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Austral (SF) - Paul McAuley ****

When I was a teenager, I devoured post-apocalyptic disaster novels, but as an adult I've tended to think that life is too short to read depressing books. Luckily, despite Paul McAuley's Austral being set in a world that has been reshaped by catastrophic climate change, it hasn't got the entirely miserable feel of some of science fiction's more hangdog works - but it certainly isn't a bundle of laughs either.

Central character Austral is an outcast, genetically modified by her eco-poet parents (not writers of verse, but involved in shaping the environment to naturally deal with what hits it). She is bigger, stronger and far more able to cope with the cold of her Antarctic home than normal humans. And for most of the book she is on the run, taking with her cousin, a young woman she has saved from being kidnapped by kidnapping her herself.

The structure of the narrative is multi-layered. We get the straight Austral story, Austral telling her cousin the story of their mutual grandfather (each has their own very different version of this), the story of Austral's parents and, somewhat bizarrely, a story that her cousin (almost always, and rather irritatingly just referred to as 'the girl' throughout the book) is reading, which is a modern myth (set on a greened Antarctic where the ice has melted) that seems to combine Tristram and Isolde with aspects of Theseus.

What we get is a beautifully written book that immerses the reader in the harsh Antarctic environment which is Austral's natural home. It's impossible not to be pulled in to Austral's story and want to see it through to its conclusion - it manages to have both literary merit and a page turning draw in the main storyline. I did find those multiple layers a little frustrating - and in the end, Austral's repeated negative warnings about how things will turn out mean that her flight seems doomed from the start. However, this didn't stop this being a haunting and engaging piece of science fiction that is every bit as good as a piece of writing as the best literary fiction.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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