Paul McAuley – The Quiet War

Back at the outset of August I promised to post one of my book reviews for Vector every Saturday, and then repeatedly forgot to queue up the reviews for the rest of the month. Duh. Here’s the first of the two, of an understated and clever space opera by Paul McAuley.

The Overturn, a period of catastrophic political and climatic change which saw the deaths of hundreds of millions throughout the solar system, lies several centuries passed, yet its shadow still hangs over humanity. Earth’s old nations have conglomerated into three international super-states under authoritarian and militaristic systems of rule, pursuing ecological doctrines and endeavouring to restore their planet to some of its former natural glories. Elsewhere in the solar system the loosely affiliated networks of democratic Outer colonies pursue their own agendas, be they posthumanism, scientific research, or the simple pursuit of pleasure.

The conflict and atrocities of the Overturn left many tensions between Earth and the Outers, but tensions also lie between their internal factions. On Earth, the super-states still squabble for power at every level. The most established players uneasily eye the Outer colonies, afraid that as the Outers continue to evolve and expand Earth will lose any ability to exert influence over them. Among the Outers the older and younger generations disagree about their future: the old are conservative, desiring controlled populations on already established colonies, whereas the young argue for change and expansion further out into the unknown.

The super-state of Greater Brazil is foremost among Earth’s players in its interactions with the Outer colonies. A last effort towards peace has been initiated by Brazilian politicians and the representatives of a high-tech, horizontally-democratic Callistan colony. Together they are constructing a secure biome on the small moon’s surface as a symbol of co-operation between two peoples. Yet among those sent to Callisto to oversee the project are bit players whose masters would prefer war to peaceful trade and co-operation, and conflict is easy to engineer between two groups of people who struggle to understand one another.

‘The Quiet War’ is billed as a space opera but, as should be obvious from the preceding scene-setting, readers expecting clashes between vast fleets of spacecraft will be disappointed. Almost from the outset McAuley’s focus is on the intrigue and power-plays among the Terran factions, as well as the more varied interactions of the atomised, argumentative and often idealistic Outers. In many ways ‘The Quiet War’ is a portrait of a clash of civilizations as, for the most part, the people who populate the novel think in genuinely different ways. Macy, an engineer forced into exile from Greater Brazil, illustrates this perfectly as she is passed between Outer colonies who struggle to decide what to do with her. In one case Outer utopianism is demonstrably cruel and unfair, although these Outers genuinely believe that it is Macy who refuses to integrate. Then there are the genetically-engineered or modified soldiers and pilots of Greater Brazil. The former are drilled with patriotic anti-Outer fervour from birth, whereas the latter are ordinary human pilots who agree to lose something of themselves to become superior warriors. In both cases their attitudes towards the Outers are illuminating, as are their actions when war does come.

McAuley shows us the cynical manipulation that drives Greater Brazil’s politicians and top-ranking military officials, as well as how this affects the smaller players who are dragged into the Machiavellian melee through choice or accident. This damning focus isn’t restricted to the authoritarian Terran super-states; if anything, they are presented more neutrally, perhaps because everyone now knows that authoritarian and militaristic national blocs are callous, destructive and riddled with corruption. The Outers are subjected to more criticism, presumably because their lives are more unusual and thus interesting to readers of SF. Sociological considerations are paramount as the novel questions assumptions implicit in social structures and patterns of thought. Impressively this is all grounded in story and character, with authorial opinion never obviously creeping in. The many criticisms made towards the Outers are the result of career diplomats, politicians and other ambassadors drawing attention to the flaws they see in their visits to Outer colonies. No Outer ever visits Earth, and what criticism they do direct towards their Terran counterparts is usually crude propaganda based on ignorance.

Two classic SF novels came to mind whilst reading ‘The Quiet War’. The first was Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, with its feudal struggles for economic and political power and its “wheels within wheels” approach to the same. At first I found the intrigue of ‘The Quiet War’ shallow – not stupid, but lacking the multiple layers and angles such a story demands. In retrospect I think it was a deliberate conceit to not throw the reader in at the deep end, and as I read on I was left simply impressed with the tale’s rigorous complexity.

The second novel is Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’, with its considered exploration of two very different systems of social organisation, language, and methods of interaction. This comparison is less close as McAuley devotes less time to exploring the details of his societies, preferring instead to focus on the conflicts between them, the more abstract ideas underpinning them, and also the themes of change and social evolution. Still, I think any serious critical examination of ‘The Quiet War’ would do well to turn its eyes to these classics.

The scientific rigor present throughout, in various disciplines, is impressive. I am no scientist but I found the lucid descriptions illuminating, if not always directly relevant to the story itself (for the record, I regard this as no bad thing). The prose is less impressive: it is more than workmanlike, but the emphasis is clearly on clarity above beauty. I feel that this is only worth mentioning as it exacerbates the apparent simplicity and dullness of the book at its beginning; later, this clarity is something of a boon.

Overall I found ‘The Quiet War’ a highly rewarding read, with my opinion of it continually revised upwards as I read on. By the novel’s midpoint the societies it portrayed genuinely felt like the confused, messy systems of social organisation and power they are. The ideas presented by the novel are interesting and the conclusions drawn by several of the surviving characters by its close provide intellectual and philosophical payoff. I have no qualms recommending ‘The Quiet War’ to those seeking to be intellectually provoked as well as thrilled by their space operatic fare.

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