With the publication of Into Everywhere, the follow-up to last year’s Something Coming Through, Paul McAuley has produced the second of his novels about the alien Jackaroo. And I have to ask: are these the most enigmatic aliens to actually appear in a science fiction novel? Oh I know that we know even less about the aliens in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, but the aliens don’t actually appear in those novels, when they do appear, in later novels in the two series, they are considerably less enigmatic. But the Jackaroo are in these novels, always there or thereabouts when things happen, and yet by the end of the second book we still know next to nothing about them.
From the start of the first novel we know that Earth had gone through economic collapse, terrorist attacks and so forth, and just when things seemed darkest, the Jackaroo appeared. (By the end of the second novel, we know that the Jackaroo were aware of earth’s problems at the time, though we have no idea whether they were instrumental in causing the problems, or had no way of even alleviating them.)
We know that what the Jackaroo brought was access to 15 wormholes, that gave humanity 15 habitable planets to colonise. (By the end of the second novel, we also know that the Jackaroo themselves did not discover the planets or the wormholes.)
We know that numerous other races had colonised these same planets before humans came along, and that these races were also clients of the Jackaroo, but other than scattered ruins and bits of technology, there is no trace of any of them left.
And we know that the Jackaroo take a close interest in human affairs, turning up as avatars in all sorts of situations, tagging along with Adam Nevers in Into Everywhere, for example.
And that’s just about all we do know.
There’s rather more that we don’t know.
We don’t know what the Jackaroo look like. Their avatars are humanoid, but that may bear no relationship to the actual being. And if somebody attacks an avatar, as they do in Something Coming Through, it has no apparent effect on the alien.
We don’t know where the Jackaroo are. If there’s a Jackaroo ship overhead when the avatar materialises, we don’t see it.
We don’t know where they come from, or what their relationship was to the original and long-gone race from whom they inherited the planets and wormholes.
We don’t know what happened to any of the previous client races, or whether the Jackaroo had anything to do with what happened to them.
We don’t know why they gifted the planets and wormholes to Earth. Is humanity part of some experiment, or a charity case? Was it all just for their own amusement?
We don’t know if the Jackaroo have any interest in humanity at all. After their initial gift of the 15 planets, they have done nothing: their avatars watch but say nothing, they do not interfere in what anyone does. Humanity has been involved in two wars after going into space, and the Jackaroo have not interfered.
We don’t even know if the Jackaroo understand what they are doing. Is there a purpose at all? Did they simply gift the 15 planets to each client race in turn as no more than a knee-jerk reaction?
Previous client races developed their own high-powered spaceships and opened their own wormholes; humanity has appropriated all of this so that by the second novel human space is much bigger than the 15 worlds gifted by the Jackaroo. Was this all part of the plan? Do the Jackaroo welcome the expansion of human space or deplore it, or do they have no opinion at all. We just don’t know.
There’s a suggestion, towards the end of Into Everywhere, that the Jackaroo have no creativity of their own. In that case, are they feeding on the creativity of their various client races? But we have seen nothing to suggest that they are using anything that humanity’s predecessors have built.
And in the end, can we actually believe any of the little that we do learn about the Jackaroo? Because we learn most of it by way of their companion race, the !Cha, and they would appear to be not what they present themselves as, in particular they appear to be not especially truthful.
In other words, deception seems to be at the core of these novels. Throughout the two novels we have people presenting themselves as something they are not, people hiding things or telling only partial truths, people being manipulated by others. Cynicism is a survival trait, and that seems to be especially true when you expand out into the universe at large. Although never explicitly stated, the underlying message of the novels seems to be: beware of Jackaroo bearing gifts!
All through the novels the stories concern humans in conflict with other humans, or indeed in conflict with themselves. Lisa, one of the two central characters in Into Everywhere has been infected with alien technology, has lost her job, and is an alcoholic. If you want a character to spell out the message: do not trust your world – look no further. Indeed, the actions of the two central characters, Lisa and Tony, turn out to have been manipulated by two other major characters who are engaged in their own deadly rivalry, Adam Nevers and Ada Morange. Humanity has been given the stars, but all they do is despoil things and fight. But though the action is purely human, what propels the plot is the urge to find out about the Jackaroo: who they are, what they want, why they did what they did, what happened to their other clients. But every suggestion of revelation only exposes yet more enigma. The more that is found out, the more that is mysterious.
Will further novels finally solve the mystery of the Jackaroo? I suspect not. Or rather, I hope not. If the mystery was solved, I suspect it would seem banal (as the Rama aliens were when we finally encountered them in later volumes); but as enigmas, they remain one of the most compelling aliens in contemporary science fiction.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.