Austral (2017) by Paul McAuley

“If the planet had been run by a world government able to ruthlessly mobilize people and resources, global warming and climate change might have been reversed.” (Loc 3156)

 

In the very near future, global warming is a fact. Rising sea levels have changed the map of the world. Coastal cities have been lost to the water, but in some places new land has been uncovered. Much of Antarctica’s ice has melted revealing this untouched land, which quickly becomes both habitable and exploitable. The cold temperatures make it a challenging place to live for most people unless they are born a “husky”.

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Austral Morales Ferrado is a child of the new Antarctic nation. She is also a “husky,” an “edited person” whose genes have been “customized” to withstand the severe cold of Antarctica. She is working as a corrections officer in an Antarctic labour camp when we first meet her. But she’s looking for a way out. When an unexpected and dangerous opportunity presents itself, Austral must decide whether to risk everything to take it.

“I dreamed of getting all the way to New Zealand, where edited people had the same rights as everyone else.” (Loc 249)

 

As the lead, Austral is a strong, independent character who I enjoyed getting to know. I would have liked to have learnt more of her backstory though, as we are only given bits and pieces from her past told via flashbacks. Despite Austral’s obvious physical qualities, there is a vulnerability to her that impressed me. The main characters are all female, which was refreshing, especially as the author is male. I’d be interested to hear what female readers think of them.

I enjoyed the Antarctic setting and the descriptions of the landscape. It’s pretty rare to find a SF story set in this location, outside of Lovecraftian horror. It is in these scenes that Paul McAuley’s world-building skills really shine. This is most evident during the long pursuit across the ice, with McAuley depicting some harsh and unforgiving surroundings in which a wrong step or turn can quickly lead to ruin. The unpredictable weather also plays a part in these scenes.

“We walked on. Stomping through drifts of powder snow, shuffling over hardpack firn. Light flurries blowing from the white sky. The white land rising and falling in long low waves, crevasses cutting through the troughs between.” (Loc 1646)

 

In addition to the memorable landscape, some of the isolated ‘locals’ provide a tangible air of menace as they drift in and out of the narrative. You’re never quite sure what or who you’re going to meet next. Nor are you sure of their motives. Some of these characters are people who have left “ordinary” life behind, choosing solitude for their own reasons. McAuley poses questions about surroundings affecting personality, or attracting a certain type of person.

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Image (c) The Telegraph, UK

This is an entertaining story which, in my opinion, gets better the further you read. It’s not without its faults, though. There’s a story within the story that retells “Tristan & Isolde”, and feels like an afterthought by the author. Also, the male characters came across as a bit one-dimensional to me. I would have liked a bit more development of the secondary characters, as well as more backstory for Austral. But I’m nit-picking.

As I’ve already said, I enjoyed this book. Austral is an exciting adventure story with a strong lead character and a memorable setting, backed up by some plausible ecological and genetic science. It addresses climate change and our role in it, genetic engineering, discrimination, survival, and love, among other themes. I would rate McAuley’s Fairyland higher than this, but that was a standout book for me.

To finish, here are a couple of quotes about this book taken from the Gollancz UK homepage:

 

‘Paul McAuley’s balanced grasp of science and literature, always a rare attribute in the writer of prose fiction, is combined with the equally rare ability to look at today’s problems and know which are really problems, and what can be done about them.’William Gibson

 

The excitement of a new country appearing right here on Earth, a real possibility that is quite fascinating in itself, is doubled down here by way of a thrilling kidnap-and-rescue plot that ranges across this beautiful new landscape, showing how we will soon be not only terraforming Earth, but finding new ways to take care of each other.  It’s a vivid example of science fiction at its best’Kim Stanley Robinson

 

Bleakly beautiful, Austral is both a finely-honed character study and a powerful evocation of landscape and change, delivered with icy clarity. This is the kind of fiction we will need as the Anthropocene takes hold’Alastair Reynolds

[Thanks to Orion Publishing and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.]

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