Austral by Paul McAuley

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Austral by Paul McAuley

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Brilliant world creation and a tense central plot, sadly spoiled by poor rendition of back-story and superfluous wanderings into other tales.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 432 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Gollancz
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473217317

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Austral has no doubts about who she is. Her birth was, as she puts it, a political act. Conceived in a laboratory dish by direct injection of sperm into an egg. I was customised by a suite of targeted genes… She was, as the jargon of her world has it edited. She is, as a result, a Husky. A human modified to withstand the cold temperatures of the Antarctic continent. Those temperatures are still hard for un-modified humans to survive in, but maybe not for much longer. This is a world in which the threats of global warming went unheeded…a world in which the ice has retreated and continues to retreat…a world in which the harshest of environments is being opened up for exploitation.

It's also a world in which the politics of power, money, gender, ethnicity and all the rest have not progressed one iota. On that level I might have said about 18 months ago that it is truly dystopian. Now? Now it seems highly probable.

I love the story of this book, but I think it is badly let down by its structure, and by not giving the whole saga the space of the series of books it cries out for to play out in full.

Austral was born to the ecopoets – nothing to do with poetry as a verse form – but from Ecopoiesis, the artificial formation of an eco-system, planetary engineering or terraforming – her parents were scientists and works in the first phase of making the bare land revealed by the retreating southern ice 'liveable'.

The ecopoets were heroes, and then villains, and then semi-redeemed (or not). They were part of the establishment, they were rebels, or they were somewhere between the two. They were criminalised, and then there was an amnesty, but some of them stayed free – until they were caught – imprisoned – escaped…all of this…all of this potential for exciting adventure story-telling gets relegated to back-story. A story told within the story.

Our story, the story of this book, has Austral as a Corrections Officer in an Antarctic work-camp. Prisoners doing the necessary work of building bridges, laying track. She is one of a few Husky women doing the work, and has to deal daily with the prejudice that provokes. Huskies tend to be tall and strong as well as being able to withstand the cold, so she does deal with it. She is also in a relationship with one Keevor Bishop. Keevor pretty much runs the camp.

Keevor is a prisoner. A prisoner fighting extradition, a prisoner with an escape plan. Austral is part of that plan – just not the part she thought she was…which is how she comes to find herself at the centre of a hunt for a kidnapper.

The flight from the hunters and the dangers encountered along the way is told with pace and imagination and is thoroughly enjoyable.

The creation of the world is imaginative and believable, in terms of the failures of humankind that have brought it to where it is and in terms of the technology that is run-of-the-mill by this time.


First but, there are long rambling re-tellings of the Tristan and Isolde, which whilst suitably embedded add nothing but distraction.

Second but, that back-story. How Austral came to be who she is, where she is, all of it is tantalising. There's scope for an epic series in there. It's disappointing that it hasn't been allowed to play out that way. I could forgive that if the flashback device had been used. I know I keep saying I hate the parallel tales structure that has become a cliché in its own right, but if ever a book showed why it is sometimes the right thing to do, it's this one. There is so much drama in that backstory, but it is all told as a recitation, as dull as the history books it might have made its way into. For anyone who doesn't understand the difference between show and tell – this book gives the clearest exposition I've ever seen.

Much as I loved the world-creation and the central plot…I do feel that this is a novella with padding, and the padding doesn't do it any favours. For the current reality of Antarctica we can recommend Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis for other possible futures I loved The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu.

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Buy Austral by Paul McAuley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Austral by Paul McAuley at


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