Most people reading this will know of Paul principally for his work as an author. When I first met him, he was my editor. I should qualify that: I hoped he would become my editor. It was my first Convention, I'd just sold my first manuscript to Pan, so I was judged eligible to attend a room party consisting of SF's elite (so my memory proudly insists -- reality is probably slightly different, after all they let Graham Joyce in). Once past the security staff on the door I was handed a flyer for a proposed original anthology, In Dreams. Paul McAuley and Kim Newman were its joint editors and originators. It was a brilliant concept; CD's were starting to dominate the music market in the early nineties, so the stories would celebrate the death of the 7" single. The book would appeal to both SF fans and music fans alike; and just to make certain, the list of contributors read like a line up of SF royalty. A sure-fire winner. Critical success and huge sales were bound to be a mere formality.
I wrote my little story for them, and not only was it accepted but Paul and Kim sent a list of helpful editorial comments saying how much they liked it, and could I please expand it. They also paid very well.
To put it kindly, the book didn't quite storm the best-seller charts. To this day I don't understand why that should be. Check it out for yourselves if you ever see a second hand copy in the dealers room, see what you think.
In Dreams is the only glitch in Paul McAuley's SF career, and it's a thankfully small one. Yet even that taught me one very important thing about the man. He knows his music. I thought I was being oh-so clever putting in small jokey references and weaving highly obscure lyrics into the text. He spotted them.
That, as I've found out over the years, is typical of Paul. Whatever subject interests him, he knows and understands it thoroughly. For the reader this produces some wonderful benefits.
Most writers parade the fact they've done their research through info-dump sections that can last for pages. Paul casually presents essential information as part of the story, his facts twining tightly round the narrative. Believe me, that's one of the most difficult tricks for a writer to pull off, and he does it effortlessly every time. You learn of his universe's background and technology at the same time as you stand back to admire the traditional sense-of-wonder. Yes, you get that too; he may be a thoroughly modern writer, but he has neither forgotten nor ignored the fundamental roots of SF, the genuine reasons why the genre has appealed to so many for so long. Like his music, he knows his classics.
I'll use Secret Harmonies as an example, which is probably my favourite Paul McAuley book. For a start, it's a good story. An obvious statement maybe, but a lot of novels today are merely good ''ideas'' that take time and two hundred pages to explain. The difference is critical. A story is something which involves you as a reader, it is a world through which characters pass, and which causes change. Without this elementary foundation, you might just as well be reading non-fiction texts for all the interest they spark.
Paul presents us with an alien word, colonised by humans, but with an aboriginal species also living there. It's set in a time of conflict and rebellion for the humans, with their links to Earth broken and the old order collapsing. Intriguing stuff; one of SF's better qualities is investigating the effects of technology, or discovery on a society. In doing so it examines issues and structures relevant to us all. But as well as that, you have the puzzle of the aborigines. Their lives and nature are shown to us in amazing detail as human researchers try to decide if they qualify as sentient, and are therefore our equals. By giving us this dilemma Paul causes us to review many of our own prejudices and preconceptions of intelligence. That there is no absolute verdict on the aborigines delivered by the book is one of its strongest points. Not only do you get a good novel, you're subtly coerced into thinking. To finish is to question. How many writers would have the courage to do that? So many authors regard their work as a showcase for their views or ideology. Paul obviously cares too much for his craft to stoop to that. For me Secret Harmonies is a shining example of what SF can achieve, yet does so all too rarely ...
His other work ranges from the ultra-hard SF of Eternal Light to the alternative history of Pasquale's Angel, and the cybergothic (he probably won't thank me for that tag line, but what the hell ...) Fairyland; as well as an equally impressive subject range covered in his short stories. In other words he's a versatile writer, refusing to stick to one element, the safe career bet of producing the same but different each time. Whenever you open a McAuley book, there's always that little thrill which comes from never quite knowing what you're going to get.
As well as some delightful reading, you're also due some excellent panel items, whatever their subject. Paul's alter life as a university lecturer (botany at St Andrew's University) has made him a highly professional public speaker. I still remember his Guest of Honour speech at a recent British Eastercon, where I sat in the audience being thoroughly entertained and wishing that one day I could learn how to talk to people with such easy confidence.
So while you've got the chance this weekend, stop him in the bar, buy him a drink, and don't be afraid to ask him that obscure question you've had on your mind for some time now. Just be prepared for an entertaining answer.