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Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley


The Jackaroo have given humanity fifteen worlds littered with ruins and artifacts. Miracles that could reverse the damage caused by war, climate change, and rising sea levels. Nightmares that could forever alter humanity – or destroy it.

Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that the visions point towards a new kind of danger.

And on one of the Jackaroo’s gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.

Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe’s orphans, and Vic’s murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo’s benevolence…
Paul McAuley has long been a stalwart of the British science fiction scene, having published his first novel over a quarter of a century ago; Something Coming Through continues this habit. McAuley is also an alumnus (albeit as staff), like Alistair Reynolds, of my alma mater, the University of St Andrews, so reviewing a copy of his forthcoming book was truly an irresistible proposition.

However, this goodwill was quickly sacrificed in Chapter 7 of the ARC. The Jackaroo only manifest in the world via avatars which are created by some process out of nothing, and which appear to have no physical constraints on their appearance – they are golden-skinned and translucent in appearance, but their outfits vary widely. Something Coming Through is set at some point in the future – McAuley never specifies when but a significant time must have passed between the present and the events of the novel. However, all the Jackaroo are male; McAuley makes a point of having the Jackaroo explain why: “We prefer not to challenge certain societal norms”. After this one line, the issue of whether it is a societal norm that aliens are male, or that men are more respected, or any other such implication of the “certain societal norms” that lead to the Jackaroo manifesting as male are never brought up or discussed; the world we’re immersed in does not appear to be actively patriarchal (women hold a number of senior positions in corporate and civil service roles, although the few politicians we see are all male), yet somehow the societal norm is masculine. Indeed, this is also a rather cissexist world; not a single character has a gender identity outside binary cis identities, reinforcing that patriarchal norm the aliens assert again, but once more without comment.

This is a world in which homosexuality is normalised, and gay marriages are common – a number of the background characters are in homosexual wedlock – but Something Coming Through cannot resist asserting the heterosexuality of its heroes; McAuley has Vic, one of his protagonists, sleep with a woman almost purely in order to reassert it, while the other, Chloe, crushes on various men throughout the narrative, relegating every queer character to background status, a mixed blessing at best.

If there’s one positive political point to be taken from Something Coming Through, it’s McAuley’s distaste for Ukip and the faux-populism of its leader, Farage. Robin Mountjoy is described as “a multimillionare… 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” and the Human Decency League, an obvious Ukip-analogue, are presented as policyless, with an empty xenophobia that is truly enviable in its single-minded folly. McAuley has no time for this kind of politics, and doesn’t pull his punches or hide his disdain in those passages when the character or his movement appear.

Of course, Something Coming Through isn’t intentionally about this, much as it may have impacted the experience of this reviewer when reading the novel; it’s about two stories that spiral together, one a simple criminal mystery on another planet, rather pedestrian in its approach (even the emotional shocks of it are muted, because McAuley doesn’t really make Vic or the reader feel them). The other is a little less muted, but that’s mainly because McAuley plays up the extent to which his heroine is something of a damsel in distress, bounced around without much agency in who pulls her strings, and worse still, come the climax of the novel, she is rendered truly useless; it’s a rather frustrating moment where she seems paralysed by indecision and makes some very poor choices.

In the end, the politics of the novel are something of a distraction from what is otherwise a breezy, but somewhat mediocre, piece of work; Something Coming Through doesn’t manage to have a strong plot or characters, and is not worth the time taken to read it.

DoI: Review based on an uncorrected bound manuscript proof provided by the publisher on request. Something Coming Through will come out from Gollancz on February 19th.

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