Sunday, October 17, 2010

Things I may have learnt from Paul McAuley

I've read four of Paul McAuley's novels -- Fairyland, The Quiet War, its sequel Gardens of the Sun, and I just finished Four Hundred Billion Stars (McAuley's first novel). I keep coming back to him because I think I like space opera and he's supposed to be good at it. I also think I like hard science fiction, and as a former botanist McAuley is well positioned to write it.

Thing is, I've never really loved what I've been reading. I didn't hate it either; it just hasn't grabbed me.

I'm not really sure why this is, but I've got a few ideas that I'm going to try laying out here. It comes down, I think, to McAuley's science and McAuley's characters. When I'm reading hard space operas those are the two things that are likely to drive me through the book -- how cool are the science-fictional ideas, and how interesting are the characters.

I mentioned that McAuley was a botanist. I'm a physicist, and so when I talk about whether a story is hard SF, I'm usually thinking about the author's treatment of the physics. McAuley, however, spends a lot of his hard SF time on botany. Details on ecosystems and genetically engineered gardens and things like that. I'm sure it's all clever, well thought-out stuff, but it just isn't a branch of science I'm interested in. Consequently, those bits don't really grab my attention. (Incidentally, I wonder if this is what it feels like when people who aren't particularly keen on science read any hard SF?)

So, if the science fictional ideas aren't really grabbing me, that leaves the characters. And again, I have trouble engaging. Partly I think it's the types of characters he tends to write (often cold, often outsiders who don't want to participate in events, often slaves to circumstance), and partly it's the way he writes them. What it comes down to is this: I don't really feel like I understand them. 

I'm going to stop here rather than try to dig deeper into McAuley's characters. Basically, I don't think I can speak intelligently about what I feel just yet. Maybe I'll come back to it in subsequent posts. For now, though, I think I have my take-home message: even if science is a prominent part of your story, you better make sure the other bits are enough to carry a reader through, because not everyone is going to be interested in the sciencey stuff.

(It may or may not interest you to know that I've got a Paul McAuley short story coming up next in the anthology I'm reading. It's called "The Thought War", in Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three. I'll let you know what I think.)

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