Paul McAuley’s 1991 Eternal Light is a difficult book to write a review of. Space opera through and through, going beyond plot rehash and still writing a meaningful review requires some effort. What makes it unique?
Eternal Light is space opera modernized for the turn of the 21st century. Eschewing the simplicity of the genre’s early efforts, McAuley goes beyond classic heroes and damsels in distress to present a multi-cultural yet action-oriented, solar-system spanning story that packs enough techno-gabble to warrant a hard sf subtitle. Realistic too strong a word, McAuley nevertheless presents space action by turns gritty and conventional. Delivered in a cold, dispassionate voice that matches the contraspace the ships zip through, there is no time for good and evil as an object is discovered flying into our galaxy. Differing political and commercial interests attracted to the strange object, the main character is a woman who initially is looking out for her own prospects but is dragged into the race to be the first to explore it. Risk on all sides, McAuley brings them together in a rousing climax.
Yes, Eternal Light is space opera, no bones about it. Thematically light (to be kind), McAuley waves his hands around a bunch of ubiquitous yet imaginative technology with right-sounding words, the concerns of futurized, interstellar human colonies, and an intriguing BDO to create a colorful, action-drama fully worthy of the sub-genre. Updating his approach for the modern era, the heroes are closer to real life and the “bad guys” have more than one understandable motive. McAuley’s writing chops passable (it it his third novel), the prose doesn’t make one wince, and while there is padding, it does not exist in a quantity that wholly detracts from enjoyment. Similar to but certainly better than Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, McAuley should appear on the radar of any US fan of space opera looking for more. Given the book’s publishing history, it appears McAuley is better known in the UK, but perhaps underservingly so.