Paul Kincaid on a novel by Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley’s highly-praised Beyond the Burn Line (Gollancz, 2023), now in paperback, is a conflation of three stories. The first two are linked by the third, but I’ll come to that one later.
The first half of the novel is made up of the story of Pilgrim Saltmire. He is a clerk who worked for a scholar who has just died. The scholar, highly respected, had in his later years begun to pursue a line of research that is generally considered idiosyncratic at best, downright stupid at worst. He was looking into stories of so-called ‘visitors’, strange beings who had been encountered in the wilds, though most reputable opinion dismisses these as no more than fables or folk tales. Pilgrim is determined to finish his master’s work, but he gets no support from the scholar’s heirs or from the academic community, and with no resources of his own he has no option other than to return to his own tribe.
There are oddities here. We don’t know what sort of being Pilgrim or any of his fellows might be, but they are certainly not human. Humans, known colloquially as ‘ogres’, were wiped out millennia before by some ecological catastrophe. Their successor-race were bears, but they too succumbed, this time to a plague that destroyed their intelligence. Now the beings who were enslaved by the bears have inherited the Earth. We are told all this, but obliquely, more often implied than stated, widely-spaced drips of information that are just enough to provide the context for Pilgrim’s quest.
What is on the surface here is familiar, almost cliched. Pilgrim, as his name implies, must undertake a long and arduous journey. His hopes are constantly aroused and then dashed. He faces hardship, attack, exile, theft, but along the way he acquires a loyal companion, Gentle (the names are painfully pointed, as if we are constantly being directed towards allegories such as Pilgrim’s Progress), and comes to the notice of an all-female research institute that operates outside societal norms. Most importantly, of course, he finds the necessary clue, a copy of an ancient map that suggests the ‘visitors’, whatever they might be, were known to the bears. Of course, the map is stolen from him, and he is faced with no alternative but to venture into the lion’s den, a gathering of those who have been the most assiduous enemies of his research. But as he escapes from those enemies, the lights in the sky come down to earth and he finally meets the visitors.
To be honest, I found this first story less than gripping, mostly because the real interest is in what is going on under the surface. But that story never comes to the surface, and what we get is a rather slow and often overly fussy setting up of the situation that will kick-start the second part of the novel.
Fortunately, the second half of the novel, in which we follow the story of Ysbel Moonsdaughter is livelier, the various adventures that befall her feel as though they arise more organically from the situation than in the first half. She is human, because of course the visitors that Pilgrim encountered at the climax of his story, were indeed humans. A small number had escaped the collapse of human civilisation because they were on an interstellar mission to another planet. They have now returned and are ready to start integrating with the successor species that now inhabit the Earth.
But when Ysbel embarks upon her own quest to find Pilgrim’s map it calls into question everything we have been told about the return of humanity to Earth. Because more rides on the revelations provided by the map, and because the various antagonists that Ysbel encounters along the way are each driven by motivations connected to the MacGuffin and its implications rather than the simple malevolence of Pilgrim’s enemies, the action in this second story feels more taut and more engaging than in the earlier story.
But what holds these two distinct stories together, what makes the novel as a whole work, is the third story, the one below the surface. Geologists and palaeontologists can see lines through the substrate of our world in which various extinction events have occurred. For an archaeologist, seeing the signs of a fire that has destroyed whatever structure was in place, that mark in the archaeological record is called the burn line. That the name has been appropriated for the end point of the Anthropocene suggests that our species was wiped out in fire. And the story that this novel is really about, the substrate of this fictional future hinted at rather than told, is what happened beyond the burn line.
Self-evidently, since they appear at the half-way point of the novel, humans have not been rendered extinct. Nor, given that the world we see has abundant life in the oceans and a sufficiency of crops and game animals to feed a reasonably substantial population, would it seem that the ecological collapse was quite as catastrophic as we might fear. McAuley’s concern, therefore, is less with the nature and character of the fall of humankind than with the question of who might replace mankind. And this, it would appear, is not something for nature to decide. Rather, the last humans in their last redoubt before blasting their seeds off into space, attempt to uplift other species: bears in the Americas, other creatures in other parts of the world. Such attempts have all failed, but what remains hidden within the fault lines of the novel is how much they were doomed to failure. There is a suggestion that the downfall of the bears was engineered. And in such circumstances, there is the unanswered question of how their slave species, the raccoons as we learn, managed to rise not just to intelligence but to a fairly sophisticated civilisation. Above all, there is the question of the ‘visitors’. The arrival that forms the climax to Pilgrim’s tale suggests that these are the returning humans, but what Ysbel discovers is enough to imply that this is neither a complete nor an accurate answer.
This third story doesn’t so much shape the adventures that Pilgrim and Ysbel go through, as it shapes the world in which those adventures are possible. It is the geological underpinning of the novel, and it is more intriguing and more complex than either of the stories that take place on the surface. It is also, necessarily, unresolved, which is why it so powerfully commands our attention. ∎
Paul Kincaid is a Clareson Award–winning critic and frequent Interzone contributor. He has published What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, and two books in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series: Iain M. Banks (winner of the 2017 BSFA Non-Fiction Award) and Brian W. Aldiss.
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