Paul McAuley: The “Jackaroo” Short Stories

Paul McAuley "Jackaroo" stories

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.

Now, McAuley has produced two novels with a new setting, usually referred to as the “Jackaroo” series—Something Coming Through (2015) and Into Everywhere (2016).

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, a magazine published by Subterranean Press from 2005 to 2014. The story used to be freely available on-line, but at time of writing Subterranean seems to have taken down the  magazine section of their website, so my link takes you to the Wayback Machine’s copy of the now-deleted page (which loads slowly, but does eventually appear). The story 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—”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.

29 thoughts on “Paul McAuley: The “Jackaroo” Short Stories”

  1. You make Sci Fiction sound fascinating . I’m not a fan, and am turned off by the usually wierd / multicoloured covers on the popular paperbacks. I have read a few books in the genre–time travel novels and my all time fav. “The Day of the Triffids ” which is probably out of print now

    1. It’s appropriate that it was the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon who came up with “Sturgeon’s Revelation” some time in the early fifties: “Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crud. That’s because ninety percent of everything is crud.”
      He later came up with a corollary: “The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.” Here, I’m just reviewing the good stuff, obviously!
      I took a little pop at the cover choices of some publishers when I reviewed Baxter and Reynolds’s The Medusa Chronicles. You can see it again in most of the covers at the top of this review.
      The Day Of The Triffids is still in print, as an actual physical book, in the “Penguin Modern Classics” collection – it happened to pop up on my Amazon recommendations just the other day. A lot of these classics are also appearing as relatively cheap e-books, though the quality of the transfer to the electronic format is wildly variable. I guess it makes sense for publishers to use their back-catalogue this way – the overheads are small, and there’s no outlay for a print run.

    1. Yes, I was fortunate that I’d randomly accumulated quite a number of them before I properly noticed. The ISFDB link I gave is quite handy, because if you click on the story titles it gives a publication history, which was how I tracked down the last couple.
      I’m slightly worried that the fact a couple of stories are available for free on-line may put a publisher off producing a collection. We’ll see.

    1. Crowther’s Forbidden Planets collection, which contains “Dust”, is available second hand for a penny plus postage. You can find a couple of copies at Amazon, for instance.
      The AddALL site lists quite a number of fairly cheap copies, as well as some at mad prices.
      It’s a good collection, with a few quite striking stories, so you wouldn’t be spending the money for just the McAuley content.

    1. “Adventure” has only been collected in Fast Forward 2 (2008); “The Man” is collected in Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013), The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection (2013) and The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 26 (2013). You should be able to find second-hand copies of these from the sources I linked to earlier. Alternatively, you can find the original publication of “The Man” in the digital edition of the magazine Arc 1.2.
      “Bruce Springsteen” is problematic, having only seen the light of day in the January 2012 edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It used to be available as a digital back-issue from Magzter, but that seems not to be the case any more. I can’t see it on Asimov’s own website, either, so it seems you’ll need to track down a second-hand copy. Of all the stories, I’d say “Bruce Springsteen” is one of the more minor contribution to the Jackaroo arc, so maybe you won’t fret too much if you can’t find it.

  2. “We’re Here to Help.” I am almost certain that’s going to be the name of the Jackaroo Universe anthology of existing and new short stories.

      1. Just FYI, I asked Mr McAuley on Twitter whether a collection these stories might be appearing soon and he responded by saying that it was something he was thinking about and, if and when it did appear, it would likely be a free e book…

        1. That’s interesting, thanks. I expressed concern earlier in the comments section that the fact some of the stories are available for free on-line might deter a publisher. I’d have thought that a small fee for the convenience of an e-book compilation would still work – are selling a Kindle version of “Something Happened Here …” for around a US dollar, for instance, despite the fact it’s freely available on their website.

          1. I’m assuming that McAuley and a lot of other SF writers treat their short stories as loss leaders for their novels. ‘Something happened…’ is also included in audio book firm in ‘The Year’s Top Ten Hard Science Fiction Stories’ exited by Alan Kaster, as is ‘The Man’ and ‘The Choice’ in other Kaster edited audio books. I’m assuming given the wide distribution of the stories McAuley and his publisher might think they’re perhaps not worth that much now, although I’d be more than happy to pay.

            Also, just to update the availability of ‘Bruce Springsteen’, I discovered over night that that Jan 2012 issue of Asimov’s is now available via an app called Magzter for $5.99 AUD.

  3. There’s a Kindle and paperback edition of Kaster’s Year’s Top Science Fiction Stories, too, at least in the UK.
    Interesting that the Magzter download is available again, thanks – as noted earlier in this comments thread, it seemed to disappear for a while.

    1. Cowboy Angels?
      From the fact I’ve read it but can’t remember anything about it, I suspect I’m in the same boat as you on that one.

  4. Lucky you!
    I just got my copy of “Forbidden Planets” and (of course) read the Jackaroo first. #1 and a good start to the series! and a nice nod to the classic movie. Promising anthol — I bought it because so many stories showed up in the Dozois “Also Ran” list for that year, which I happen to be re-reading.

    And thanks to Our Host for all the legwork! I guess the Jackaroo collxn never happened? Pity.

  5. No sign of a Jackaroo collection so far, sadly.
    There’s a lot of interesting world-building in McAuley’s recent “War of the Maps” (the outside of a Dyson sphere around a white dwarf, no less)–I’d be happy to see some more stories in that setting, too.

    1. The thread lives again! I followed your list and found and then read all of the Jackaroo stories, and then went on to the two novels. There are a few obvious inconsistencies in the details of the Jackaroo stories and when I asked McAuley on Twitter re a collection he’d said maybe, but I’m now guessing that if they were issued in one collection he’d need to spend time making the story world consistent.

      I also found that the central idea in the story ‘Bruce Springsteen’ was reused in ‘Something Coming Through’ which was hugely disappointing, as I’d read the story first and then went through the novel only to find the final ‘revelation’ was something I already knew. It also seems that McAuley trials his ideas in his short stories and then expands them in his novels. A non-Jackaroo story ‘The Elves of Antarctica’ – which I loved – seemed to be the basis of the novel ‘Austral’ which I was keen to read but after the disappointment of ‘SCT’ I haven’t bothered.

      Lest this all sound like a whinge, let me say there are some outstanding stories in the Jackaroo universe and would highly recommend ‘Something Just Happened’, ‘Bruce Springsteen’ ‘The Choice’ and ‘The Man’.

      1. Re: inconsistencies in story-universes

        UK Le Guin had a marvelous riff in one of her essay collections, on the spectacular inconsistencies that had accumulated in her Hainish stories,
        I’ve forgotten which essay (and they are all worth reading), but in essence her response to complaints like yours was “Suck it up, Buttercup.”

  6. Yes, I think there’s a definite need to edit for consistency if an author decides to combine short stories into a “fix-up” novel—James Blish had to do this with his “Cities In Flight” novels, for instance, as I detailed when I wrote about his word “anti-agathic”. But for a collection of short stories, not so much. (Though I confess I did a little light editing of my Lachlan stories when I published them in a single volume—mainly because I rearranged them into a sort of rough story arc that had never been originally intended.)
    In general, though, I think it’s interesting to see how an author’s view of the story universe evolves over time—one of the fascinating things about Niven’s “Known Space” series is watching how it comes together out of a scatter of early and inconsistent stories, for instance. And there’s a definite sense of evolution with the “Jackaroo” stories, too, as I pointed out in my post above. I’d be sorry to see that disappear, though I appreciate why some people yearn for narrative consistency. I guess it depends on whether you’re primarily a Doylist or a Watsonian.

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