The first glimmer came in a short story, ‘Dust’, written for an anthology celebrating the classic science-fiction film Forbidden Planet. Like the film, my story was about the powers and perils of ancient alien technology, and somewhere in the background was a hint that people were able to explore other planets because of the help of a bunch of aliens who called themselves the Jackaroo.
Extraterrestrial intelligence is a serious scientific and philosophical idea, and aliens are a central trope of science fiction. But they’re also, let’s face it, a bit embarrassing. Partly because of UFOs, spirit guides from better worlds, ET’s magic finger, and all that; partly because they so obviously embody the genre’s madeupedness, especially when authors try to authenticate their aliens with a blizzard of world-building factoids, or by emphasising similarities to cats or pixies.
Something Coming Through isn’t about explaining away the alien: it’s about the difficulty of understanding it. The Jackaroo stepped in to give aid to humanity at a moment of global crisis. They are, they say, here to help. But they’re also wilfully enigmatic. They appear only as humanoid avatars. They deflect all questions about what they are, where they come from, why they are helping humanity, and what the endpoint of that help might be.
It’s also about that very twenty-first century anxiety: how we are being changed by technology we barely understand or control. Cities established by settlers on the Jackaroo gift worlds possess Starbucks and shopping malls, but the familiar is stretched thin across geological layers of older alien civilisations, and ruins haunted by fragments of alien memory and phantasms. ‘What does it say about us,’ one of the characters says, ‘when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high?’ There’s a question.
Something Coming Through is out now in paperback, eBook and audio download. You can find out more about Paul McAuley by visiting his website or following him on Twitter: @UnlikelyWorlds. You can also get a sneak peek at the first four chapters of Something Coming Through below.