Paul McAuley’s 2022 Beyond the Burn Line is a stand-alone science fiction novel.
Six hundred thousand years before the time of the novel, the ogres failed so egregiously to properly caretake the Earth that scorch marks are still visible in the geological record. The ogres were replaced by the cruel but capable bears, whose domination of their home continents lasted for thirty millennia. Six centuries ago, the bears fell to madness, leaving their domain in the hands of their former Procyonic slaves. In the six centuries since, the citizens of the Union and United Territories have done their best to follow an equitable and prudent course that will steer them away from the fates of ogre- and bear-kind.
The first signs that unexpected transformation is coming arrives in the form of an academic puzzle.
Elderly Master Able died of natural causes before he could determine precisely what phenomenon was behind reports of enigmatic Visitors. Able’s secretary, Pilgrim Saltmire, was determined to finish Able’s research. Able’s grasping relatives put paid to that. Having no legal obligation to consider Pilgrim’s ambitions, they disbursed Able’s goods as best profited them and sent Pilgrim on his way.
Returning home to a community he has not seen in years, Pilgrim considers trying to convince his clan leaders to fund his research into the supposed Visitors. Thanks to an attempted robbery, this comes to nothing. Pilgrim badly injures the would-be robber. Despite mitigating circumstances, he is exiled to a distant rural location to work off his debt to society.
Set to the task of cataloging a decrepit library, Pilgrim makes a momentous discovery: a copy of a map dating to the time of the bear civilization, a map one of whose markings may represent Visitors. Were the enigmatic Visitors, whatever they may be, already present more than six centuries before?
History is no respecter of academic ambitions. Before Pilgrim can pursue the history of the map, society is upended by the unexpected reappearance of the ogres or as they prefer to call themselves, humans. Nevertheless, the question raised by the map remain: what exactly happened six centuries before the humans returned?
Six hundred millennia doesn’t really seem like enough time to rebound from the Sixth Extinction. The narrative suggests that doomed humanity tried to accelerate their recovery and in the process created new intelligent species. Good for them, although not causing the Sixth Extinction would have been even better.
The intelligent species that inherit the Earth share some common elements. All five known species1 are tetrapods and all have small populations and ranges that are nowhere near as large as those of the humans before the Burn Line. Three of the new species (two primate species and one bird) died out after a few thousand years.
So, humans down, bears down, two primate species down, one bird species down. Is this the solution to the Fermi Paradox? Intelligent species doomed to senescence and extinction?
Readers may wonder how humans survived past the Burn Line. That question is answered. Readers may also wonder how long it takes humans to reduce their heirs to “natives” whose future the humans are determined to shape according to human desires. The answer is “almost immediately.” Indeed, questions regarding colonialism appear in various forms throughout the book.
The text divides into two sections. The first focuses on Pilgrim’s quest to finish his master’s work. The second, set decades after the humans reveal themselves, focuses more on the humans and on certain historical puzzles about which even the humans are in the dark. The second section pushes the racoons into supporting roles. Indeed, even the humans are observers for much of the conflict that follows.
The questions raised by the second half were intellectually interesting but the narrative did not engage me.
Pilgrim Saltmire’s life, however, was fascinating and his world, of six hundred thousand years from now, was intriguing. The mysteries Pilgrim wrestled with were engaging. Pilgrim himself is a character about whom readers will care. I just wish he’d been given all of the book and not just half of it.
1: I admit to intense curiosity about what went on in the oceans. Given the limited resources available to search and the constraints imposed by the environment, would researchers have noticed intelligent cephalopods?