Review of The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

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This hard science fiction tale grabbed my attention because being a shallow sort, I loved the cool cover…

thequietwarOn twenty-third-century Earth, ravaged by climate change, political power has been grabbed by a few powerful families and their green saints. Millions of people, most little better than slaves, labour to rebuild ruined ecosystems. Those who fled Earth’s repressive regimes to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn live in a fantastic variety of habitats, some deep underground, others protected from inhospitable atmospheres by vast tents; all scientific utopias crammed with exuberant inventions of the genetic arts.

But the fragile peace between Earth and the colonies is threatened by the Outers’ growing ambitions to spread out through the Solar System, pushing human evolution forward. On Earth argument rages: whether to take pre-emptive action against the Outers, or to exploit their scientific talents. Amidst all the debating and turmoil, war between the two branches of humanity moves ever closer.

This book looks at a familiar conflict point much explored by the likes of Alistair Reynolds, Eric Brown and Iain M. Banks – that of humanity diverging as the diaspora start living in space. McAuley, like a number of other science fiction writers, trained as a scientist and this becomes apparent in the loving detail he lavishes on the extra-terrestrial vegetation that the Outers manage to establish in all sorts of unlikely nooks – like Callisto and Titan, for instance.

So, how ably does he handle this ambitious tale that spans a number of far-flung settings, with six main characters? Is the characterisation sufficiently complex and compelling? Do the passages concentrating on the extra-terrestrial eco-systems silt up the narrative pace and get in the way of the book’s message?

While there are six viewpoint characters, it is Macey Minnot and Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen whose stories drive most of the action. McAuley has tweaked this familiar territory in interesting ways – while we are given a ringside seat into the slow, inexorable slide into war, all the main characters including Macey and Sri are all underlings, hemmed in by a strict chain of command. Not one of them are free to follow their own wishes – and when any of them try to do so, the consequences are dramatic and dangerous. This gives the reader a first-hand appreciation of the limits experienced by the Earth-based characters, both good and bad. However, it is interesting that we are not privy to any Outer viewpoint. I’m wondering whether McAuley covers the experiences of that faction in detail in the sequel, Gardens of the Sun. I’m not willing to believe that this was just some random omission – McAuley is too careful a craftsman to make such a basic mistake.

I particularly enjoyed Macey and Sri who are both well rounded, complex creations – neither are innately likeable, yet I was able to empathise with their dilemmas as the stakes become ever higher in the increasingly febrile political situation. It was interesting to compare how both women deal with the unfolding conflict, given that there are some obvious similarities along with their very different backgrounds. There is an implicit suggestion that had Macey enjoyed Sri’s advantages, she could have achieved similar success and status. McAuley does an effective job of providing a sophisticated Earth society with a variety of influences and differing agendas, while the Outer factions are less well defined. Though, I’m betting he’s going to get round to those in due course.

Loc Ifrahim is less successful. He starts off very well, but unfortunately towards the end of the story, he becomes too much of a caricature. There are plotlines that could have coped with that type of shorthand, but this isn’t one of them. McAuley’s initial approach is too nuanced and knowing to allow such a lapse to be anything other than a disappointment. The other fascinating character is Dave #8. Perhaps his journey is the most dramatic of all and I’m going to track down Gardens of the Sun in no small part because I want to discover what happens to him.

McAuley is an accomplished, experienced writer and when I realised that he would be devoting pages of detail to his invented world, I decided to go with the flow. After all, if it got too tediously wordy I could always abandon the book and pick up the next one on the pile teetering by my bedside. As it happened, I fell under the spell of his enthusiasm and rolling prose, growing to really enjoy the flights of imagination that had these fragile bubbles of life seeded in improbable crannies around the solar system.

Overall, I found The Quiet War an enjoyable, satisfying read and will be tracking down Gardens of the Sun to discover what happens next, and if your taste runs to the harder end of science fiction and you haven’t yet come across this little nugget, I recommend you do so.
9/10

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