In the not too distant future, Earth is about done for – ruined by nuclear and environmental disaster. And then hope and salvation arrives in the form of First Contact. The Jackaroo turn up, not in person but via their peculiar semi-organic avatars, and give humans a solution to their problems. Humanity is offered fifteen habitable planets on which mankind can start afresh. A lottery decides the names of the colonists and the lucky millions are sent through wormholes on Jackaroo shuttles and there they begin again. It’s difficult at first. Everyone has to graft hard. But finally sufficient infrastructure is built that humans can get back to doing what they do best – causing an awful lot of trouble. Matters aren’t helped by the scraps of enigmatic alien technology (Elder Technology) that have been found scattered across these fifteen worlds, many of which make their way back to Earth, along with all sorts of other contaminants that make Earth a very different place from the planet that the Jackeroo decided to pay a visit.
Chloe Millar lives in London and works for Disruption Theory, an influential company whose business is to map the changes caused by Elder Technology, most especially by the strangest artefacts of all, which are haunted by the spirits of beings, ancient ghosts with minds and plans of their own, only missing the bodies required to act on them. Humans are most susceptible. Humans are also very attracted to another alien import – mind-bending drugs. Just the sort of thing rival gangs like to kill over. Chloe is called out to a happening involving two kids who have come into contact with an Elder ghost. Its spirit is especially strong, attractive not only to Disruption Theory but also to other forces, some of which want to stamp out alien contact once and for all.
Meanwhile on Mangala, one of the fifteen settled worlds, equally likeable policeman Vic Gayle has a body on his hands. A new arrival from Earth has been murdered. Vic’s investigation uncovers a bloody battle between gangsters to control an excavation site, the source of alien artefacts. Something is coming through and there is every reason to suspect it has something to do with the two kids on Earth and their mysterious alien cult. The investigation is not an easy one for Vic and it takes him and us to some very dark places indeed.
Something Coming Through is such an entertaining read, packed full of sparkling ideas and mysteries galore. The chapters alternate between Chloe’s investigations on Earth and Vic’s parallel manhunt on Mangala. This means we have many of the elements of a police procedural crime novel, combined with mystery thriller and the wonder and awe of science fiction. Earth and Mangala are worlds apart but it is fascinating – and not a little depressing – to see the damage that can be done to a planet in a mere generation of human habitation. Indigenous species are there but all the signs suggest not for much longer. Although most of the Mangala population originally won lottery settler tickets, it didn’t take long for the worst elements of human nature to show themselves, especially when it became clear how much hard work would be required to create a utopia. The colonists settle for much, much less.
The mystery of the novel is extremely satisfying and very clever. It is full of twists and surprises and fed by an intriguing line-up of characters, some villainous, some trying to do good, some caught up in something they don’t understand, some who are victims and others who are just human. The depiction of damaged London and the rather unappealing Mangala are big highlights of the book, and all is deftly treated with a splash of wit and humour. This is especially apparent in the portrait of the rather odd Jackeroo themselves. There is a huge amount of mystery surrounding these bizarre beings. Nobody knows what they look like nor what they want. Do they really mean good? Or are they just stirring? Having a good old laugh at the expense of poor old mankind? And who were the Elders? What happened to them? This uncertainty hovers over the entire world of Something Coming Through and you’ll have your own opinions on it as you read through the book.
My only issue with the novel is that its ending felt a little rushed, almost an anti-climax after pages and pages of the most exciting mystery solving. It’s possible that this is setting something up for a future novel – I would certainly welcome that. I was left with such a lot of questions, as was probably the intention.
What an enjoyable book Something Coming Through is. Packed with ideas, fantastic worldbuilding and enigmas, and combining elements of first contact, alien artefacts, a touch of dystopia and good old fashioned conspiracy, murder and greed. It’s a great combination, all handled with a terrific mix of intelligence and accessibility. I really do hope Paul McAuley returns us to this world. I want to learn a lot more about the Jackeroo and the Elders. You sense that there is a huge jam-packed history out there somewhere in the universe between the two of them and it wants us humans to know all about it.