Book review: Beyond the Burn Line by Ian McAuley

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

There is a sumptuously imaginative expansiveness to science fiction which, if you’re willing to surrender to it, can take you to places and times and worlds so wildly out there that you gasp at the fact that this came from someone’s mind and feel so beautifully, almost tangibly real.

One novel that elicits this sort of awe-worthy response is Beyond the Burn Line by Paul McAulay, who has established a well-deserved reputation for thinking big and going there while retaining some real emotional intimacy and intelligently nuanced observation into the mix.

That is on full glorious display in Beyond the Burn Line which takes to an Earth multiple millennia by a factor of 100 or so into the future where Humanity has meet its grisly evolutionary end and not one but two new civilisations have risen up take Homo Sapiens’ place.

The first was a race of intelligent bears who crafted a society rich in art and philosophy but who met their end when a madness-inducing plague propelled them to terrible violence against each other until all that was left was ruined cities and a devolved rump of bears living in the cold far northern reaches of the planet.

Theirs was an untimely finish to things but it gave another race descended from another animal entirely to step up into their place and this group proved to be eminently worthy successors, creating a society rich in fairness, harmony and a love of learning.

‘I think of it as an investment,’ Pilgrim said, knowing that everything hinged on this moment. His words. her judgement. ‘It may be that the visitors are no more than phantoms. But if they are real, if we share the Mother with an undiscovered tribe of people or another race of intelligent beings, it will change everything.’

As Earth, now far more green and lush and safe for the moment from the industrial ravages of advanced civilisation – though the new inheritors of the Earth are advancing what they call their “techne” and have trains and mines and all manner of environmental troubling possibilities in their near-to-medium future.

But for now they are in harmony with each other (mostly though they are far from perfect) and the planet with the only strange blip on the horizon being the unverified appearance of what are called the “visitors”, beings who appear from nowhere in the light in strange suits and who disappear as quickly as they appeared.

Very few people believe they are real but one young scholar, Pilgrim Saltmire thinks there may be something to these tales of weird visitors to Earth, and he sets out to visit people who have seen them and who might be able to lend some veracity to what sound like urban tales otherwise.

His quest for knowledge and what may be the truth unleashes some pretty powerful competing forces, with their machinations indicating that whoever or whatever the visitors are that they are may be very real indeed with an agenda that could change everything earth’s civilisation du jour knows about their world.

What he uncovers could shake the very foundations of life as he and many others know it, and while revealing any more than that would be to venture too deep into spoiler territory, rest assured that what transpires more than fulfills the dizzyingly clever that McAulay has dreamed up.

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

Divided into two parts, Beyond the Burn Line is one of those sci-fi novels that well and truly justifies the promise of the genre.

It boldly dives into a host of issues from colonialism to paternalism, from tribal insularity vs. world-spanning outlooks through to adventuresome spirits coming hard up against those who prefer the world say just as it is and possibly even go backwards to a supposedly simpler, more perfect time. (Those long ago, rose-tinted times never existed of course but try telling that those of fossilied heart and intellect.)

The reach of the novel’s thoughtfulness is as long as its imaginatively big narrative ambitions, and while it tells intricately woven and emotionally rich story with nuance and care, it is full of momentum of the huge and world-changing, society-altering and outlook-shattering kind.

In that respect, Beyond the Burn Line is superbly and impressively clever.

It conceals a great many big and transformative thoughts and narrative beats within a story that seems to move slowly, and in some ways is, but which is building and building with resolutely tenacious, character-rich intent to something mind-boggling massive.

That it does this while keeping a close and intimate eye on a raft of highly engaging and beautifully, fully-realised characters and giving Beyond the Burn Line time to let their individual stories breathe within the context of the greater whole, is nothing short of miraculously masterful.

As she sketched the fire star in the air with her forefinger, Goodwill tugged at her sleeve, pointed down towards the shadowy perspectives of the aisle. A cluster of lights was bobbing through the darkness beyond the stream, moving steadily towards them.

But then Beyond the Burn Line is very much a robust exemplar of the sci-art art of storytelling.

McAulay knows that within the most audacious of ideas and the preposterous of premises sits the seat of a humanity that may change its face and its civilisational trappings but which wants many of the same things – to be loved and known for your authentic self, to do things that matter and to fight for what you value most even if it costs you something to do that.

It’s this innate sense and understanding of humanity that informs and infuses the novel and gives its more fantastically imaginative elements a grounded sense of familiarity and truth.

It might go to some truly amazing places, all of which will leave you speechless with the thoughtful imagination to come up with them in the first place, but it always, always, anchors everything in a central humanity which means that no matter where Beyond the Burn Line heads, it is always in the service of understanding what makes us, or whoever are the people of the day, who we are.

Beyond the Burn Line feels at every turn like a future that could happen, and that something so outlandishly out there much of the time can feel that is testament to the power and skill of McAulay’s writing and to his understanding that while the look and feel of civilisation might change, the core of what makes sentient beings do the things they do does not, and will ensure continuity, if carefully handled, no matter how great or expansive the change may be.

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