Austral by Paul McAuley book review

Humanity tries to survive at the end of the world in Paul McAuley’s Antarctica-set SF Austral

One of the latest novels to address the possibility of a world transformed by the effects of global warming, Paul McCauley’s Austral is set a number of years into the future. Antarctica has been colonised, the retreating ice revealing the landscape underneath, and humanity are building a new world there. The eponymous central figure is a husky, an edited person designed to survive better in the cold.

When the reader meets Austral, she is working as an officer in a prison camp, but events swiftly take a turn that finds her a fugitive. Austral offers a damning perspective on the society that renders her and other huskies outcasts, people to be feared and scorned. She’s resourceful with a wry sense of humour and dominated by a will to liberate herself from the society that spurns her.

Indeed, nothing is well in the world that McCauley creates. He threads through repeated assertions that humanity has failed to learn from its past; capitalist structures still dominate and prevent long-term efforts to minimise further impact from global warming, corruption continues within the political classes, and prejudice runs rife as people look to focus their anxieties on something easily punished.

Heritage is a key theme here, both in the world that this future society has inherited and in the character of Austral, whose own path and narrative is determined by the previous generations in her family. Her actions in the narrative will resonate with the next generation of her family, possibly for the better. Though Austral’s presentation of the future is quite grim, little skeins of hope appear throughout, a sense of optimism that humanity might yet change its course.