Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Review: Austral, by Paul McAuley

Antarctica gets its chance to be the final frontier

It is easy to forget about Antarctica. If it is on a global map, it is almost always distorted, deformed by the Mercator projection, looking like some sort of white monster lurking at the bottom of the world. It has no cities, no countries (barring the claims of a handful, and many of those claims overlap, resulting in what is essentially a frozen conflict without any leftover military bases), no human life beyond the research stations, and not much obviously apparent effect on the rest of human history. If we do remember it, it is about penguins or doomed expeditions or peculiar geopolitics or remote research stations or the new linguistic features of those researchers or the randiness of aforementioned researchers. It is a continent almost entirely forgotten in fiction, barring a Kim Stanley Robinson novel and some lovecraftian horror. In light of all that, Paul McAuley has radically reimagined the continent in his novel Austral, published in 2017 by Gollancz (I only recently discovered it, as my local library had bought it only last year).

It is in the not-too-far future (but not too near, either), and climate change has wracked the world, the haughtiness of the twentieth century giving way to the devastation of the twenty-first. To find new land, to find a new place even somewhat hospitable to human life, our species decides to terraform Antarctica, to turn it green, to make a place where Robert Falcon Scott could have thrived, and not frozen to death like he did in our world. The end result is something that feels vaguely like a science fiction-tinged western, for this is a frontier land, albeit without indigenous. There are, however, rogue terraformers, called ecopoets (derived from ‘ecopoiesis,’ although the resemblance to ‘poet’ is certainly welcome) who seek to create a more pristine environment, as opposed to a ravenous industrial economy spread from the new Antarctic cities outwards, threatening to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The end result is something that feels a bit like space opera, but is more believable than space opera, as there is no wrangling over precisely how the laws of physics are broken in regards to faster-than-light travel; people here can simply take boats to New Zealand or Argentina or Chile. To quote TVTropes, “Space Opera is an Earth-sized story lifted onto the galactic scale,” and you see how a story that could easily be set in another galaxy (perhaps a long time ago) can be brought down to Earth without losing the sense of awe and adventure.

As mentioned previously, you can see the fingerprints of Westerns in this book, although perhaps filtered through that genre’s influence on science fiction more broadly. The core of a plot is an escape through hostile wilderness, with peculiar locals who are not so much evil as they are skeptical of outsiders (and the authorities in the cities have very much given them reason to be wary). Beyond the cities, Antarctica is inhabited by hardy frontier people, with the remnants of a cooperative, communal culture here and there, particularly in shelters known only by hints in the nature, an argot of signs known only to ecopoets and their ilk.

The protagonists, too, are out of a Western. Your main character is a woman, down on her luck, who falls in with a criminal gang, partially out of raw fiduciary need and partially out of her status as a person modified in the womb to better survive the harsh Antarctic climate (she is called an animal by non-modified humans, and she retorts that all her added genes are from different human groups, such the Inuit, that have adaptations to cold climates). She is assigned on a criminal job when she takes pity on the daughter of a magnate, and whisks her away, fleeing both the government and her former criminal compatriots, hoping to exchange this teenage girl for a handsome ransom. There’s a combination of hardy self-interest and human kindness in her, which makes her a protagonist with enjoyable depths. It is, in a sense, the dichotomy between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ within one person, although it is interesting to note that both positive and negative elements come from the cities. There are other characters, too, one with a maverick swagger blended seamlessly with a callousness that renders him all too believable, which adds to the narrative tapestry.

I do wonder, though, upon writing this review, that the whole thing does feel sort of like a ‘guilt-free colonialism’ scenario, although in such a scenario there would not be anything to be guilty over in contrast to, say, the American Old West, and the continental genocide that unfolded during that period. The closest analogues to the indigenous are the rogue ecopoets, very much in touch with nature, with a love and connection that may have echoes of stereotypes to certain readers. In this regard, it repeats the sin, if you want to call it that, of a lot of space opera, but I’m not sure how much blame McAuley really deserves; it certainly does not strike me as deliberate. As I said in my review of Space Craze, Margaret Weitekamp’s history of American science fiction, it’s a matter of assumptions more than conscious choices.

Austral is an update of an older narrative form for the gun barrel that is climate change that we all have no choice but to stare down. It is fun, it is human, and its speculations feel ever so believable. I can see something like this happening in the future, although I hope, for all our sakes, that the rest of the world doesn’t become so hostile that we need to terraform Antarctica to dig ourselves out of it. Penguins deserve nice things too.


The Math:

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.