Fairyland

by Paul J. McAuley

Cover image

Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1995
Printing: August 1997
ISBN: 0-380-79429-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 405

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Alex Sharkey is an underground gengineer, a future drug designer who plays with artificial life as a hobby and builds designer molecules that can produce specific emotional effects or even mess with people's beliefs or memories. He hasn't worked with dolls, artificial lifeforms created through genetic engineering as easily controllable slaves for humans. But then, his own ties to organized crime pushes him to get involved with a strange child prodigy who is trying to modify the dolls so that they can become independent. The result is a tangled story in three parts with a large and changing cast, touching on designer genetic engineering, uploading of minds, manipulation of people through drugs, and the senescence of the human race.

Unfortunately, I bounced off this book rather badly. There is a chunk of speculative world-building here but the tone of the book is all thriller, and I have problems with this sort of dense, atmospheric thriller unless there are particularly compelling characters. Milena, the child (later young woman) who is a quest target for most of the book rather than an active character, was for me nearly the only interesting character in the book for me (a few minor characters in the third part get an honorable mention). Alex in particular I never warmed to, so nothing made me want to spend the effort to immerse myself in the atmosphere or follow the convoluted plot. As a result, my reaction was fairly negative. This may not be typical of someone who loves this sort of gritty, atmospheric thriller, so keep that in mind.

Apart from the lack of attractive characters, I also had trouble with the episodic feel of the book. The three parts are so separate that it feels almost like a collection of linked novellas; even the large cast mostly resets between parts, carrying over few characters other than Alex and Milena. Rather than building a strong story through the whole novel, only certain plot points carry over. I was left wondering why I read all that detailed, heavy plot when only a few results built into an overall story.

Fairyland often felt like McAuley was indulging in detail and atmosphere for its own sake rather than building to some larger purpose, and frustratingly, the detail he did put in often wasn't focused on his technological world-building. For being the center of the story, the dolls and later fairies seemed oddly relegated to the sidelines of Alex and Milena's story. Milena's background isn't well-explained (or if it was, it was buried too deep for me to pick up on it), even though it sounded intriguing. I wanted more about artificial life; it seemed like McAuley just used it as a plot device to get the main characters together. The best-explored idea, nanite biological infections that propagate memes and infest people with belief systems and behavior patterns, felt too good to use only as thriller background.

It may very well be that I'm missing a great deal of depth and connection below the surface. Fairyland never pulled me in far enough for me to care about the depths, so I came away bored, frustrated, and certain that I missed the point. Still, I've had similar trouble with other books (Tim Powers's Declare comes to mind) that still managed to catch my attention with a particularly nice set piece or bit of description, and there are no memorable moments like that here. Shortly after finishing the book, it fell almost completely out of my head. I had to re-read the last few pages just to remind myself of the ending for this review.

This one didn't work for me. The writing isn't so bad that I'd warn everyone else off of it; rather, if the style fits your personal preferences, my guess is that it could be a good (although probably not great) book. It did win a Clarke award, after all, so clearly other people see things in it that I didn't. But know what you're getting into. If you're not in the mood for a detailed futuristic thriller that focuses on its somewhat unlikely characters rather than world-building, you may have the same reaction I did.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-02-19

Last modified and spun 2015-01-06