Ever since first contact, when the Jackaroo kicked off a global war on Earth, and swindled the survivors out of rights to most of the solar system in exchange for a basic fusion drive and access to a wormhole network linking a couple of dozen lousy M-class red dwarf stars, aliens had been tricking, bamboozling, and manipulating the human race. In the long run, humans would either kill themselves off or stumble upon the trick of ascendancy and go on to wherever it is the Elder Cultures have gone, but meanwhile they were at the mercy of species more powerful than them, pawn in games whose rules they didn’t know, and aims they didn’t understand.
Paul McAuley “Winning Peace” (2007)
Paul McAuley has been writing science fiction since the 1980s, originally as “Paul J. McAuley”. Although his stories feature science-fictional backgrounds that have been intricately worked out, the human story is always front and centre. He works in a variety of sub-genres—writing alternate histories (like Pasquale’s Angel, set in an alternative version of Renaissance Italy), near-future techno-thrillers (like Whole Wide World and The Secret Of Life), cyberpunk (like Fairyland) and stories of far-future humanity (like the Confluence and Four Hundred Billion Stars trilogies). The Quiet War sequence of novels and short stories recently explored the human future of the solar system and nearby stars.
In the Jackaroo universe, the near-future Earth undergoes an escalating series of environmental disasters, economic crises and terrorist attacks that ends in a limited nuclear exchange. In the aftermath of these events, collectively called the Spasm, alien spaceships arrive, piloted by the alien Jackaroo, who announce that they’ve come to help. In exchange for rights to exploit the planets of the outer Solar System, the Jackaroo gift the survivors of the Spasm with the design for a spacecraft fusion drive. and fifteen wormhole connections that give access to the planetary systems around fifteen widely scattered red dwarf stars. Other aliens soon turn up, prominently the !Cha*, an aquatic race who move around in water-filled travel pods that resemble small versions of H.G. Wells‘s Martian fighting machines. The !Cha collect interesting stories, for reasons I won’t reveal here, and their importance increases as the novels progress.
The fifteen new planetary systems prove to be something of a disappointment, though they are littered with the relics of previous alien cultures—ruins, technological fragments, altered biospheres, junk-yards of spacecraft. The wormhole network itself is an artefact of some long-vanished “Elder Culture”, and has been reused by many successor races. Some of the remains of these Elder Cultures are useful to humanity, some are dangerous, and some are merely incomprehensible. These now-vanished cultures appear to have been previous clients of the Jackaroo. The Jackaroo say that they have departed by achieving “ascendancy”, though they never get around to describing quite what ascendency is.
Indeed, the Jackaroo are blandly evasive about almost everything apart from their supposed desire to help. There’s a rumour that they may even have covertly contributed to the onset of the Spasm. The other alien races have various opaque agendas of their own. And access to remnants of Elder Culture technology is both a boon and a menace to the Earth and its colonies.
And that’s pretty much where the stories start. it’s a rich source for potential story lines—the exploration of new worlds, the secret motives of alien races, and the mixed threat and reward of Elder Culture artefacts all provide potential plots. There’s also the appeal of the unusual—these are, in the main, stories of interstellar colonization set in a near-future society. The new worlds are being opened up by people who drive recognizable makes of car, visit chain restaurants we know about, and who share our cultural references. This mixture of the familiar and the alien is compelling, and to some extent it lets McAuley economize on that great bug-bear of science-fiction writing, the data-dump. His Earth is recognizably our Earth, albeit a little altered by war and global warming; his colony worlds have societies that resemble our own in most respects, with a little Wild West frontier spirit stirred in.
Before the novels appeared, McAuley worked out the background to the Jackaroo universe in a series of short stories that appeared in various publications from 2006 onwards, and that’s what I want to talk about here. These eight short stories are pretty widely scattered (across three anthologies, three magazines and one collection, pictured at the head of this post). They’ll probably be issued as a themed collection fairly soon. But at present I suspect I may be one of the few people in the world (apart from McAuley and his agent) to have read them all, which is what motivates this little dissertation.
Short stories are intrinsically difficult to review—too easy to give away the plot. I will note the plot briefly for each story, but what I find most interesting is watching the process by which McAuley generated the core ideas that underpin his two Jackaroo novels so far. There are interesting inconsistencies between the stories. Some are trivial—the number of planetary systems in the Jackaroo gift shifts from a dozen to two dozen before settling down to fifteen, for instance. Some are sorted out when the novels sketch in a more detailed chronology. And others are more revealing, I think, showing the author tweaking the setting to produce the richest vein of potential story lines.
“Dust” (2006) and “Winning Peace” (2007), unusually for the series so far, are both set some considerable time after the initial colonization of the Jackaroo gift worlds—a period that won’t be returned to until the events of the second novel. In “Dust”, humans have acquired advanced medical technology—cloning, hibernation, the ability to adopt a neuter gender. In “Winning Peace” an interstellar war has recently been fought between human factions. In both stories, humans have advanced beyond the original planetary systems of early colonization—these old worlds are referred to as the First Empire in “Dust”. Both stories involve the search for Elder Culture technology. In “Dust”, the captain of a spacecraft is convinced, against her will, to mount a mission to rescue an archaeological team who have been exploring Elder Culture ruins on an inhospitable planet; the rescue goes wrong, in surprising ways. In “Winning Peace” a prisoner-of-war, sold into slavery after the interstellar war, is forced by his owner to carry out a mission to retrieve a piece of Elder Culture technology from a brown dwarf star. What he finds and how he tries to escape his owner are the drivers for the story.
These two stories also establish a background in which the fifteen gifted planetary systems of the Jackaroo are intrinsically unsatisfactory for humans—only one contains a habitable world, called First Foot. Elsewhere, people live in “asteroid reefs” and on the moons of warm jovian planets.
In “City Of The Dead” (2008), we move back to the time period of early colonization. The action takes place on the planet First Foot, where a small-town law officer rescues an elderly biologist from the local criminal organization, who are trying to force the biologist to reveal the location of a potentially valuable Elder Culture artefact. This one establishes the sort of setting that will be returned to in future stories—the recognizable present-day technology, punctuated by a few exotic oddities, and the sense of a new frontier, with all the opportunities and hazards that brings. (It’s also available as a stand-alone e-book for the Kindle.)
“Adventure” (2008) also takes place on First Foot during the colonization era, but it’s barely science fiction—it’s essentially a story about how middle age sneaks up on you, until one day you suddenly realize that youth has gone.
“Crimes And Glory” (2009) was published in Subterranean Online, and the text is freely available at the other end of my link. It starts as a police procedural on First Foot, in which a policewoman investigates a pair of murders, and it expands to a climax that marks an important transition-point in human access to the Elder Culture wormhole network, the opening of what’s called the New Frontier in the second novel. In this story McAuley also introduces a couple of concepts that will be important in his later writing. By accessing Elder Culture computer code, humans have been able to get some ancient, derelict spacecraft working again; but they have also found that the code is able to infect the human nervous system, with potentially unpleasant results. As an introduction to the Jackaroo universe, you couldn’t do much better than reading “Crimes And Glory”, so it’s useful to find it freely available on-line. Human knowledge of the “abandoned spacecraft sargassos” and how to utilize them puts this story a little later than the early colonization phase, when humans were reliant on Jackaroo transport shuttles.
“The Choice” (2011) is set on post-Spasm, early-colonization Earth. Elder Culture and alien technology is being used for environmental clean-up. Two teenage boys are accidentally exposed to a piece of this alien technology. Typically of McAuley, the story is as much about the family life of the two boys as it is about the science fiction element †.
“Bruce Springsteen” (2012) takes us back to First Foot, and a barman who starts a relationship with a girl he meets in his bar, and who ends up involved in a crime spree. The girl is a Springsteen fan, and the story of the doomed protagonists would certainly make a good Springsteen song. This one also puts in place another important idea—that some Elder Culture technology might have needs and desires of its own.
“The Man” (2012) introduces us to a new world, Yanos. It is tidally locked to its parent star, and humans inhabit only the twilight zone between its hot and cold hemispheres. An elderly woman lives near the ruins of an Elder Culture factory, and scrapes a living by searching for scraps of Elder Culture materials that wash up on a nearby beach. One day, a naked man turns up at her door …
The striking thing about this one is that the fifteen disappointing planetary systems gifted by the Jackaroo in the first seven stories have morphed into fifteen planets, of which Yanos is one. McAuley has apparently felt the need for more worlds on which to set his stories, without wishing to move the action away from the rich possibilities of the colonization era setting.
And that’s the set-up with which the novels start—multiple worlds being colonized simultaneously, just a few years after the Spasm and the Jackaroo intervention. Within the first hundred pages of Something Coming Through, we hear of several new worlds: Mangala, Hydrot, Nya Loka, Syurga and Tian. So there’s a hint of a great deal more to come.
Several of these stories have appeared in more than one collection. If you’re interested in tracking them down, you can find a list of publications for each story at the ever-useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database, here. Just click on the title of the story to bring up its publication summary.
Addendum: Just a week after I made this post, another Jackaroo short story appeared, at Tor.com—”Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” (2016). This is the first “post novels” short story. It’s set on First Foot after the opening of the New Frontier, and references characters and events from both novels and “City Of The Dead”. It’s freely available on-line at the other end of my link. (Thanks to Mike for posting a comment to let me know about it.)
Further addendum: After a six-year silence, a new Jackaroo short story, “Maryon’s Gift”, has been published by Asimov’s Science Fiction, in the March/April 2022 edition. This one is narrated by a !Cha, who (it transpires) is swapping interesting stories around a campfire. The events take place very late in the Jackaroo timeline, when humans have established themselves all across the galaxy—the New Frontier has become the Second Empire. It’s the story of how the titular planet is discovered in the Large Magellanic Cloud by an explorer who has followed a previously unsuspected wormhole link—the first such link to connect outside our home galaxy. The planet subsequently falls into the possession of a sect of “Gaian monks”, who forbid all attempts at landing or colonization. The story eventually transforms into a philosophical meditation on the tension between two conflicting human desires: to maintain “pristine wilderness”, and to explore and utilize new resources.
* You might wonder about those names. The exclamation mark in !Cha suggests one of the phonetic symbols for a click consonant, and McAuley has now confirmed this in Into Everywhere—the name of the !Cha is pronounced with a “click consonant, halfway between a sneeze and the sound of a cork pulled from a bottle”. He hasn’t so far explained the derivation of Jackaroo. Any connection to the apprentice Australian sheep-men called jackaroos is (so far) obscure.
† “The Choice” was also published as a stand-alone, a tiny paperback and e-book in French translation, Le Choix. Because this preceded the publication of the Jackaroo novels, the Goodreads website has adopted the name The Choice for the Jackaroo series as a whole, a name also used by Wikipedia. But McAuley uses the name Jackaroo for this series on his own website, so I’ve followed his lead here.