Something Coming Through
by Paul McAuley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1473203937
Date: 19 February 2015
One fine day on a not too far distant 12 September, a terrorist with a suitcase nuke turned Trafalgar Square into ground zero and nothing was ever quite the same afterwards. That the aliens showed up the next day offering to help may have had something to do with that too, one supposes. Some fourteen years later, Chloe Millar is still trying to make sense of it all.
As a teen she honed her research skills hunting through scraps of video and hearsay to try and find a last glimpse of her mother, who'd gone down to have lunch with a friend that day and never came home. Now she's moved on, but not too far, working as an investigator for Disruption Theory, a company that tracks down the effects of alien artifacts as they leave their imprints on the humans they touch.
The aliens are the Jackaroo, and their tag line is that they're "here to help". Nobody knows what they look like. Their android avatars are more or less humanoid, and the only other alien race we've encountered are the !Cha, their traveling companions, and they get around in "black cylinder(s) balanced on a tripod of three skeletal legs like a miniature Martian fighting machine". The Jackaroo have a whole laissez-faire thing going on, though one could argue that gifting humanity with lots of cool tech and a regular shuttle service to a collection of fourteen human habitable worlds make it unclear how hands off they are. The !Cha, on the other hand, just want to collect interesting stories about weird alien adventures (ours) to take home and count coup on their mates, or to get mates, and they're not above stirring the pot to make the story interesting.
The shuttles run on their own schedule, popping through wormholes to distant worlds where humanity has poured out the usual stuff in a hurry. Something Coming Through takes place on two worlds with the storyline alternating by chapter between Earth/London and the planet Mangala, which is sort of a cross between Mars and Australia, complete with Subarus and planet wide dust storms. We don't run the shuttles, which is a bit of a sore point for humanity, and between what the aliens give us in the way of tech and what the human authorities allow, not everyone is happy with the way things are.
The colony worlds have had other tenants, whom we refer to as "Elder Cultures", and we gather that the Jackaroo have been in this business a long time, and by long we're talking Earth cooling and dinosaurs come and go kind of long. The former tenants have left bits and pieces around and we're prone to pick them up and shake them to see what comes out. What comes out, besides a host of adaptable sufficiently advanced tech, are ghosts.
Not, ghost-ghosts, but the imprints of alien intelligences and AIs that peer out at the monkey/humans holding their shiny treasures and reach into their minds and say howdy. They may be thousands and thousands of years gone, but they're not quite dead yet.
So, on Earth, Chloe tracks down "breakouts" in groups or individuals that start speaking in tongues, or describing places they've never been or calling themselves the "New Galactic Navy", which is an especially sore point as that lot offed themselves shortly after she tracked them down. Disruption Theory is tracking this stuff down to see what the effect is on humanity, and to get hold of the bits of alien kit to see what they're made of. At least until the Hazard Police show up to take it back--for our own good--though they may have a point.
We meet Chloe as she investigates a breakout centered around an old guy spouting gibberish to a band of followers in a park, which suggest that there's an artifact in the area, and the striking posters that a local boy has been drawing for them, which strike her as being more fantastic than fanciful. Her spidey sense, as it were, set tingling. A close encounter with the lad, Fahad, and his younger sister, convince her that something is up, though her boss isn't so grabbed by her hunch.
Then she winds up having to lay low for a bit while a brew-ha winds down after she gets caught in the limelight trying to stop someone from attacking a Jackaroo avatar during the hearing where she's being grilled about the aforementioned New Galactic Navy debacle. So she gets leave to take off and follow her lead, but Fahad and his sister have flown the coop, and it turns out that others are looking too. The Hazard Police for one, less savory sorts for another. With an ex-special forces type named Henry who does security for the firm behind the firm she works for, she sets off to the back end of nowhere to hunt down Fahad. Action and adventure, ultimately on two worlds, ensues.
Meanwhile, or actually, if you watch the time codes at the beginning of each chapter, more accurately, alternately, action, adventure, and a quite credible police procedural ensues on Mangala. In the middle of Landing Day celebration, murder police investigator Vic Gayle has to take a shift, but it's slow, and rather than take it at the station, he's with a gathering of friends while his newbie partner, the young, good looking, poster boy partner with a future, watches the phone. Vic gives him one job, one simple job. "Don't pick up the phone." Vic tells him.
So Skip picks up the phone and that means it's his case, and Vic comes in to check out the scene. It's another ray gun murder, which is both unusual and cliché, as there's been a string of guys who got a high energy spike through their brains, and here's another one to mess up Vic's holiday and put the bit in Skips teeth. It's all Vic can do to hold back the kid, which he doesn't do any better than Skip managed at his one job.
Of course the two story lines ultimately converge on the alien landscape that Fahad has been obsessively drawing from every angle, pulled there by the alien presence in the artifact his father smuggled back from Mangala after being sent there to work off his debts to a drug ring as a chemist, in the Breaking Bad sense of chemist. Chloe is there to find some game changing alien technology, the Hazard Police are there to keep the game from changing, Fahad's there to put some ghost to rest...and Vic's there because he has to be.
As for the reader, he's there because McAuley has written a great story kicking off what we can only hope are a slew of novels set in the Jackaroo universe. Something Coming Through manages to tie up the first bit nicely while leaving us poised on the edge of what happens next. We can only hope it happens soon.