The Lights of Fairyland

This may become the first in a short series of short posts on aspects of Paul McAuley’s 1995 novel Fairyland, or it may end up orphaned and alone. In either case the place to start is, what kind of novel is it? Here is a paragraph from near the start of the novel, which is surely science fiction:

Old London Town is growing strange and exotic in the grip of what they are now calling the Great Climatic Overturn. Lights drift past the minicab like stars seen from some hyperlight spaceship. Streetlights, the scattered lights of the tower blocks behind screens of hardy sycamores and ginkgoes, the lights of the pyramid-capped tower of Canary Wharf rising into the sodium orange sky. A helicopter slowly crosses the sky from west to east, the needle of its laser spotlight intermittently stabbing amongst the flat roofs of deck access housing. (35)

And here is a paragraph from near the end, which must be fantasy:

Everything is so clear, so bright. A wash of huge, blurry stars arches overhead. The glow of the half-moon that hangs above the treeline seems to be focused into a kind of temple of vaporous illumination in the middle of the road. Within that distilled light, a host of fairies and other creatures flank the two figures sitting on high-backed spiky chairs fretted from thin white spars that might be the bones of extinct birds. (311)

If I hadn’t just told you these come from the same book, would you guess? If I didn’t already know, I don’t think I would. The first is London refracted through the lens of cyberpunk: urban, alienated, the sense of a very limited, street-level perspective on the world. In the second, the location is not clearly specified (it happens to be Albania), but it could easily be another world; the city is missing, and with it the sense that the landscape is defined by human action; the temple and the road could easily be fairy creations. And there is nothing, in that paragraph, to indicate that the fairies described are something other than the creatures of myth, while there is quite a bit to make them seem romantic, enigmatic, magical.

The similarity between the two paragraphs, of course, is that they spend a lot of time describing the nature and quality of the light that illuminates their scene — artificial and scattered in the first case, natural and focused in the second. From the start, Fairyland-the-place is defined by light, and like so much else about the book, it works metaphorically and literally. As a boy, the main character, Alex Sharkey, is told by his mother that the lights of London at night are the lights of Fairyland, and the book’s story is, in part, the tale of Alex searching for the place where those lights become real. But Fairyland is also a book about how we draw on old stories to understand the new world around us, and the difference between the two paragraphs reflects that: as the light in which the world is seen changes, so too must the language with which it is described.

Note that both views are, in a sense, familiar: the first paragraph as representative of a type of near-future sf, the second paragraph as representative of an older type of story. Part of what makes Fairyland special is how convincingly it describes a transition between the two. The shift is more gradual and detailed and sustained than it is in, say, Geoff Ryman’s Air, which also draws on fantasy to find a way of understanding the future. And in Fairyland the shift is never total or irreversible in the way that the end of Air seems to be which makes it, in a way, more haunting. Every glimpse of Fairyland is partial or temporary, and the second paragraph above is, in fact, an illusion — except that at the same time, it is exactly the place Alex has been seeking. So although paragraphs of the second type are more common the deeper into the book you read, the predominant sense is one of urgency. You feel Fairyland getting closer to the surface, closer to breaking through and becoming real.

4 thoughts on “The Lights of Fairyland

  1. McAuley? Ryman? Always have to pause when I see a post that lists those two fellows. Fine, challenging writers. Some good observations and in-depth reading and I thank you for this post and the critical thinking it contained…

  2. Very nice — dare I say illuminating — selection of quotes. I actually mentioned Fairyland in passing in my review of Blindsight, but your post is making me wish I had gone into more detail, if only for the chance to reexamine Fairyland.

    What’s interesting is that McAuley does the opposite shift in his Confluence trilogy: those books start out very consciously evoking the feel and surface-level trappings of fantasy, and it is through a search for the past that the science fictional underpinnings of the story are gradually revealed as the book progresses, and a correspondingly SFnal perspective on the world realized.

  3. Cliff: I’m seeing echoes of various bits of Fairyland in quite a lot of later books — I don’t know how directly influential it was, but it seems like it tapped into a bunch of stuff that other writers also wanted to explore. Going in the other direction, I did wonder if McAuley’s Milena was a nod to Ryman’s Milena in The Child Garden, being similarly biologically-focused sf.

    Matt: thanks. I haven’t read the Confluence books, so that’s interesting to hear. (In fact, I haven’t read much McAuley at all; his short fiction has left me cold, and his recent near-future thrillers haven’t appealed to me.)

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