Relentless Curiosity: A Conversation with Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley’s “Wagon, Passing” was published in the June 1984 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and he has been publishing short fiction fairly consistently ever since. His debut novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, was published in 1988 by Ballantine/Del Rey in the US and Gollancz in the UK. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (SFE) describes the series started by this book as “combining space-opera plots and cosmological speculations, fruitfully amalgamated influences from both US and UK traditions: H. G. Wells and Larry Niven consort, if sometimes uncomfortably, in these tales of interstellar warfare, worldbuilding, and universe-creation.”
The novel was a co-winner of the 1989 Philip K. Dick Award and landed on the Locus Recommended Reading list (technically placing ninth for Best First Novel in the Locus Awards). The “Novels” section of his bibliography lists twenty-five books, up to 2020’s War of the Maps (Gollancz); this doesn’t include several collections, chapbooks, and even two anthologies. Add these to his list of over a hundred short stories—to describe him as having a lot of work out is, perhaps, an inadequate oversimplification.
McAuley started writing at age fifteen. He earned a BSc in botany and zoology at Bristol University. He then completed a PhD on plant-animal symbioses and worked as a researcher at a number of universities, including Oxford and the University of California, Los Angeles. He eventually became a lecturer in botany at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. In 1996, after publishing six novels, he left academia to be a full-time writer.
Many readers think of Paul McAuley as a “hard science fiction” author, but he addresses this on his site: “ . . . my scientific background has certainly informed my writing, but I’ve always been in interested in the way technology can change human lives. And while I remain hugely interested in science fiction and its vast and strange canvases, I have also written a good number of stories in the horror genre, as well as thrillers and a police procedural thriller.”
Meanwhile, he has a long list of awards nominations and nods, including World Fantasy Award finalist “Naming the Dead” (published in Interzone in 1999). 1994 novel Pasquale’s Angel (Gollancz) won a Sidewise Award for Best Long Form Alternate History, 1994 short story “The Temptation of Dr Stein” (from The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein) won a BFA for Best Short Story, 1995 novel Fairyland (Gollancz) won an Arthur C. Clarke Award and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and 2011 novelette “The Choice” (published in Asimov’s) won a Sturgeon Award.
Whether or not any given work lands awards, many of genres finest reviewers have probably lavished it with praise, such as reviewer Gary K. Wolfe, who refers to McAuley as “a master of the ancient-far-future tradition of Vance and Wolfe” and describes 2020 novel War of the Maps as “a fine, compelling novel” in a “spectacular setting” (Locus May 2020 issue).
Paul McAuley’s latest novel is Beyond the Burn Line, published in September of 2022 by Gollancz.
What does it take to stay relevant, to continue to sell books and stories, and still remain part of the genre conversation?
Staying alert to the happening world helps rather more, I guess, than trying to follow trends and fashions in fiction that aren’t a good fit for what you are interested in. Drawing on the here and now, which is crammed with the weird and wonderful, and changes driven by science and technology, rather than reworking previous instances of science fiction.
Do you feel that genre has changed in important ways since the days of your first publications, and are the changes good? Or have we just come up with different ways to name things that have always been around?
The default standard of writing in SFF has greatly improved, and obviously it’s more diverse than it was, back in the 1980s when I was first published. The 1970s, and 80s, when I started to read SF with a critical eye, weren’t entirely dominated by male writers, but I know it could sometimes feel that way. That’s changed, especially in the last twenty years or so.
And of course, science fiction is both more global in source and outreach, and more universally present in media. Not just the superhero franchises and Star Wars and Star Trek, but also interesting stuff that can be found elsewhere, especially on the streaming services. Dark, for instance, and The Devil’s Hour, and Severance, and the richly detailed adaptation of William Gibson’s The Peripheral. There’s also much more fiction that is published outside the genre but is clearly informed by its tropes and utilizing its tool kit, and increasingly the authors are both knowledgeable of and sympathetic to the genre: a lot more good stuff outside the conversation the genre has with itself.
As a writer you’ve shifted your approach from time to time, from space opera to biotech to pro-science thrillers and much more. Does Beyond the Burn Line represent another phase in your writing?
It may be linked to a couple of other of my works that are explicitly about the Anthropocene—a novel, Austral, and a forthcoming novella, “Gravesend, or, Everyday Life in the Anthropocene”—instead of including various consequences of global heating in the background hum (as in most novels from Fairyland onward). And although one of the main characters, Pilgrim Saltmire, is nonhuman, which is sort of new for me, he is a kind of scientist, or at least has a scholarly background, and like a good number of my characters is obsessed with finding the truth about something.
An earlier novel of mine, The Secret of Life, was published as a Gollancz Masterwork a little after Beyond the Burn Line came out, and I was interested to note the similarities between the protagonist of that older novel and Pilgrim. I’m hoping to write more about the Anthropocene, but I’m not planning (but who knows?) on writing other novels about nonhuman characters.
What was the inspiration for Beyond the Burn Line, and how did the story change or develop from conception to final product?
I wanted to write about the ongoing effects of the Anthropocene, and because that’s such a huge multifaceted topic, I thought that it would be interesting to examine it from a distant, and different, perspective. To write about what our legacy might be, and how it would be viewed. That gave me the idea of writing about a species that not only had to deal with the inheritance of a civilization that had once enslaved them, but also was trying to figure out the significance of remains of our fossilized civilization. While also, of course, living in a world much impoverished after the bottleneck of the Anthropocene.
Initially, Pilgrim Saltmire was more swashbuckling and conventionally proactive, but that changed when I worked out that making his people peaceable and naturally cooperative. He’s very much part of the mundane worlds of both the scholarly community and his family, but he’s also something of an outsider, too. It gave what I hope is an interesting doubling effect to the estrangement that’s a theme of the novel. The biggest change to the seed idea for the novel was the realization that Pilgrim wouldn’t carry the entire story; that there needed to be another perspective that looked at his people and culture as he looks back at ours.
Were there challenges specific to writing this book, or has writing novels become smooth work over the years?
Every novel has its different challenges, and as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t get easier. I know that I can write novels, but I’m still learning how to write them, and writing each one is a learning experience. Discovering its themes, working out how to embody them in the story, and so on. And discovering the characters, their perspectives, interests, and needs, and most of all their voice, because for me that’s what shapes the course of the narrative.
Okay. So: why bears? Instead of, say, the rise and fall of a civilization of raccoons?
The descendants of washcats, Pilgrim’s people, are the inheritors of the fallen civilization of the bears. So, this is, kind of, about their rise and the secret history behind that rise, after the bear civilization that enslaved them collapsed. Why Pilgrim’s people instead of bears? Because they’re curious, like their distant ancestors, and communal and cooperative, which suited the nuances of the story. Which is in part about how Pilgrim’s discoveries change things, but not violent change by means of war or revolution.
What are your favorite things about Pilgrim Saltmire and Foeless Landwalker?
Pilgrim’s relentless curiosity and drive, and the way that quite often he makes the wrong decision or has the wrong idea about the mystery he’s striving to understand. Foeless Landwalker’s name, and that although he’s much talked about, like Harry Lime, Orson Welles’s character in The Third Man, he isn’t seen until toward the end of Pilgrim’s story. I was planning to have a confrontation between Pilgrim and Foeless but couldn’t work out how to dramatize it in an interesting or useful way, so instead dramatized the undoing of Pilgrim’s assumptions about Foeless and his followers.
Beyond the Burn Line has been praised by reviewers for both its science fiction and its characters. Craft-wise, what is the key to striking that narrative balance?
I wish I knew because it would save an awful lot of troublesome work. Every novel has a different balance. Maybe the key is to follow the characters, rather than forcing the story down a preplanned route. Their discoveries, then, are also yours. How much you want to or need to explain, flows from their interests, and how crucial such understanding is to the story.
You are known for “hard SF,” among other things. Do you have favorite harder SF tidbits in the book that you don’t mind talking about here?
My previous novel, War of the Maps, was inspired by a science paper about the possibility of constructing Dyson spheres around white dwarf stars. And the reissued novel, The Secret of Life, turns on the theory that life on Earth may have been seeded by meteorites carrying fragments of Martian life, and speculates about the origin of the genetic code and what Martian life might look like if it still survives (there’s also commercial and political intrigue, a journey across Mars’ north polar ice cap, and adventures in Mexico and the subcultures of the American South-West).
But there isn’t, I think, much in the way of “hard” SF, or SF that’s informed by current cutting-edge science, in Beyond the Burn Line. It’s more about the practice of science in Pilgrim’s world (another link with The Secret of Life, which is in part about the culture of science), and Pilgrim’s interest in natural history. But one scene I have a personal fondness for is the one in which Pilgrim tells his young nephew stories about some of the animals in an illustrated bestiary. It was inspired by a Victorian bestiary my grandmother gave to me, and which I still have.
Are novels about the Anthropocene important, in the sense of helping to effect change? Is there an argument or statement in Beyond the Burn Line that you hope will reach people, or are the elements drawing on the Anthropocene simply part of the entertainment; or perhaps even just extrapolations of inevitable events?
Most of it is extrapolative, as constructions of a distant future must inevitably be. But what’s also inevitable is that there will be long-lasting effects on life on Earth caused by our actions here and now, and I hope people will understand that the Anthropocene isn’t something we will quickly pass through, or fail, equally quickly, to survive. In life’s very long history, measured in billions of years, it’s a blip, but a very big blip: the Seventh Extinction, delivered extraordinarily rapidly, and by the actions of a single prolific and rapacious species.
We’re already discussing, rightly, the effects this will have on rising generations. But what about the next thousand years? Or the next forty thousand? What legacy will we leave for any that come after us, human or otherwise? It isn’t for me to say how helpful this is—hopefully it helps people to make a connection between how changes are predicted to continue, and their own lives.
What would you like readers to know about Beyond the Burn Line, beyond blurbs and reviews? What is important to you about this book?
Pilgrim starts out on his journey alone, but he doesn’t find the answer to the mystery (which isn’t, perhaps, the answer he was seeking) alone. Like almost all scientific inquiries, it’s a collaborative effort. Building on what was discovered before and shored up by the work of others. There are very few instances of solitary geniuses making pivotal discoveries (even Einstein co-authored some of his papers), but these tend to be overrepresented in fiction. I hope that, like The Secret of Life, Beyond the Burn Line does something to redress that balance.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
I’ve mentioned a novella, “Gravesend.” That will be published in the March/April edition of Asimov’s SF Magazine next year. I’ve just finished another novella, “Blade and Bone,” and hope to find a home for it. And I’m trying to make some useful notes toward a new novel that engages with the disruptions to biodiversity caused by global heating and human activity.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.