Paul McAuley on writing Anthropocene fiction

Paul McAuley's Austral is a gorgeous, haunting novel—brimming with fractal stories-within-stories—about a fugitive on the run through the backcountry of the new nation established on a greening Antarctica. McAuley's unskimmably precise prose conjure the bleak beauty of the internal and external landscapes the protagonist navigates as she tries to find her way in a world where humanity has become the primary agent of change—the biosphere increasingly subject to the vicissitudes of human nature.

In the following conversation, we discuss the emerging geopolitics of the Anthropocene, why certain stories persist and stay relevant across centuries, and the creative process behind Austral.

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What is Austral's origin story? How did it go from the first glimmer of an idea to the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

In 1997 I was invited to participate in a workshop about stories and myths in the creation of scientific ‘truth’. The participants were a mix of scientists and science fiction writers, and we met in a small research station in Abisko, above the Arctic Circle in Sweden. It was May, the season of the midnight sun, there was still a couple of metres of snow on the ground and the lake behind the research station was still frozen, and the locals were buzzing about on snowmobiles at all hours, jazzed by all the light after the winter dark. There’s a little of that in Austral, but the real inspiration came when, on our day off, some of us decided to take the railway line to Tromso, on the Norwegian coast. Abisko is on a high plateau. The train descended below the snow line into pine forest, ran along spectacular fjords where more than one World War II shipwreck could still be seen, preserved in the clear cold water. That contrast stayed with me, and informed my idea of the Antarctic landscape emerging from the ice.

The natural world of this near-future Antartica is described with impressive, transportive precision. What research did you do to inform the book? What did you learn that surprised you?

I studied a lot of maps of the Antarctic Peninsula, where Austral is set—just about every place mentioned in the novel exists; all I did was work out what they might look like with a little less ice, and add cities and settlements. And I read a lot of first-hand accounts of Antarctic research and exploration, and research papers on existing Antarctic fauna and flora, the forests of Tierra del Fuego, the boreal forests of the Arctic, reclamation of deserts, and so on. Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade was a good introduction to the politics and possibilities of geoengineering; that was a deep rabbit hole full of surprising possibilities and moral dilemmas and potential conflicts.

What did your process of extrapolating this future look like? How did you translate your research and life experience into speculation?

As far as I’m concerned, the central question of any extrapolation goes something like: if x happens, who does it benefit, and who does it hurt? In Austral, I wanted to figure out what benefits might come from the greening of Antarctica due to climate change, as well as the obvious problems and losses. And the central character, Austral, has to deal with the consequences of her parents’ decision to gift their child with a suite of genetic changes that, supposedly, adapt her for life there.

There are many stories nested within the book's larger narrative arc: anecdotes from Austral's family history, Kamilah's book, etc. What role do stories play in culture? What role do you hope Austral might play in our rapidly changing world?

I’m interested in the way some stories persist; why they continue to be relevant. The deep human patterns that they contain. The story in Kamilah’s book is based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, which has its origins in 12th century Ireland (or perhaps even earlier), was incorporated into Arthurian mythos, and variations of it continue to be created. The many, many versions of the folk song ‘Barbara Allen’, borrow the image of the briar and the rose growing together from the two doomed lovers’ graves, for instance. I relocated it to the archipelagos of a far future Antarctica where the ice had completely melted, and as the story unfolds inside the main narrative there are echoes of it in the romance of Austral’s parents, and her flight across the ice with Kamilah.

As for Austral, the novel, I didn’t write it as a message or a lesson. It’s a little hopeful speculative story about the new countries that may emerge in the Anthropocene, if we have any luck at all.

What did writing Austral, the character, teach you about life?

Austral would no doubt say, don’t be like me. It’ll only get you into trouble.

What did writing Austral, the book, teach you about craft?

It should have taught me to plan my books more thoroughly before I started. To begin with, it was told in the third person, about a character also called Austral, who also lived in a greening Antarctica and was also genetically altered, but who was leading a different life as a politician’s bodyguard. About a hundred pages in, I realized that I was telling the wrong story from the wrong point of view, and started over, with Austral as the narrator of her own story. And as far as I’m concerned it was her voice that made the story live.

Anyhow, despite nearly driving Austral onto the rocks by not planning out the route beforehand, I persist in finding the right frame and direction for the novels I write by trying out various wrong ones first. Just the way I am, I guess.

What books have made a major impact on how you see the world? What other books might fans of Austral enjoy?

I mentioned the Arthurian mythos earlier. One novel that showed me how a novel could contain an entire world and make a familiar story fresh by telling it slant was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. The book that first alerted me to the depletion of nature by human activity was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. There are many good books about Antarctica and I haven’t read all of them, but here are a few I have read and liked. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica is a good novel about Antarctica as a fantastical world of science and scientists. John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica is the story of a latter-day Viking who leads a fleet of the damned through apocalyptic adventures as civilization collapses, and at last becomes the King of the white continent. I read Apsley Cherry-Garrad’s classic account of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, The Worst Journey in the World, around the same time as I read Silent Spring; the perils and suffering that Scott and his men endured were far worse than any in Austral’s little adventure. Sarah Wheeler’s Terra Incognita is a very good account of modern life at the bottom of the world, and I also recommend Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice.

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Complement with my new novel, Veil, that imagines a near-future shaped by geoengineering, Oliver Morton on the art of science journalism, and Alix E. Harrow on opening doors to other worlds.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter, hosts Fellow Travelers, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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