Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley

Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley
Published : Avon/Gollancz (1995)
Awards Won : Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell 
Awards Nominated : British Science Fiction Association

The Book :

“Before he met the brilliant, hypnotic child Milena, Alex Sharkey had never played with "dolls"—blue-skinned, gengineered lifeforms designed for work, amusement, or destruction. But the underground gene-hacker is seduced by a megalomaniacal little girl's dream of providing the soulless genetic constructs with free thought and a future—and he unwittingly unleashes a plague of madness on the world.

Now there's a void in his life and memory that must be refilled, but it means pursuing the dangerous sentient species he helped sire from the ruins of a Magic Kingdom through a wasted Europe. It is Alex Sharkey's last chance and the last hope remaining for a once-dominant human race.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Paul McAuley, and one that I started in 2013 and finished in 2014, making it ineligible for my 2014 Challenges.

My Thoughts:

There’s plenty to unpack in the novel Fairyland, from the bleak, complex future setting, the mix of cyberpunk and fantasy tone, and even the structure of the narrative.  Fairyland shows a violent, unstable future, where identity is a very malleable concept.  Nanotechnology exists that can easily manipulate people’s beliefs, motivations and memories.  The commercially produced “dolls” seem to have no identities at all, at least until their programming is illegally modified to turn them into “fairies”, with a fragile sentience.  The world was often disturbing, but I also found it very interesting to see such a dark portrayal of what humans would do with these kinds of future technology.

The main plot of the stoy involves Alex’s search for the little girl Milena, across several countries.   The story is split into three sections, each with their own separate subplots and additional viewpoint characters.  The first part is a gangster story set in London, where Alex first becomes involved with “fairies”.  The second is set near Paris, where a group of child-abducting fairies have turned the abandoned Disneyland resort into a nightmare.  In the third section, the quest draws to its conclusion.  While Alex’s search for Milena runs through all three sections, they sometimes seemed a little disconnected.  Many of the characters vanish when their section ends, and their subplots don’t always seem to have much bearing on the central story.  However, the details that are introduced through their experiences—about the fairies, Milena’s possible intentions, and the manipulation of identity--help build up to the final conclusion.

It’s with the fairies that a kind of fantasy atmosphere is folded into a rather hard science fiction novel. The fairies have a scientific explanation for their existence, but they also follow many cultural ideas about fairy kind.  For instance, these fairies are cruel, enigmatic and capricious, they steal children, they have ‘glamours’, and (through future technology) they can induce hallucinations of a fantastical world in their victims.  It is with the fairies that the story reached its most nightmarishly surreal. Unfortunately, though, the way they were portrayed made the fairies seem so distant and unsympathetic that it was difficult to feel positively about their rise to sentience.

In addition to the fairies, I found it rather hard to sympathize with most of the characters of the novel. Alex Sharkey is the primary character, and he is a man with a geas laid upon him (by nanotechnology) to follow the genius girl Milena.  This completely changes his life and his goals, and it bothered me that both the story and his character development were dominated by such an external factor.  I found some of the minor viewpoint characters (including a deserter with a ware-personality and a compassionate aid worker) to be more interesting, but their time in the story seemed too brief.  Overall, I think there is a lot to enjoy about Fairyland, but I never really felt a strong enough connection with the characters to become deeply enough invested in the story.

My Rating: 3/5
Fairyland was a novel that I appreciated more than I enjoyed.  It takes place in a bleak but fascinating future, where peoples’ minds are easily manipulated by nanotechnology and blue-skinned gengineered “dolls” are in common use.   The story follows Alex’s pursuit of the genius girl Milena, after they jointly uplift these dolls into sentient “fairies”.  While the ideas were really interesting, I always felt a little too detached from the characters, including the fairies, to ever become really drawn into the story.  Though it’s not exactly to my current tastes, I think it is a book that was worth reading.

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