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Something Coming Through: Niven-esque Sci-Fi In A Modern Style

Updated on May 18, 2015

Something We Haven't Seen in Awhile

There are a lot of stories, in science fiction, that tell the tale of humanity's first steps into space. There's an equally large amount of writing that takes place well after humanity has taken its place on the galactic stage. There are comparatively few novels that explore that between-period, right after we become a space-faring civilization, but before the Death-Star-Building phase. Larry Niven devoted a large portion of his Known Space stories to this mid-point. The writing team behind James S.A. Corey's "The Expanse" series (starting with Leviathan Wakes) does so as well. Now the author Paul McAuley has done so with Something Coming Through, and his work stands among those others as an equal.

Let's set the stage: Earth has taken its place among the stars - but not without significant limitations. It's not getting there on its own, for one thing. Earth is essentially a client-state (client-planet?) of an alien species called the Jackaroo. They're mysterious - no one has actually seen a Jackaroo, just golden-skinned avatars which roam around the planet. They're very cagey about providing humans with any new technology, and the space program they offer is more like a shuttle bus - a few humans at a time, selected by lottery, get to go to a few predetermined planetary locations for colonization purposes. Nothing else.

More ominously, the Jackaroo have offered other deals to other species before, who have all, for unexplained reasons, gone extinct. The planets gifted to the humans are covered with strange, dangerous artifacts. When brought back to earth, they cause societal disruptions, cults, and drug epidemics.

This is a pretty okay example of sci-fi cover art. Nice work, anonymous cover artist!

The Plot

This brings us to the actual meat of the plot. Chloe Millar is an investigator and researcher of alien artifacts on Earth. She tracks these down by looking for "outbreaks" - cultish scenarios in which humans try to express alien concepts which are in some way attached to alien artifacts. One such outbreak leads her on the trail of a missing persons case, a boy and his sister who repeatedly and obsessively draw images of an alien landscape, and who seem attached to an alien persona known only as "Ugly Chicken."

Across the galaxy Vic Gayle embodies that classic trope, a grizzled veteran cop with a shiny rookie partner. He's looking forward to retirement, especially as a younger and more hardened breed of criminal starts infiltrating his adopted homeworld of Mangala. He tries to put on the brakes as his partner becomes embroiled in a fraught investigation, but he soon finds himself embroiled in a war between two organized criminal enterprises. As the stakes rise, Vic and Chloe find themselves on the trail of the same secret.

The treasure of this novel is in the details. Sometimes, it's small details, like a corrupt mayor on an alien planet, riding around in an imported Mercedes convertible. A frontier settlement turning into a boomtown and getting its first Starbucks. Other times the details are immense, like a future-shocked London with a new district built out of alien coral. Transplanted English gangsters with laser guns! The worldbuilding in this novel is riotous and colorful and artfully battered.

Few complaints: The characters are a bit stock, for one. "Grizzled veteran cop with commitment issues," isn't really a new thing in any genre, although the setting, and the way that Vic fits into the overall plot makes up for this. Also, the pieces of the novel with Chloe in them are set a few days before Vic's chapters, although this doesn't become really clear until much later in the novel. Others may think that it's an artful choice, but it took me out of the book and made me go, "huh?"

Overall, this is a wonderful work, and one of the more unique pieces of science fiction writing that I've read so far this year. Buy it, read it, read it again, and then sit on your hands until the sequel drops.

Like my review? Buy the book!

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