Fairyland, the Arthur C Clarke award winning novel from Paul McAuley, is most definitely not what I expected it to be. I came across it during a little Amazon splurge a while back whilst looking for decent Cyberpunk novels, and the allusions in the plot synopsis to a virus-designing protagonist and his clashes with greedy cops and gangs in dilapidated near-future London seemed pretty on the money to me. But whilst the book started in the kind of grimy techno underbelly I know well from genre classics like Neuromancer and When Gravity Fails, it quickly moves past that world and into a future altogether stranger and more frightening.
The book starts just after the turn of the millennium, in an England ravaged by severe climate change and economic collapse leading to vast overcrowding and poverty. Technology hasn’t advanced much further than present day but genetic engineering has taken off in a big way and the ability to make Dolls- genetically modified, semi intelligent sub-humans- is in its early stages. Alex Sharkey is the aforementioned lowlife virus hacker- biological viruses, not computer ones- who scrapes a living selling hallucinogenic DNA codes to other deadbeats and gangsters. One day he meets an unnaturally intelligent girl named Milena and soon gets mixed up in her plans to genetically alter the normally docile and enslaved dolls into something rather different. Two things struck me about this, the first and most traditionally cyberpunk of Fairyland’s three parts. The first was how deeply dirty the whole world was. McAuley vividly describes a world where Alex can walk down a street and literally everything is broken, covered in graffiti and likely to give you cholera just from skin contact. It’s a grimy, dreary world full of sleazy, unpleasant people. The second was the immensity of the human suffering in this future world. Walking down that same dingy street Alex would find it teeming with the homeless, broken, drug-addled remnants of the last century’s decadence. Such things are often just perfunctory background noise in stories like this but here the descriptions of entire families living out on the street, huddled into corners, fighting for space in overstuffed tube stations are incredibly poignant. Fairyland takes the marginalised people we’re all so good at ignoring in our world, multiplies them by a hundred, and guess what? We’re still just as good at ignoring them! Alex’s story as he winds his way through this dismal world is honestly pretty standard fare for this sort of gritty, noir inspired sci-fi but it sets up the rest of the book nicely and then comes to a sudden and unexpectedly premature halt, picking up several years later in part two in a totally different sort of world.
Twelve years later the world has found a good use for Dolls: cheap, expendable slave labour. Off the back of this, and new advances in nanotechnology, the economy has picked up again and the First World is back to an age of excess and decadence. Elsewhere things aren’t so rosy- on the fringes of eastern Europe millions of refugees flee from never ending conflict and poverty. The multitudes of homeless and displaced living in squalid shanty towns around Paris (where part two is set) face a new threat from the rapidly evolving nanotechnology industry- tiny machines called Fembots that have the frightening ability to invade the human bloodstream and alter the host’s thoughts and behaviour. Giving people the ability to literally invade each other’s minds plays out exactly like you’d expect: cults of brain-hacked “believers” and thousands of people running round implanted with the firm belief they are Jesus reincarnated or Elvis reborn or whatever. The rich can of course afford to inoculate themselves against these invasions but the poor are totally at the mercy of whatever “meme” people think it funniest to spread this week. In the shadows of this hostile world lurk the fairies- the offspring of the first fully conscious dolls Milena and Alex created. These new, malicious creatures harbour a deep hatred for humanity-especially their “mother”- and the homeless and vulnerable masses are easy prey to their cruel, cunning schemes.
Man, to think that this book was written in 1995 is crazy. The technology it invents is still just as original and mind-blowing twenty years later, and the way people use its miraculous power for pointless, trivial cruelty and personal gain is all too believable. The concept of the “Fourth World” of homeless refugees seems especially prophetic given current world events, and descriptions of endless columns of survivors hopelessly trudging across Europe hit very close to home. The potential in genetic mutation to accidentally create a whole new race of sentient beings is fascinating, and the way these creatures are given names and characteristics drawn from folklore and traditional tales –fairies, werewolves, trolls and even dragons- blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy. Some truly weird and wonderful creatures appear towards the end of the book and McAuley uses the opportunity to treat us to some truly chaotic, nightmarish action scenes as monsters straight from the pages of fairy tales lurk in dark forests and leap out from shadows.
With so many crazy ideas flying around- and I haven’t even covered all of them- it’s easy to see how Fairyland could end up very hard to follow. The plot as Milena’s grand ultimate plans slowly take shape is complex and at times rather messy. This isn’t the sort of clear, single stranded narrative where everyone’s motivations are obvious; people, places and ideas don’t so much collide as blur into each other without any discernible reason and keeping track of who is doing what and why is pretty demanding. I honestly spend a lot of the final third of the book totally at a loss as to why all these crazy things were happening, but still finding the suspense and spectacle enjoyable for the most part. I’m sure some of this was deliberate but there’s a fine line between intentionally obscure and just plain muddled, and Fairlyland teeters too close to the wrong side all too often. Still, confusing as it is I still wholeheartedly recommend Fairyland as a unique, oddball story brimming with madcap energy and bursting with more ideas than it can contain. It’s confusing, exhausting, and leaves you with plenty of unanswered questions but it’s totally worth it. Besides, any book that has room for complex descriptions of gene coding and mind-machine interfacing alongside a genuine, no-kidding woolly mammoth is alright by me.