Beth Gwinn
Paul J. McAuley has degrees in botany and zoology and did scientific research in Britain and, for a time in the '80s, in Los Angeles, before becoming a full-time professor in the UK. At 19, he sold a story to If, but the magazine folded before it could appear; he made the first of many short fiction sales in 1984, when ''Wagon, Passing'' appeared in Asimov's. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars (1988), was a co-winner of the 1989 Philip K. Dick Award; it began a loosely connected series which continued with Of the Fall (aka Secret Harmonies, 1989), and Eternal Light (1991). Later works include Mars novel Red Dust (1993), alternate world Renaissance work Pasquale's Angel (1994), near-future SF Fairyland (1995), which won the John W. Campbell Award, and Child of the River (1997) – first of SF trilogy The Book of Confluence, which will continue with Ancients of Days and (tentatively titled) Ship of Fools. He recently gave up teaching and is now a full-time writer. His short fiction has been collected in The King of the Hill and other stories (1991) and The Invisible Country (1996).
''I've committed trilogy, but just a trilogy – only three books, I promise! I did slip one short story out, but that was from five million years before the trilogy started, so I guess I'm allowed that. Here is how it all began: I did a story called 'Recording Angel' for Greg Bear's anthology New Legends. When I'd done it, I figured out I'd sort of sketched in this huge world with a big back-history, but I'd only really looked at one very small part of that, and I thought, 'Well, what else is out there?' So I worked out a way of exploring it – not only the world as it is, but as it was and will be.
''The back-story of The Book of Confluence is that after ten million years of human history, all the humans have vanished – they have become as gods, and have disappeared into a very big black hole which they've made out of the Large Magellanic Cloud. You're going to have to read the books to find out where they disappeared to. But they've left behind all sorts of things, including the galaxy, which they've completely reconfigured. They've moved every star, and tied up all the old bits, and changed them, remade all the planets. We'll see a little bit of that in the third book. They've been doing lots of super cosmic engineering.
''In mature science fiction, certainly, we're getting beyond 'Oh gee, there are planets out there!' and 'Oh gee, there are aliens! (who might be good)....' Now the scientists are asking, 'Are there really aliens?' or 'Why aren't there aliens?', which are much more fundamental questions. That is one of the undercurrents in the trilogy, because the only aliens are the ones that humans have made from animals – some of them animals from Earth, and some animals from other planets.
''I've finished the second book, Ancients of Days, and have got the first draft of the third – which, at the moment, is called Ship of Fools. I wrote the first book, then went on to write the second before I went back to the first, and then, having written the second book, went on to the third, then back to the second! It was a process of finding out where I wanted to go, and then going back to make sure I'm pointing in the right direction.
''It also connects a lot more with the ideas going around, that if we only reapply technology in an optimistic way, we can all live forever and explore as many worlds as we want to, and so forth – which I think is a very funny idea, myself. I wonder how many science fiction books are coming out as a reaction to these ideas from Frank Tipler. Everybody I know says he's got some great ideas, but the way he applies them is really nuts. I have to say that his conception of heaven sounds very, very boring and Victorian to me. It's like summer camp for eternity. Is that all there is? That's one of the things I'm going to ask in the books. The Extropians see that as the ultimate thing, and that's the philosophy behind the kind of theocracy in Confluence as well.
''Essentially, we're pattern-making creatures. We look up at a load of random lights in the sky, and immediately start trying to find a bull and a water carrier, and so on. It's the same with random events: you try and make sense of them. And hopefully, after seeing the right number of examples, you can start to see they're not quite as random as you think. That comes down to The Golden Bough and Frazier and Joseph Campbell, and so forth. And then you have John Campbell's retake on Joseph Campbell! We're now so painfully aware of all that.
''As for what's next for me, I've got more than a vague glimmer for a kind of sequel to Pasquale's Angel. It's going to be another hundred years in the future, where Leonardo made the Industrial Revolution happen early. I'll follow the history on a little, and talk about the colonization of America, supposing it was done with a lot more science around, instead of the way Columbus did it. Would it be more brutal, or would it be less brutal but more awful? What would scientific slavery be like, with sort of an alternate holocaust – because that's what happened in Cuba with Columbus. We now know he wiped out all the tribes so thoroughly we don't even know their names. He wiped them out, looking for gold which wasn't there, because he was in the wrong bit of America.
''I'm all for information being fairly transparent. I put a story on the Internet, actually! I don't think book pirating is a huge problem. Brian Aldiss once showed me one of his most treasured possessions, a second carbon somebody had done in Russia of one of the 'Helliconia' books. He actually liked to be pirated, because that was a good thing back in those days of the Evil Empire and Reagan and so on, and there was science fiction like a virus being passed along! But people aren't too interested in pirating novels these days – too much hard work. It's easier pirating CDs or videos. Novels are fairly safe. It's like an ancient art form, like pirating pottery or something.
''For me, reviewing is like a different compartment, 'Oh, now I'm reviewing,' as opposed to 'Now I'm reading a reference book that I'm going to rip off very badly for one of my own books.' It's certainly different from reading for pleasure, because you're actually trying to 'get' the book, rather than flow with the book. It does introduce me to all kinds of books I wouldn't normally have read, and some of which I've liked very much, such as work by Lisa Goldstein, Steven Brust & Emma Bull, and some mainstream stuff as well. One writer I enjoy is Brian Moore, who writes really nice short books. All reviewers should have T-shirts reading, 'Less books – and make them shorter, as well!' or 'One book a year, but shorter, please God.'
''A lot of that kind of traditional hard science fiction becomes very comfortable. It's got intelligent dolphins, it's got spaceships with tractor beams, they all go faster than light and nobody asks why – all the kinds of horrible things I used to do! The unquestioning mode of hard science fiction. It's not quite space opera, because it's not grand enough to be space opera.''
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