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Mind's Eye
Paul McAuley
Simon and Schuster hardcover £12.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Paul J. McAuley was an Interzone discovery of the 1980s who moved on to novels at Gollancz, the first two books being published in the iconic yellow jacket. Those books were typical 1980s' downbeat British SF, but he was also part of the radical hard SF movement, and his skills and confidence grew in concert with the upturn in the field. In the latter part of the 1990s, he gave up his bio-research and teaching to become a full time writer. The immediate product was the Confluence trilogy, a brilliant set described by John Clute as a "marvellously sustained cosmogonic romance of the far future." This trilogy also proved to be a significant turning point for McAuley. It was the last book published by Gollancz and his next, The Secret Of Life, was authored by Paul McAuley - without the J. This book shared settings with some of his earlier stories but showed changes in its central concerns. Subsequent near future novels have hauled in the clock, getting closer to the present and less dependent on science or science fictional motifs to power the story. And so we reach the present day.

Mind's Eye, published in September 2005, is set no later than 2004. It is being marketed as a thriller and it would be a mistake to read - or review - it as anything else. McAuley has waved good bye to SF, though the McGuffin in the plot will be recognisable to those who have happened upon David Langford's BLIT stories. The first half of the book drags a little for such readers, as the characters do not have this familiarity. Nevertheless, McAuley's development of the ideas are rather clever, combining 1930s' archaeology of the Fertile Crescent with the aftermath of the second Iraq war. He also applies a deft journalistic touch in describing London and its attitudes as the occupation of Iraq slipped out of the news and into the structure of the world. This detail gives the mind something to fix on as the first half of the book ticks off the thriller plot bullet points. As we reach a rest point halfway through the book, the mysteries are all essentially solved. The second half becomes a quest to escape the consequences of the revelation. The story moves to Turkey and Iraq, a slightly more imaginary space than London. This greater freedom affects the character of the story, as the action becomes less predictable. The locals are as sharply portrayed, as is their independence from our conceptions of normality, and they interfere with the plot quite freely.

This clever characterisation is typical of the quality of all the players in this book. The main viewpoint character, Alfie, is somewhat reminiscent of Alex from 1995's Fairyland. He accepts he is a bit of an odd fish but feels like he's got his life under control, despite the childhood events described in the prologue. Alfie is an affable chap and easy enough to get along with. This can't be said for Harriet, the tough detective type who doesn't want to share her hard-earned knowledge or her duty with anyone. Her unsympathetic nature makes it difficult to care about her even when we are convinced that we want her mission to succeed. Toby, the foil to each of these characters, feels more of a representative of the reader, even as a recognisable type, dressed in black and smoking continuously. His presence binds the plot together, providing the others with someone to explain things to.

The writing throughout is excellent and the ideas are well presented, as we have come to expect from McAuley. However there was never room for a sense of wonder, or true escape from the mundane. In the end, the shape of the plot is as familiar and comforting as genre fantasy - the best possible ending is a turn inward, a return to normality. As a science fiction reader, this book was an interesting experience, but not one which brings me to feel I should make the thriller a regular part of my reading diet. I'm sure Paul McAuley is finding legions of new readers, but I can only hope he will take a note of Iain Banks' approach and give us a twin career as Paul J. McAuley.
Mind's Eye by Paul McAuley

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