Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley

(discussed October 22, 1998)

On a ten-point scale (1=bad, 10=good), the people who read (and completed!) the book gave the following ratings: 5, 6
Average: 5.5

This book was suggested by Raja Thiagarajan, as a quite recent book (1995) that had been highly rated by critics. (He didn't quite sponsor it, though, since he hadn't read it. He was pushing for Snow Crash, but that was rejected on the grounds too many members had already read it.)

Of the people present, only two finished reading the book. Several others (including Raja, the "sponsor") cited a recent lack of time. However, a number of people complained that the book also lacked much of a narrative drive.

Kerrie Gimmler, who finished the book, had a number of complaints about it. She thought that the author was trying too hard to be like William Gibson (as in Neuromancer). But he didn't do it nearly as well as Gibson did; where Gibson would present a one-sentence explanation of a technology and move on, McAuley got bogged down in lengthy explanations of science, technology, and background. (Kerrie said, "If I'd wanted to know that much about the background, I'd have read a textbook.") Kerrie also found the three species of fairies to be confusing. Finally, she doesn't like London (though she's never been there -- and this brought protests from Gregory, John, and Raja, all of whom have been to London and love it).

On the plus side, Kerrie liked three of the characters: Leroy (a short walk-on who could have been the main character's father, except that their skin colors didn't match ;-), the fairy Ray, and especially Mrs. Powell. Mrs. Powell only appeared in the last third of the book, but she was the first character Kerrie liked and could relate to. Kerrie especially liked a scene where Mrs. Powell slapped a dangerous goblin(?) in the face. Finally, she said there was also a neat scene later on involving mercenaries and a lake.

Before the discussion, Raja Thiagarajan brought along a book with, and two photocopies of, a six-page short-short story entitled "Gene Wars". This was also written by Paul J. McAuley and seems to be set in the same universe as Fairyland. (In fact, Raja thinks there is a throwaway reference to the short story in the novel.) Raja rudely forced the members present to read the story (and everyone good-naturedly did, except for Gregory who said this wasn't a classroom).

Raja thinks "Gene Wars" is a brilliant tour-de-force that packs quite a wallop and compresses an astonishing number of ideas into only six pages. Raja had finished only half of Fairyland, but it seemed to him that the novel didn't have any more real ideas than the short story. Also, he said that the short story was proof that McAuley could write a dense, technical story without getting bogged down in explanations.

One thing Raja did like about the novel, though, was that it seemed to be set in the fairly near future (starting about 2020 or so, by Peter and Gregory's reckoning), and that it wasn't the aftermath of any major disasters, only global warming (there is malaria in Finland!) and civil wars. (John Gallman pointed out that the latter included the use of nuclear weapons on American soil, which he would class as a major disaster!)

One complaint he had was that the author was too obtrusive: Clearly Paul J. McAuley is sad and angry about certain recent trends in England, (and London, in particular), and he used the book to vent his feelings.

Gregory Rawlins (who read the first half, then skimmed the rest) agreed very much with this point. In fact, he complained that this didn't seem to be a book about the future, but a book about the present and near-past. He found it completely unbelievable that the National Front would still exist, and the pop singer Madonna would still be remembered, in 40 years. The author seemed to be unhappy with England, and even unhappier with Euro-Disney. Overall, the author had too many axes to grind. Also, this book seemed like a goulash of undigested ideas, and that if the story had stayed in London (instead of shifting to the Continent after the first third), it would have been much better.

He agreed with Kerrie that the book was too Gibsonesque (to which Kerrie repeated that the author was trying too hard). McAuley's view of human nature seems to be that humans do the things they do, and the universe just goes on. This is Gregory's attitude, and it seems also to be the attitude of Gibson in Neuromancer and Michael Swanwick in Stations of the Tide -- but Gibson and Swanwick did a much better job with this theme.

There were a few things Gregory liked -- the coined term "fembots" (a reference to femto- scales, rather than the thousand-times-bulkier nano- scale of nanotechnology), the military technology that created Armand and Mr. Mike, and the last line, which he thought redeemed the novel. Overall, he thought it was a decent book, but he didn't like it too much.

Peter Kuchera, who finished the book, agreed strongly with Gregory that the book would have been better if it had stayed in London. In his view, the switch to Morag was bad dramatic fumble, since Morag wasn't very interesting. He thought her motivation (trying to save a kidnapped boy she'd barely met) was unbelievable and too much like a movie (Aliens in particular).

He was also annoyed that Armand seemed to drop out of the novel without comment! (To which Kerrie replied that she thought he may have become the king.) And he liked London and hated Albania. (Kerrie held the opposite opinion.) He thought that using the Euro-Disney Magic Kingdom as a setting was pushing the allegory too far. He noted that the fairies seemed selfish and ruthless, and that the ending, with its liberation, was a little reminiscent of Stations of the Tide, in that the newly-freed felt no gratitude or responsibility at all.

On the plus side, Peter liked the main character, Alex Sharkey. While reading "Gene Wars", Kerrie asked why McAuley seemed to use quite a few overweight characters; Peter said that it was good in Alex's case, since it slowed Alex down and made him humble. He also liked Alex because he was smarter than people gave him credit for being, and he managed to outsmart some vicious lowlifes.

John Gallman, who got a copy late and didn't get to read very far, found the book to be a very distressful portrait of the future. The only other book he'd read that was as bitter about the future was Neuromancer. It was very nihilistic, though there were a few exceptions -- for instance, Alex Sharkey cared about his mother.

Dedaimia Whitney didn't finish the book, though she was thinking about continuing it anyway. One thing she did like was the "love bombing" (which is an act of vandalism or terrorism in which people are dosed with chemicals or fembots that give them strong, short-lived, numinous visions). It seemed like a plausible technology, a plausible human misuse of such technology, and a very good chance for the author to express his view of human nature.

As a closing thought (which he unfortunately remembered only after a number of people had left), Raja said that Fairyland was like a Schismatrix for the 1990s. Like Bruce Sterling's book, the novel had a lot of ideas, but didn't make for very exciting reading. This novel didn't seem likely to become as influential as Schismatrix, but you never know.