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McAuley, Paul J

Entry updated 26 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1955-    ) UK biologist and author who began publishing work of genre interest with "Wagon, Passing" in Asimov's for June 1984; his best shorter work has been assembled as The King of the Hill and Other Stories (coll 1991), The Invisible Country (coll 1996), Little Machines (coll 2005) and the comprehensive A Very British History: The Best Science Fiction of Paul McAuley (coll 2013), ranging with a sharp but loyal eye through various ways of telling sf, more frequently than with his novels in terms of Satire. He has also written under the name Sean Flynn (see Games Workshop). With his first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars (1988), he launched conspicuously into the far-reaching Re-United Nations sequence (sometimes known as the Four Hundred Billion Stars series) which, 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, world-building and universe-creation. Further volumes are Of the Fall (1989; vt Secret Harmonies 1989) and the very substantial Eternal Light (1991), which best exemplifies to date McAuley's control over the instruments of 1990s Hard SF: Wormholes; Faster Than Light travel, anti-agathic Drugs to attain various versions of Immortality, Genetic Engineering and Cosmology on the hugest scale. The series itself ostensibly concerns the attempts of an almost fatally wearied corporation-run Earth – reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith – to fend off the panicked aggressions of an ancient starfaring species, itself hiding from enemies of its own ilk; but the pleasures of this ongoing sequence seem more and more to lie in the increasingly comprehensive physical history of the entire Universe adumbrated in Eternal Light (see Transcendence).

The next three novels are singletons, and represent a further increase in narrative control (if McAuley has had a recurring fault, it lies in the offhanded way his tales sometimes convey so many notions that some die half-worded). Red Dust (1993) is set, like many 1990s novels, on a Mars which has been colonized (and Terraformed) by humans. His treatment of this dominant theme – in terms of a quest plot which takes its American protagonist across a complex landscape ruled by the Chinese – is vivid, swift and spontaneous-seeming. Pasquale's Angel (1994) is an Alternate History story set in a Renaissance Italy dominated by the remote figure of Leonardo da Vinci, who in this reality has created a Dystopian society through the power of his engineering genius. Fairyland (1995), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award and the John W Campbell Memorial Award, examines a Near Future Cyberpunk world transformed by the use of Genetic Engineering to create an underclass of Dolls who function as gene slaves (see Slavery), while a ludicrously privileged elite benefits from sophisticated Nanotechnologies.

McAuley's most powerful fiction to date may be the Book of Confluence sequence – it is in fact one sustained novel in three volumes: Child of the River: The First Book of Confluence (1997), Ancients of Days: The Second Book of Confluence (1998) and Shrine of Stars: The Third Book of Confluence (1999), all three assembled as Confluence (omni 2000; rev 2014), the 2014 version being definitive – a long, crafty Far Future tale built around the gradual unpacking of the nature of the World Ship called Confluence: a vastly elongated Archipelago-like platform, 20,000 kilometres long, built over a great keel, at the heart of which a great engine awaits the command to awaken; dominated by a dying river; irradiated by the manipulating presence – via Avatars – of the Forerunner species responsible for its construction aeons earlier as an ark where new species may develop (see Biology; Evolution; Genetic Engineering; Time Abyss). The protagonist's blood – which contains agents whose function is to create new species when it is drunk (see Religion) – transfigures him into a Messiah figure; but unlike the Severian of Gene Wolfe's immense Sun sequence, starting with The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), of which the Book of Confluence is to some degree a Parody, McAuley's Yamamanama is a secular Messiah.

After the honed exorbitance of the Book of Confluence, McAuley published several Near Future technothrillers, usually focusing on biotech threats of Disaster to the planet: the best of these may be The Secret of Life (2001), in which microbial life from Mars has been brought back to Earth by the Chinese, who take insufficient care to contain it; Whole Wide World (2001), which reflects (or predicts) the consequences of the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in terms (presciently) of a worldwide increase in low-grade intimidation, information control through constant surveillance, and high anxiety in general; and White Devils (2004), a Heart-of-Darkness tale (see Joseph Conrad) set in Africa, where a deadly haemorrhagic influenza and a deadly Invasion of the eponymous monsters (feral monkeys gengineered from human stock) almost fatally coincide. More recently, however, he has moved back into the kind of venue he had earlier occupied: Cowboy Angels (2007) combines elements of the noir thriller and a complex narrative involving Time Loops and Parallel Worlds. The Jackaroo sequence beginning with Something Coming Through (2015) and Into Everywhere (2016), mostly set in a Near Future London, traces the impact on the world of the arrival of Aliens bearing – it seems – gifts: including access to several planets containing mysterious artefacts (see Time Abyss). As the series progresses, the effects of these "benevolent" acts of apparent Uplift increasingly convey a sense of the precariousness of any world to come. That precariousness is intensified in the Near Future Austral (2017), where Climate Change and the shamelessness of the empowered rich provide background for the search of the Genetically Engineered protagonist for some autonomy; that she is partially successful strikes, at this advanced point in McAuley's long career, a note of hope.

The Quiet War sequence, beginning with The Quiet War (2008) and Gardens of the Sun (2009), pits Earth and her allies against the Outer Planets, the complications of the long plot unravelling, at points, into a guided tour of the solar system humans may one day inherit. In the more distant sequel, In the Mouth of the Whale (2012), humanity has reached the Fomalhaut solar system in successive waves which engage in War, with the oldest, slowest Starship arriving last; set even further into the future, Evening's Empires (2013) is a revenge drama (and much else) set back in the great "gardens" (ie Asteroids, moons, planets) of the constantly transformed solar system. McAuley's passionate limning of possible futures, here and throughout his career, almost inevitably darkens at any point where his line of narrative requires him to take directly into account the human species; but Evening's Empires, which is full of characters, is humane. War of the Maps (2020), set on the outer surface of a Dyson Sphere, traces in calm but compelling detail the fantastic journey (see Fantastic Voyages) of a retired officer of the law in search of an amoral criminal (see Crime and Punishment; Villains); a central implication – that it is the journey not the arrival that counts – can readily be inferred between the lines. The use of "maps" to refer both to Genetic Engineering and to individual domains stretched across the vast sphere is revelatory. In the richly complex Far Future setting of Beyond the Burn Line (2022), what may be Posthumans an/or an entirely new species (see Evolution) must cope with a First Contact scenario, first in the offing, and then confirmed through the viewpoint of one of the visitors. [JC]

see also: Amazing Stories; Berserkers; Colonization of Other Worlds; Cyborgs; Discovery; Ecology; Interzone; Metaphysics; Optimism and Pessimism; Paranoia; Philip K Dick Award; Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award; Women in SF.

Paul James McAuley

born Stroud, Gloucestershire: 23 April 1955



Re-United Nations

  • Four Hundred Billion Stars (New York: Ballantine Books/Del Rey, 1988) [Re-United Nations: pb/Don Dixon]
  • Of the Fall (New York: Ballantine Books/Del Rey, 1989) [Re-United Nations: pb/Don Dixon]
    • Secret Harmonies (London: Victor Gollancz, 1989) [vt of the above: Re-United Nations: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Eternal Light (London: Victor Gollancz, 1991) [Re-United Nations: hb/John Brettoner]


Quiet War


individual titles


collections and stories


  • Brazil (London: BFI/Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) [nonfiction: chap: study of Terry Gilliam's film Brazil (1985): illus/pb/Peter Strain]

works as editor

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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