“The man runs in a desperate zig-zag scramble, waving his arms as if trying to swat something. People scatter – they know what’s about to happen. The man has been targeted by a hornet, a small, self-powered micro-missile guided by scent to a specific target.” (p.267)
Paul McAuley’s 1995 novel Fairyland had been on my radar for a while until a laudatory tweet by author Adam Roberts convinced me to buy a copy. It is the 150th title to join Gollancz’s SF Masterworks collection. It was also the first novel published by Gollancz to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award, back in 1996. Here is the author talking about the book in an interview posted on the SF Gateway website’s blog:
“Fairyland is, I suppose, my breakout novel. It’s set in a near future fractured by political upheaval and out-of-control biotech; its story, likewise fractured, is set in real places (London, Paris, Albania).”
Fairyland’s main character is Alex Sharkey, an overweight biochemical hacker who designs tailor-made psychoactive viruses which change the way you feel and think. In a dark and grimy near-future London, Alex meets Milena, a young girl genius who needs his gene-hacking skills for a personal project she is working on. What follows is a game-changing event that could have repercussions for the entire human race.
“Milena promises Alex that she didn’t plant any subconscious commands in him, but Alex isn’t so sure. She has this urge to manipulate, to control. […] She should be walking around with a biohazard symbol tattooed on her forehead.” (p.100)
One of the most memorable characters in the book is the blue-skinned “dolls”. Smaller than humans, the dolls are artificially created clones that have been bioengineered from human DNA. Initially, they are “novelty toys of the rich”, but over time they come to be used for cheap labour “in industries where working conditions are traditionally hazardous.” Reminds me a little of the replicants in Blade Runner.
“One woman has a pet doll. It sits quietly beside its mistress, dressed in a pink and purple uniform edged with gold braid. A chain leash is clipped to the studded dog collar around its neck. Its prognathous blue-skinned face is impassive.” (p.4)
This is a fascinating story rich in atmosphere and ideas, but it requires the reader’s full attention to follow the twisting plot lines. The book is split into three parts, with the setting and time changing in each. “Biopunk”, “British cyberpunk”, and “post-cyberpunk” are labels that have been attached to Fairyland. I read it as an inventive, weird and wonderful tale of speculative fiction which conjured up memories of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy.