It was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who remarked on the tragedy that life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. That seems to sum up the condition of fiction, so it is perhaps no great step from there to J.G. Ballard's remark that science fiction is the only way to write about the present. Future fiction allows us to look backwards and perhaps understand where we are now, which may explain why so many stories set in the far future have an elegiac tone. One thinks particularly of the work of Arthur C. Clarke, and there are stories in this new collection by Paul McAuley that seem to be deliberately trying to recapture that same quality. Indeed, "How We Lost the Moon, a True Story by Frank W. Allen" could almost have been written by Clarke, right down to the name of the central character, Mike Doherty. It has that same careful attention to the technological reality of being on the Moon mixed with a quasi-religious awe at the experience and an underlying regret that this too must pass. (Another story, "A Very British History," written as a review of a book about Britain's leading role in the conquest of the solar system, includes a specific reference to Clarke and could be read as a direct response to much of Clarke's early work.)
The overwhelming sense that one takes from the stories set in the future is of loss; indeed the farther ahead of our present moment McAuley reaches, the more transitory everything seems. "All Tomorrow's Parties," a sort of pendant to his Confluence sequence, is peopled with immortals (all variants of the same character) who spend their immeasureable leisure time in a desperate rush for sensation, as if that might stave off the ennui of existence. Two linked stories (which are crying out to form the basis of a future novel), "Alien TV" and "Before the Flood," tell of a future in which we receive a constant stream of television pictures from another world. But after providing an initial boost to human technology, they become another forgotten media event; the aliens are incomprehensible and so cannot satisfy our inchoate and deep-felt need for meaning. Instead, the stories argue, there is a necessary failure to engage with the new: in "Before the Flood" a sect attempts to become like the aliens (as we have seen before in Gwyneth Jones's Aleutian trilogy), but all they can really do is highlight their inability to be truly human. "Residuals" (a wonderfully punning title) is another story in which our short attention span, our media-driven urge for the next novelty, means that we do not properly understand our past and therefore make no sense of our present.
A mirror to this future nostalgia is to be found in one of the stories set in something very like the present. "The Rift" tells of a team of climbers descending into an immense and previously unexplored rift valley in the Andes. As the modern characters fall apart through selfishness, ambition, and a general disengagement with their society, we come to realise that there is a tribe of previously undiscovered Neanderthals hidden deep in the valley. The Neanderthals greet this incursion of the future into their world with fear and with arrows: McAuley implies that they are right to do so.
In contrast to the aura of regret that permeates his future stories (you find it also in "17" and in "Interstitial," both stories in which extinction, personal or racial, is presented as an inevitable and not unwelcome response to present terrors), the stories set now or in the recent past seem more robust, but actually engage less thoroughly with the possibilities of the present. This might be because stories like "I Spy" or "The Secret of My Success" are horror stories rather than science fiction; dread is part of the machinery of the story, not part of its affect. Too many of these stories—"Danger: Hard Hack Area," "The Madness of Crowds"—are short and rather flimsy. But even when he takes a little more time, as in "The Proxy," in which a book dealer enters into trade with another dimension (one of a number of stories in this collection which concern writers or publishing in some way), it still feels as if any real significance is missing. The contemporary stories are more generic, in a sense, than those which use the familiar mechanisms of science fiction.
But the best story in the collection, "Cross Roads Blues," set in the recent past (America in the 1960s and 1930s), uses the slightest of science fictional devices to engage with genuine issues and present a convincing sense of place and time. A black time traveller finds himself playing the devil at the cross roads when he teaches Robert Johnson to play guitar, but what he does has a significant impact upon race relations in his own contemporary America. Here McAuley looks backwards in order to understand the present more thoroughly and more interestingly than in any of the stories set in the present day. And strangely enough it is that elegiac sense of loss and regret that comes through more strongly than anything else.
Paul Kincaid is the Administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His fiction has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and his criticism appears regularly in SF Studies,The New York Review of SF, Foundation, Vector, and elsewhere. He has contributed to numerous reference books on science fiction.