Review: Fairyland, by Paul McAuley

fairyland

Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-7528-8908-5

(Review first published on the ASIM website, February 2008)

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Fairyland, McAuley’s sixth SF novel, was first published in 1995. It’s been reissued as one of Gollancz’s eight ‘Future Classics’. I’ve read several of McAuley’s books, including most of those that preceded Fairyland, but for one reason or another this one passed me by on its original release.

Alex Sharkey is a biochemical hacker, a designer of tailored psychoactive viruses in 21st—century London. His stock—in—trade is legal, for the moment, but that’s about to change. A gangland contact coerces Alex into developing a treatment which will allow dolls, a cloned race of neutered and rigidly—controlled slave labour, to become capable of sexual reproduction. But Alex falls under pressure from other quarters as well, particularly from Milena, a mysterious pre—teen girl prodigy who hopes to break the dolls’ biochemical controls for her own purposes. The result of Alex’s labours, as he seeks to play the various parties off each other, is the creation at Milena’s instigation of a new species, the fairy. Fairies are highly intelligent, independent, and designed for a far greater versatility than is humanity; they’re also severely disenfranchised. How will humanity cope with a competing intelligent race, hungry to carve out its own niche?

Fairyland is divided cleanly into three approximately equal sections. The first is set in near—future London, as outlined above, and follows Alex’s frantic race to remain alive (there are various parties wishing him dead) as he completes his various biochemical assignments. The middle section is located principally on the outskirts of Paris, a dozen years later, where the fairies have set up an impenetrable encampment within the ruined grounds of ‘The Magic Kingdom’. Small children from the refugee camps neighbouring the Kingdom are being abducted, several later found mutilated. The fairies apparently require human body parts for some purpose . and Morag Gray, a public—spirited paramedic, is determined to rescue a little boy whose abduction she witnessed. The book’s closing section is set in wartorn Albania, some years later, where a pro—fairy faction of humans, the Children’s Crusade, is on a march towards a fabled Fairyland; but there are factions wishing the march stopped, by any means necessary. Todd Hart, an American journalist, wants to find the elusive, charismatic individual behind the march.

This is an uncompromising book, riddled with detail and invention. I found it, however, rather uneven, due primarily to the substantial disjunctions between sections. It’s as though McAuley has attempted to compress a work of considerable ambition — chronicling as it does the advent of a new, nonhuman terrestrial society — into too small a frame, and has done so by excising large segments of connecting tissue. Each of the sections remaining is individually taut, internally consistent, and propulsive in its own way — the opening third of the book, set in London, would have to rate as one of the best, most gripping, expositions of a near—future setting within anything I’ve read — but the connections between sections are subtle and heavily concealed. Alex Sharkey’s story stretches throughout, as he seeks to solve the mystery of the vanished girl prodigy Milena, but Alex’s exploits are often far from centre stage, drowning beneath a wealth of descriptive detail — McAuley’s usage of adverbs runs towards the high end of what would be considered acceptable in modern prose — and almost innumerable interwoven strands. It probably doesn’t help that appears to gradually become a less sympathetic character as the novel progresses.

It may well be a rewarding read, if you can navigate the tangled plot. McAuley fires off ideas at a frenetic rate, his future society is very vividly visualised, and a lot of his future tech seems worryingly plausible. (And it would be curmudgeonly to blame McAuley for having coined a perfectly decent neologism which became hijacked almost before the ink was dry on Fairyland‘s first printing. I refer here to the ‘fembot’, a term McAuley has devised to describe a kind of airborne dust, in essence a miniaturised drug delivery vehicle, employed to devastating effect as a tool for crowd conditioning, highly aggressive advertising, brainwashing, or whatever you fancy. Unfortunately, anyone who’s seen the first Austin Powers movie is likely to have a rather different mental image of the word ‘fembot’ …) One aspect that hasn’t yet been tainted by other instances in popular culture is McAuley’s treatment of the meme, the society—affecting concept or idea. With the advent of fairies, and assisted by techniques such as Alex’s development of psychoactive viruses, it becomes possible to literally infect people with ideas, a notion which McAuley pays considerable attention to, and for which he offers several convincing and unsettling examples.

I have to say that Fairyland didn’t fully leave me enchanted. There’s a lot to it which is worthwhile, and McAuley has to be one of the best British proponents of cyberpunk when he sets his mind to it, but I felt dissatisfied by the sum of the book’s three parts, particularly after the promise of the novel’s excellent first section. It may well be, instead, that the book is more reasonably approached by the reader as a set of three only loosely connected novellas.

 

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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