One of the books I’ve been reading this Christmas is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through (London: Gollancz 2015). McAuley’s a former scientist as well as an SF writer. Apart from novels, he also reviewed books and contributed short stories to the veteran British SF magazine, Interzone. He was one of the writers who created the gene punk genre, sometimes also called ‘ribofunk’. This was the genetic engineering counterpart to Cyberpunk, where, instead of using computers, individuals, criminals and corporations used genetic engineering to redesign new forms of life, or spread invasive memes throughout the population to control the way people thought. Back in the 1990s he was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 3 series, Grave New Worlds, in which computer scientists, writers and artists talked about the transhuman condition. This was back when everyone was talking about cyborgisation, and the potential of contemporary technology to produce new varieties of humanity. Apart from McAuley, the guests also included J.G. Ballard and the performance artist Stelarc, who has personally explored the implications of cybernetics for the human body in a series of performances. In one of these he had a mechanical third arm, operated through electrical signals picked up through the stomach muscles. He also gave a modern music performance, in which he was wired up to the internet via galvanic stimulators. A search engine then went about finding images of body parts on the Net. When it found one, that part of the body was electronically stimulated so that it moved. There were also booths in three cities around the world, where participants could also press buttons to move Stelarc via electric impulses. Apart from Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Warwick university, is the person who’s come the closest to being Star Trek’s Borg.
McAuley’s Something Coming Through and its sequel, Into Everywhere, follow the fictional universe he created in a series of magazine short stories about the alien Jackaroo and their impact on humanity. Following a short period of warfare, including the destruction of part of London with a nuclear bomb by terrorists, the Jackaroo turned up and declared that they wish to help. These aliens bring with them 15 artificial wormholes, which act as gateways to 15 worlds, which the Jackaroo give to humanity. Humanity isn’t the only race that the aliens have helped, and the worlds they give to humanity are covered with the ruins and artefacts of previous alien civilisations, now vanished. The Jackaroo themselves are never seen. They interact with humanity through avatars, artificial beings that look like human men. These have golden skin and features modelled on a number of contemporary celebrities. They’re also bald, wear shades, and dress in black track suits. Their motives for helping humanity are unclear. They claim they just want to help, and that it is up to humanity themselves how they use the worlds they have given them. But they are widely suspected of having their own agenda, and despite the protestations of non-interference they are suspected of subtly manipulating humanity.
Accompanying the Jackaroo are the !cho, another alien race, who are equally mysterious. They move about the world in opaque tanks supported on three skeletal legs. Nobody has ever managed to open one up, or scan the tanks using X-rays or ultrasound. It is, however, widely believed that the !cho are sentient colonies of shrimp. Their motives, and their relationship with the Jackaroo, are also unknown.
Something Coming Through follows the adventures of Chloe Millar, a researcher for a company, Disruption Theory, in London, and Vic Gayle, a cop on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo gift worlds. The objects and ruins left from the Jackaroo’s previous client civilisations can be highly dangerous. Some of them are still active, despite the many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of years of abandonment and decay. These can infect humans with memes, algorithms that alter psychology and behaviour. The strongest, most intact of these become eidolons, artificial entities that can take possession of their human hosts. Disruption Theory is a company specialising in researching the effects of these memes as they break out to infect people in Britain. This often takes the form of small sects, whose leaders speak in tongues, uttering nonsense as they try to put in human terms the alien concepts running their consciousness. Millar, the heroine, is investigating a couple of orphaned Pakistani children, who have apparently been infected by an eidolon from one of the gift worlds. Out on Mangala, Vic Gayle is also investigating the murder of a man, who has recently arrived aboard one of the Jackaroo’s shuttles.
Unlike much SF, the book doesn’t indicate how far in the future the story’s set. This is, however, very much a world not too far from the early 21st century of the present. The political structures are much the same, with the exception that the gift worlds are under the control of the UN. People still work in recognisable jobs, and shop and purchase the same brands of clothing. Complicating relations with the Jackaroo is a British politician, Robin Mountjoy and the Human Decency League. The League objects to contact with the Jackaroo as a danger to the dignity of the human race. Their leader, Robin Mountjoy, is described as being ‘in his mid-fifties, a burly man with thinning blond hair and a florid complexion, dressed in an off-the-peg suit. Although he was a multimillionaire, having made his fortune constructing and servicing displaced-persons camps, his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster village’. (p. 51). The League isn’t strong enough to form a government of its own, and so has gone into a coalition with the Conservatives. While Mountjoy is clearly fictional, he does seem to be inspired by Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Britain attempting to gain independence from smooth talking mysterious aliens rather than the EU.
One of the other characters is Adam Nevers, a cop with the Technology Control Unit. This is the branch of the British police tasked with protecting the country from dangerous alien technology. Nevers is described as coming from the entitled upper ranks of society, who go straight from university into high ranking jobs. Which looks to me very much like a comment on the privileged upbringing and expectations of absolute deference and entitlement from certain members of the British upper classes.
Apart from the social and psychological disruption caused by alien contact, this is also a world wear the NHS has finally been privatised. McAuley shows the practical impact this has people’s lives. Without the safety net of state healthcare, people are dependent on their employers to help pay their medical bills, or borrowing money from friends. In his acknowledgements, as well as the many other people who helped him with the book, McAuley also thanks ‘the NHS for life support’. (p. 375). Which suggests that he’s also suffered a period of illness, and is very much aware how much he and everyone else in the country needs the NHS.
I liked the book for its convincing portrayal of the world after sort-of personal contact with an alien civilisation, and the frontier societies that have emerged as Mangala and the other gift worlds have been settled and colonised. I was also fascinated by McAuley’s description of the alien life-forms, and the archaeological exploration of the remains of the planets’ previous civilisations for the technological advances these artifacts offer. I was also drawn to it as it offered a different take on the old SF trope of alien contact. The appearance of the Jackaroo is described as an ‘invasion’, but it’s not really that. The aliens have a ‘hands off’ approach. They haven’t conquered the Earth militarily, and political power is still exercised through traditional human institutions and parties, like the UN and the Tories. Nor are they more or less at our technological level, like many of the alien races in Star Trek, for example. We don’t form an interplanetary federation with them, as they are clearly extremely far in advance of humanity, which is very much the junior partner in this relationship.
It’s not really a political book, and really doesn’t make any overt party political statements. With the exception that rightwing xenophobes would probably form a party like UKIP to join the Conservatives against pernicious alien influence, just like the Kippers under Farage came very much from the right wing, Eurosceptic section of the Tories. But its comments on the class nature of British society does bring a wry smile, and its advocacy of the NHS is very welcome. It doesn’t preach, but simply shows the fear the characters have of sickness or injury in its absence.
And with all too real terrestrial morons like Daniel Hannan, Jeremy Hunt, Dave Cameron, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and the rest of the right-wing politicos, who have done and still are doing their best to undermine the health service, such comments are badly needed throughout the British media.