REVIEW: Little Machines by Paul McAuley

REVIEW SUMMARY: Seventeen stories ranging from time travel to alternate histories, with plenty of tributes to SF masters like Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: McAuley’s third collection, containing stories from the late nineties to 2005 (?). Little Machines had a previous, hardback edition by PS Publishing in 2005. This edition is solely digital.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: McAuley writes compelling stories, giving each one a distinct voice. It’s almost as if Little Machines were an anthology of different writers, which is intriguing and compelling at the same time.

CONS: Some of the stories have an unfinished feel, as if they were not exactly drafts, but the next-to-last versions, where the tiniest details are missing that could make them just perfect. The e-book also has lots of little revision flaws that don’t spoil the reading, but are positively irritating at times (like the table of contents, that doesn’t link the stories).

BOTTOM LINE: A good collection of stories, recommended as much for readers as for writers who are curious to get a glimpse of his evolution as a writer.


In the introduction to the first edition (which, sadly, isn’t available in this digital-only publication), Greg Bear note that, although some of McAuley’s work can be compared to a wild hybrid of Cordwainer Smith and E. M. Forster (I’d also add Ray Bradbury to the mix in a few stories), ‘his style varies and can be difficult to label [but] it’s all compelling’. Bear is absolutely right. If there’s one thing that McAuley’s short story readers can’t absolutely complain is of boredom: every story has a different narrative voice.

The first story, “The Two Dicks”, is a heartrending tribute to Philip K. Dick. McAuley knows how to go meta without being tiresome: he writes like he’s possessed by PKD himself. What you’ve got is a mix of Dr. Bloodmoney, the VALIS Trilogy, and countless references to his biography and other novels. Can’t talk anymore to not give spoilers, but it’s a pretty good alternate universe story.

The second story, “Residuals”, written with Kim Newman, shows what happens in the aftermath of a failed Earth invasion by aliens… by the POV of the one of the few person who was there to witness it and it was later discredited and mocked of by the whole world. Now, many years later, he returns to the scene of the invasion to face all too real ghosts – and learn that he might have gotten everything wrong.

“17” features the hard life of a girl in a backwater planet. Regular story; it doesn’t really offer the reader any real challenge of thrill.

“All Tomorrow’s Parties” is Paul McAuley’s “Sailing to Byzantium”. I must say I really enjoy stories of God-powered bored post-humans living millions of years from now, but almost all of them look the same to me. This story not only reminded me of Silverberg’s classic story, but also of Robert Reed’s Sister Alice stories, and of Alexander Jablokov’s Many Mansions. Very elegantly written, although the ending didn’t convince me very much.

In fact, this seems to be the problem with some of the stories in this collection. They seem to be lacking something in the end, of a major piece of information in the middle that makes that story doesn’t end properly.

“Interstitial” feels exactly this way – a story in the middle of other, more important stories. As in “17”, McAuley create three-dimensional characters all right, but I must admit that, as a reader, couldn’t relate to Echo, the genetically engineered tech who is forced by his military brother to translate a strange artifact deep in a Moon occupied by the last remnants of humankind after a sudden, great winter covered the entire Earth, killing all life there. Interesting, but too short – it could have been part of a larger story.

One of the best stories of the collection is “How we Lost the Moon, A True Story, by Frank W. Allen”, a delightfully unbelievable tale of how everything can go wrong in a scientific experiment and you still can get out of it rather unharmed. In the end, a good, convincing hard SF story.

“Under Mars” is another of those seemingly unfinished stories, but it gets my sympathy. Maybe it’s all in the worldbuilding: imagine a huge theme park entirely focused on all the Mars visions of SF writers, from the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs to H.G.Wells’s belligerent tripod-running Martians of The War of The Worlds and Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. The nostalgia is a beautiful counterpoint in a fast-paced, action story that ends not with a bang, but not a whimper too.

“Danger: Hard Hack Area” is a flash fiction, a joke with the biopunk subgenre – a nice one, and not out of sync with the zeitgeist, if we remember Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Good story.

“The Madness of Crowds” is a terrifying story that is almost an exact counterpoint to the previous story. McAuley tells the story of Bill McAbe through the eyes of his brother, who wrote a letter (and you, reader, is also the reader of the letter) telling his exploits. McAbe, a post-modern and much more competent version of Ted Kaczynski, uses pheromones to reach his goals – but, as in Twelve Monkeys, his main goal is the world. But, even though he is seen as a terrorist by the US government, is he one? It remains to the reader the final judgment, and the end is really interesting.

The stories begin to get more and more dark and somber, as in the case of “The Secret of My Success”. Here, McAuley promptly shows us a cold-blooded murderer, who hacks the body of an ex-friend and disposes of it without showing any emotion. But then you follow him in a flashback, witnessing the life of a struggling writer, a common man who suddenly gets involved in a web of genetic experiments that could trigger an evolutionary jump for an elite – and condemn the rest of humankind to extinction. (Good) echoes of Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort here. I liked it a lot.

“The Proxy” is a Jim Butcher-like story, where magic and the Web mix in an interesting but already-seen-before way. Cute, but not my cuppa tea.

“I Spy” is perhaps the only story where the feeling of incompleteness fits completely the bill. The main character, a young British boy who suffer abuse at home since childhood, slowly turns into a psychopath, although that is not what he believes he is (indeed, is he?), for he spies an inhuman creature near his house who seems to accept the little sacrifices he makes for it (first, small animals, then, naturally, people) and encourages him for more. Something of Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson that gave me the creeps here.

“The Rift” is a rather quaint story, and I didn’t like it, though it must be said that’s a matter of personal taste – it reminds me too much of that old Rider Haggard’s stories, and I have some issues with colonialist stories. But he makes a valid point, especially at the end. It’s a must read, and I would recommend it highly to Anglo-American readers.

The dualogy of stories “Alien TV” / “Before the Flood” reminded me of Bob Shaw’s series of stories about the “slow glass” in the 1970s, because McAuley is more interested in show us what happens with human society after a big, earthshaking discovery changes everyone’s lives than to talk about the invention or discovery itself (which is absolutely fine to me). In this case, it’s the discovery of an alien race, which is very far from us to make direct contact with – but they have TV (or a very similar means of broadcasting information and culture), and this sole fact creates multitudes of faithful watchers, religious sects, you name it. (Another interesting thing is that “Residuals” seems to have a strong connection with this story, even though they don’t belong to the same narrative universe. I have a strong feeling that they should, though.)

“A Very British History” is another of my favorites in this collection. It’s an almost perfect story. After creating an intriguing, witty story (and really, really British in its tone – it’s as if we were reading a historian like Liddell Hart, for instance) with a massive worldbuilding effort, an alternate timeline which is a direct tribute to Heinlein’s Future History) – but, after reading so much famous, important names from our world and also from Heinlein’s stories, the narrator, who during the entire enterprise of reviewing and commenting on Professor Sir William Coxton’s A Brief History of the Colonisation of Space, fails to identify himself (or herself), even though he makes sure of telling us that he is mentioned in the book (“page 634 if you’re interested”). We can only guess – I do have my guesses, and I read this story twice.

The last story, “Cross Roads Blues”, is a time travel piece. Not mightly creative, but also strong on nostalgia, because it revolves around bluesman Robert Johnson, who, in another timeline, would be a mix between Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King, Jr. Isaac, an Afro-American traveler from a 1963 where the USA, even though a poor country and not a great decision-maker in the world scene, already have a black President and enough technology to create a time-travel program, destined to keep the status quo the way it is – a poor but happy, peaceful, and racially integrated America. Of course, not every agent in the program is happy with the status quo, and Isaac will be caught in the middle of a timeline war. A good, thrilling story to end the book.

All in all, Little Machines is a good collection with a wide range of options for all tastes. I enjoyed myself a lot. My guess is that even the most demanding reader will find several stories to her/his contentment as well.

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: Little Machines by Paul McAuley”

  1. I still haven’t read Cowboy Angels, but I read The Quiet War/Gardens of the Sun and the duology disappointed me a bit. Are the Confluence novels good, then? I want to read them.

  2. I love McAuley’s work and purchased this particular title as soon as it came available for Kindle.  Thanks for the review, Fabio.  Looking forward to this one.

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