A is for Anthropocene

Paul McAuley in conversation with Simon Morden

Portrait by Lawrie Photography

Paul James McAuley was born in Gloucestershire on St George’s Day, 1955. He has a Ph.D in Botany and worked as a researcher in biology at various universities, including Oxford and UCLA, and for six years was a lecturer in botany at St Andrews University, before leaving academia to write full time. He started publishing science fiction with the short story ‘Wagon, Passing’ for Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1984. His first novel, 400 Billion Stars won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1988, and 1995’s Fairyland won the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Awards. He has also won the British Fantasy, Sidewise and Theodore Sturgeon Awards. He lives in London.

Author and rocket scientist Simon Morden spoke to McAuley about writing non-human societies, the longevity of libraries, what the cool science kids are talking about these days, and much more.

Simon Morden: It’s not going to be easy to discuss Beyond the Burn Line without engaging in some massive spoilers – and I absolutely don’t want to do that, because part of the joy of the book is the unravelling of the layers of mysteries. Rather than that, tell us what the titular Burn Line is, and how it sets up the scenario in the book.

Paul McAuley: It’s a reference to the Anthropocene, the name coined by geologists for the current epoch, dominated by human activity which will leave a unique and permanent layer in Earth’s geological record. There’s a considerable amount of hubris in the idea that we can stamp that kind of footprint on the planet, but it’s clear that we have made alterations to the world’s climate, ecosystems and biodiversity which investigators in the far future should be able to identify. So the Burn Line is the mark of the Anthropocene. It’s what we have done and are continuing to do. The geological trace we will leave behind. The novel is set hundreds of thousands of years after the Burn Line was laid down, but the influence of the Anthropocene – of the human species – is still ongoing.

Simon Morden: I remember reading Austral (Gollancz, 2017) shortly after it came out, on (what was then) one of the hottest days of the year. Have you moved from thinking that we might just survive the oncoming climate crisis towards thinking that we won’t?

Beyond the Burn Line is an exploration about what the post-Anthropocene might be like if we manage to eradicate ourselves and other species gain our level of intelligence.

Paul McAuley: There are good reasons to feel ever more pessimistic. Climate change has accelerated faster than expected, our efforts to make the changes necessary to slow global heating and keep it to a survivable level have been complicated by pandemic and war, the window of opportunity for reducing carbon emissions is growing ever smaller, and meanwhile the petrochemical industry is trying to extract every last drop of burnable hydrocarbons. I still hope that we can make good use of that window, though, and also hope that the past couple of years will be an effective wake-up call. A realisation that the changes climate scientists have been talking about for several decades are actually here, are happening right now. That everywhere on the planet is affected, from massive fires and floods and crop failures to disruptions of the mechanisms which sustain of our intricately interconnected civilisation. That business as usual is no longer possible.

These recent snowballing catastrophes weren’t the trigger for writing Beyond the Burn Line, though. I’d had the initial idea before the pandemic, turned in the final draft last year, and worked on the final edits at the beginning of this year’s record-breaking heatwave. Like Austral, it’s a thought experiment. Austral is a hopeful take on the trajectory and effects of climate change, and while the background or deep history of Beyond the Burn Line is based on a much more pessimistic outcome, it isn’t intended as an Awful Warning. Instead, it’s an exploration about what the post-Anthropocene might be like if we manage to eradicate ourselves and other species gain our level of intelligence. Will they be able to escape the imprint we have left behind? Will they repeat our mistakes, or find a better path? What will they think of us?

Simon Morden: I had the distinct impression that the narrative of the story has a very low opinion of human behaviour, not necessarily individually, but more so collectively. Is this authentic authorial voice, or simply the considered view of a species that’s two hundred millennia removed from us, trying to make sense of our civilisation?

Paul McAuley: Partly, it’s a projection of the new dominant species, informed by discoveries of the remains of human civilisation and speculation about its downfall, and how it all fits into the religious framework that underpins that species’ culture. We’re the ogres who wrecked our home, and were punished by the planetary deity. And it’s also a variation of that old aphorism about the nature of the road to hell – that we’re sometimes at our worst when we’re trying to do our best, and that starting out from the wrong place, acting in simple good faith without any kind of clear plan, can lead to unintended consequences.

Simon Morden: I love the fact that when I google your name, it comes up with the suggestion, ‘Paul McAuley, British botanist’. I can feel the aesthetic of scientific rigour behind your words, but how rigorous are you in your plotting? Do you take liberties with the science, and how far would you stretch it?

there are surprisingly few novels of any kind about science and the culture of science, considering that science and technology are such major drivers of our present civilisation

Paul McAuley: I don’t go in for detailed outlines, or much in the way of deliberately planned worldbuilding. I start with a situation and a notion about where the story is headed and where it might end, find out who the main character is, and what they want and what they need to do to get it, and develop it from there. I’m not really interested in anything much beyond the main character’s personal history and what they encounter. And given the nature of the actual world, I’m not interested in the kind of worldbuilding that’s supposedly constructed by logical extension of its initial premises.

Instead, it’s a process of discovery. And although it’s messy and wasteful – an awful lot gets chopped out, there are dead ends, and so on – it’s the only way I know of getting it done. Inconsistencies and narrative holes in the first draft are patched up during rewrites. If there’s any rigour, it’s in the last couple of drafts, when extraneous material is excised and sentences are ruthlessly interrogated and planed down.

As for science, I write novels, not textbooks. Science fiction novels. Which aren’t necessarily about science or scientists (most often they aren’t: there are surprisingly few novels of any kind about science and the culture of science, considering that science and technology are such major drivers of our present civilisation), but which do, like science, question our fundamental assumptions. About the world, the universe. About the whole range of human experience. There are fundamental principles that perhaps you shouldn’t unknowingly violate, like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the speed of light. And if you’re going to have a desert planet full of monstrous ravening carnivores and no other life you might want to explain or at least hint that it’s unusual, to say the least. But apart from that, one of the strengths of science fiction is its ability to take an idea and push it in unexpected directions. To see the world slant. To convey a feeling of contingency. That the world isn’t as stable as it appears, and there are different ways of seeing it. That there are worlds under and above our world.

one of the strengths of science fiction is its ability to take an idea and push it in unexpected directions. To see the world slant.

Science fiction has developed an entire toolkit to do these things. Sometimes that toolkit is used to develop ideas that aren’t from our happening world; instead, they’re from other science fiction novels. They’re the sound of one hand clapping in an empty room. Meanwhile, there’s all this amazing terrifying stuff that the human species is discovering and doing, and which can be questioned and used, its possibilities opened up and explored, turned into metaphors, conjoined with human experience, and so on. Everything’s up for grabs. That’s what the good stuff does, and there’s still plenty of that being made.

Simon Morden: Part of the scaffolding of the story is where intelligence and/or sentience resides, and how it might be transmitted. On the assumption that we haven’t yet identified the genes for those, do you think that we will one day? And do you think it’s inevitable that we’ll go on to try and splice those genes into other species?

Paul McAuley: We’ve identified some of the genes which control brain development and function, but there’s an enormous amount that we don’t yet know. We have no proper theory of consciousness, can only link brain activity with thoughts and actions in crude or basic ways, have only a limited understanding of how memories are formed, retained and replayed. But we are beginning to understand that intelligence, sentience and emotional qualia in animals are more widespread and varied than earlier anthropogenic biases led us to believe. Species other than human aren’t unthinking machines. Mere bundles of reflexes and habits. They have complex inner lives.

The trick is to drop just enough details, in the right places, to keep the reader off-balance, to confound expectations.

Can we enhance those inner lives, give animals the ability to explain themselves to us? I don’t know. But it’s fun to think about. And if we can do it, someone probably will, despite the knotty ethical questions it poses. The responsibilities we’d have to assume, and answer for. I wrote about some of that stuff in Fairyland, and Beyond the Burn Line is in part a continuance of that line of inquiry.

Simon Morden: The ‘people’ – I’m choosing my descriptors deliberately here – are social, relatable, often kind, sometimes venal, occasionally criminal. There are obvious similarities between us and them, but sufficient, and sometimes startling, differences too. Can you say something about the complexities of setting up an entire non-human society?

Paul McAuley: Readers of the novel will realise I cheated, somewhat. For instance, some of the technology in the people’s version of the Industrial Revolution is borrowed from the fossil remains of our technology. And there are other, deeper connections. But there are differences, too, and I tried to steer a careful course between twee anthropomorphism and overwhelming weirdness. The trick is to drop just enough details, in the right places, to keep the reader off-balance, to confound expectations.

Simon Morden: Was it a deliberate choice to have your narrator, Pilgrim Saltmire, as an outlier within his own society?

Paul McAuley: Absolutely. But while he’s something of an outlier, he isn’t an outsider. He sees things from a different angle, but has a great deal of commonality with other people, and is inextricably embedded in his time and place. He isn’t that science-fictional cliché, the lone, misunderstood genius who discovers the key to some world-changing secret. He knows, in fact, that he isn’t a genius, because he has worked for someone who was. And much of what he discovers comes from collaboration with other people – his friends, his sister, members of the Invisible College. That was also deliberate: a process that parallels the process of our own scientific discoveries. In general, science is a collaborative affair and works best as an open network where ideas are shared and tested by a like-minded community. Kind of like literature.

Simon Morden: You worked in academia longer than I did, and you say you sometimes miss the lab. But you also keep your hand in, participating in workshops and the like. What are the cool kids talking about these days?

Paul McAuley: Opportunities to participate in workshops and the like have grown fewer, but I’d say that AI and the nature of intelligence are hot topics, as is using DNA as information storage, and printing organelles to study how they develop and function. Including brainoids, little self-contained blobs of neuronal tissue which display patterns of regular electrochemical activity, and raise ethical problems about whether or not they are self-aware. There are even Neanderthal brainoids, making use of Neanderthal genes discovered in ancient teeth and bones, and in modern human populations. That’s another really interesting topic – using gene sequencing to trace movements of early humans and their ancestral species. And then there’s the discovery of entirely new species of extinct hominins. Homo floresiensis, from remains in caves in an Indonesian island, a dwarfed species which coexisted with early modern humans. Or Denisovans, who like Neanderthals interbred with our ancestors and left a legacy of their genes in the human genome. (The day after I wrote this, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Svante Pääbo ‘for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.’ It’s hot stuff.)

Simon Morden: Beyond the Burn Line is your 24th novel. You’ve also written novellas and a whole slew of short stories. You’ve picked up some major awards, including the Clarke and the Dick. What are your thoughts on how the whole business of fiction publishing has changed along the way?

Paul McAuley: One obvious practical difference: my first novel and my first short stories were written on a typewriter. But like my second novel and all subsequent work, I’m writing this on a computer, using a word processing programme. Hardly any writers use pen and ink, or a typewriter, any more. We don’t have to faff around with layering carbon paper between sheets of A4 bond and bank, erasing typos with Tippex, or (as I did) retyping a page if there were too many mistakes. And you don’t have to retype the entire manuscript over and again during the redrafting process, either. Instead, you spend your time faffing around with formatting, and endlessly rewriting sentences and fiddling with paragraphs. And when you’re done, you send it off through the internet, rather than consigning a physical manuscript (the only good copy, if you didn’t have access to a photocopier) to the post office.

In general, it’s become harder to make a living as a writer. The midlist, where I’ve lurked for most of my career, is vanishing from mainstream publishing. Average advances for novels, the payments publishers make on the promise of an outline and a few chapters, the money writers live on while they write the actual book, those have shrunk. Many writers can’t afford to go full time, and those who do often must supplement their income by scuffling for crowd funding, by teaching, or reviewing and various kinds of journalism (although earnings from that have also shrunk), or writing film novelisations, or doing work for established franchises – Star Wars, Star Trek, the Marvel universe and so on. The kind of work-for-hire that genre writers quite often did back in the days before I was first published.

More than a century ago George Gissing published a depressingly acute novel, New Grub Street, about the scrappy lives of freelance authors (set partly not far from where I live, by the way). He would instantly recognise the present scene. But at least work for a Big Genre Franchise can now get you a tick mark for having published something that makes the New York Times bestseller list. And quite a few rising and established authors are fans of those franchises (I wrote a Doctor Who novella, but not for the money), so they get to work on stuff they love. It isn’t all bad.

despite various sackings and burnings, libraries are long-lived, resilient institutions that span cultures.

And of course, the SFF genre is more diverse, and much less anglophone, than once it was, and there’s a great deal of science fiction published as straight literary novels too, written by people who’ve obviously read a lot of science fiction, and find it a useful or even necessary way of telling the kinds of stories they need to write in these weird times.

Simon Morden: Do you think we’ll always have libraries?

Paul McAuley: Nothing’s forever, but I hope they’ll last at least as long as their past history. Which goes all the way back to the baked-clay tablets preserved in the Ugarit archives, which contain material from a palace, a temple and two private libraries, or the 5000 year-old remains of the Royal Library of the Kingdom of Ebla. Or maybe even further back than that, to Stone Age cave paintings and petroglyphs – the oldest are from the Upper Palaeolithic, 40,000 years ago. About a fifth of the age of the species Homo sapiens. So despite various sackings and burnings, libraries are long-lived, resilient institutions that span cultures. Maybe, like language, preservation of knowledge and the personal experience of human minds is something innate in our nature. Part of our extended phenotype, like nest-building in birds, or mound-building in termites. Another reason to respect librarians: they belong to one of the oldest professions. ∎

Dr S. J. Morden has won the Philip K. Dick Award and been a judge on the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He is a bona fide rocket scientist with degrees in Geology and Planetary Geophysics. His novels are the perfect fusion of his incredible breadth of knowledge and ability to write award-winning, razor-sharp science fiction.

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