Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review of Austral by Paul McAuley (2017, Gollancz)

Sometime in the near future climate change has led to the thawing and wilding of parts of Antarctica. It’s still a cold, harsh place, but it’s also home to a sizable and growing population attracted by its natural resources. Austral is the daughter of an ecopoet and a husky: a person whose genes have been edited to cope with the climate and environment, though her difference means she is feared and discriminated against by others. She’s had a tough life, first growing up on a remote island where ecopoets, who work with rather than exploiting nature, were isolated, then in an orphanage after her escape fails. After a time in prison, she’s now become a corrections officer in a labour camp and consort to a major criminal. He’s got plans to escape, enrolling her in his scheme to kidnap the daughter of a senior politician, who is related to Austral through her grandfather. Austral has other plans, however, snatching the girl herself and heading out into the wilderness. Her plan is to demand a ransom then use the funds to leave Antarctica. Her first priority though is to make good her escape and keep herself and the girl alive as the authorities and criminal gang try to track her down.

The narrative takes the form of a story being told by Austral to her child, explaining her adventure, her relationship to the girl she has kidnapped, who’s her second cousin, the history of her family and of the populating and wilding of Antarctica, and the decisions that she took. The plot essentially follows her escape journey and its various twists and turns as the pair struggle across a tough, wild landscape and get themselves into scrapes. The world building is very nicely done, with a strong sense of place and landscape. And the tale is infused with thoughtful reflection on climate change, wilding and genetic modifications. Two other threads are woven in to the telling – the history of Austral’s grandparents and her own backstory, and a fantasy adventure that forms the story that the kidnapped girl is reading. The latter seems somewhat out of place and surplus to the main tale. The real strength of the book, however, is Austral and McAuley creates a convincing and interesting character who despite circumstances is determined to escape while acting in good faith to the girl she is forcing along with her.

No comments: