The Map is Not the Territory: Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley

Spinning off a series of experimental short stories, Something Coming Through marks the actual factual start of an extraordinary new project by Paul McAuley, the award-winning author of the Quiet War novels. As a beginning, it’s inordinately promising, largely because the world is so wide and relevant and well-developed, and though the characters are a little lacking, Something Coming Through satisfies as a standalone story too.

Allow me to introduce you to the Jackaroo, an advanced race of aliens whose near-as-dammit divine intervention in human history may well have saved us—from ourselves.

Just before the Jackaroo had made contact […] every country in the world had been caught up in riots, revolutions and counter-revolutions, civil wars, border wars, water wars, net wars, and plain old-fashioned conflicts, mixed up with climate change and various degrees of financial collapse. All this craziness culminating in a limited nuclear missile exchange and a string of low-yield tactical nukes exploding in capital cities. The Spasm.

The so-called Spasm has a special place in Chloe Millar’s heart:

The Trafalgar Square bomb had […] obliterated a square kilometre of central London, igniting enormous fires and injuring over ten thousand people and killing four thousand. Including Chloe’s mother, who had been working at the archives of the National Portrait Gallery—research for a book on Victorian photography—and had vanished in an instant of light brighter and hotter than the surface of the sun.

Chloe had been twelve when the bomb had exploded her world, had just turned thirteen when the Jackaroo revealed themselves and told everyone in the world that they wanted to help.

The aliens arrived in the nick of time, natch, and their assistance really did make a difference. There are still tensions, yes, and crimes continue to be committed—more on those in a moment—but given free reign over fifteen so-called “gift-worlds” and the technology to travel to them, albeit under strict supervision, people have room to breathe again; space to expand independently; and time to consider a lot of things—not least the lilies.

But why did the Jackaroo come to Earth in the first? What intergalactic game are they playing, and what cost their kindness?

Appropriately, given the double edge of its impressive premise, Something Coming Through is a tale of two halves, featuring a pair of protagonists whose respective pursuits—of discovery and justice—take place in two settings and in two different time-frames.

Chronologically speaking, Chloe’s story begins the thing. She’s a scout for a company called Disruption Theory, to wit, her mission: to find and follow the mind-altering “memes and ideations” made manifest by the strange alien artifacts arrayed about the aforementioned planets—some of which have found their way back to Britain and beyond, leading to outbreaks of “meme fever” and other such psychical conditions.

At the outset of McAuley’s novel, Chloe—keen to keep her distance from the Select Committee convened to investigate her involvement in the New Galactic Navy incident—follows up on a particularly promising lead. In short order she meets an orphaned brother and sister who Chloe becomes convinced are communicating with an alien intelligence on the planet Mangala.

On Mangala, some months later, we’re introduced to narrator numero two: a maudlin murder policeman, name of Vic Gayle, whose fresh-faced partner Skip Williams quickly catches “the worst kind of case. The kind of case that’ll keep you awake at night. […] A full-blown twenty-four-carat whodunit” arranged around a ray gun—no, really—competing criminal kingpins and their interest in several individuals who stowed away on the last shuttle from Earth:

He was pretty sure that both Danny Drury and Cal McBride were trying to hide something, but he couldn’t put either of them at the scene with the ray gun in their hands, he couldn’t figure out why they would be there, why they’d killed Redway and tried to kill, or maybe had killed, Parsons.

And the clock, of course, is ticking:

Most cases were either cracked quickly or went cold, their files growing fatter without yielding fresh revelations until at last they were copied into the vault, and the boxes of bloody clothing and DNA samples and all the rest were removed to the central store. [,..] Vic knew that if he and Skip didn’t turn up something soon, John Redway would die all over again, become no more than a number and a name in the cold-case index.

Both Vic and Chloe are perfectly fit for purpose as conduits into McAuley’s new near-future universe. That said, neither is especially fresh or affecting; the truth-seeker and the down-on-his-luck detective are archetypes that the author isn’t interested in innovating at this early stage. Instead, McAuley has his sights set on establishing the depths and complexities of the setting of the series Something Coming Through kicks off: a deal with the devil that could conceivably have hobbled the Jackaroo books from the beginning.

It doesn’t, luckily. Indeed, it seems to this critic a cracking bargain, because the milieu of Something Coming Through is the most compelling I’ve come across in some months. On Earth, most everything is familiar, but different enough to keep readers keen. Mangala, meanwhile, takes this duality—this division between the known and the not, the seen and the unseen and so on—to startling new heights. It’s a weird wild west of a world at first:

Out here, you could still have your mind eaten by an alien phantom, stumble upon a lost city, or discovering a fraying thread of some kind of weird quantumised metamaterial that could kick-start a new industrial revolution and make you a billionaire. Out here were places not yet mapped. Old dreams and deep mysteries. A world wild and strange and still mostly unknown.

Yet we also see evidence, in Petra, the planet’s capital, of what Vic calls “the Coca-colonisation of the weird,” as amongst the wonders are dotted McDonald’s drive-throughs, start-up Starbucks and such. A timely James Cameron joke makes McAuley’s point plain: this is recognisably our universe, in a year near to 2015, if only aliens had come careening out of the clouds and given us fifteen planets to fuck up.

It’s a superlative setting, simply put—strange but true, too—and it makes Something Coming Through. In addition, the paired tales McAuley alternates between do a good job of scratching very different itches:

Beads containing alien eidolons that got inside people’s heads and gave them visions of ancient wonders were the stuff of fantasy stories. Dealing with bad men who did bad things was something he understood. Something he could deal with.

If there’s a single dull moment in either story, I didn’t notice it, though their predictable protagonists—Vic in particular—are a problem. But in light of the revelations of Something Coming Through’s conclusion, I expect McAuley’s characters to be hugely improved in Into Everywhere, book two of the Jackaroo.

Bring it on, by all means, because book one brilliantly splits the difference between James A. Corey’s frenetic science fiction and the more considered catastrophes of McAuley’s own Quiet War novels. It’s fun; it’s fascinating; it’s fantastic.

Something Coming Through is available February 19th from Gollancz (UK).

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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