Fiction Reviews

Gardens of the Sun

(2009) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, £14.99, trd pbk, 439 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07937-3


The great space war, the 'Quiet War', of the 23rd century is over. The 'Outers' on Saturn and Jupiter's moons are either being subjugated by the Earth alliance, or have fled further away from the Sun to Uranus. It is a time for the victors to take the spoils of the war, the new biological high-tech of the Outers, but the alliance force is tense with rivalries that reflect the tensions between nations back on Earth. Meanwhile a renegade spy seeks his lover, while elsewhere the Earth scientist, Sri Hong-Owen, is trying to unravel the mysterious biological gardens created by the Outer genius Avernus and to develop the vacuum organisms that did much to enable the Outers to build their society among the gas giants. Then Avernus' daughter is found and is discovered to be extensively genetically altered.

Further out in Uranus, the Outers that have fled are building a new home for themselves but they are worried that the Earth alliance will follow them and so they keep an eye on the inner gas giants for signs of pursuit. Back on Earth, life following the Over Turn (a major climatic jump) is tough and there is jealousy among the hard-pressed masses of the powerful Greater Brazil as the ruling families are living in uncaring luxury. With the war in space over, will there be another on Earth?

This is McAuley's sequel to last year's (2008) The Quiet War (hardback reviewed here and the paperback reviewed here). As sequels go Gardens of the Sun is not so much a follow-up to The Quiet War but part II, a continuation of the story from exactly where it left off. Now, you could if you really had to (and I dare say in several years time you might) read this novel straight away without seeing The Quiet War. If so then you are injected right into the action for although the main conflict of The Quiet War, the actual war itself, is over before the first page of Gardens of the Sun, there is a lot of mopping up, consolidation, protagonists re-aligning themselves to the post-war circumstances and so forth, going on and the story is fairly fast-paced. Yet though McAuley spends minimal time recapping events, he does enable you to quickly pick up what has happened in The Quiet War as you go along. Having said that, the characters and back story are so well developed that you really are better off getting The Quiet War and reading that first. Given that that book only came out last year then now is the time to do it. However if you are reading this in the far future having seen a second hand copy on sale somewhere, and with the first nowhere in sight, then don't fret, Gardens of the Sun is a great read by itself.

Taking the two books together, they tell a single story of human development and conflict. Yes, the setting is the future and much of it in space, so there is the sense of wonder and the spectacular Solar system vistas beyond Earth, but at its heart the tale is one of human achievement marred by human weaknesses: greed, self-serving advancement, rivalry (both political and more personal), jealously, debauchery, and the quest for power. The first book slowly sets the scene before gathering momentum as the 'Quiet War' begins, is fought before racing to that conflict's immediate conclusion. Conversely Gardens of the Sun does not start slowly but its beginning retains much of The Quiet War's inertia with plenty going on and the reader getting an overview of what is happening from the reasonably quick succession of change of disparate protagonist perspectives; this style runs through both books. Gardens of the Sun therefore commences at a fair lick, then gears up from this canter to a gallop through to the book's concluding chapters and only then does the pace slacken off, almost post-coitially as the loose ends are tidied up.

Both books are, as should be clear to you by now, hard SF space opera. Having said that the SF is largely mundane: that is to say most of the technology one can theoretically envision today – genetically modified humans, fusion drive space craft, artificial intelligence, and really catastrophic climate change. Indeed, with regards to this last, as I indicated in my earlier review of The Quiet War. the catastrophic climate change looks as if it could have been caused by an Initial Eocene Thermal Maximum (IETM or PETM) analogue climate event. Now I have absolutely no idea if this was really in McAuley's mind but in Gardens of the Sun there is a mention that the climate Overturn was caused by the release of Antarctic methane clathrate (clathrate disruption being the favoured hypothesis behind the IETM (PETM). Now I do not want to go all nerdy on you (but I will) this is an interesting though unlikely cause: it may well be that Antarctica does have substantial clathrate reserves but it would be the marine continental shelf clathrate most likely to cause the event McAuley envisions. Nevertheless this is cutting-edge biosphere science we are talking about so the author must be given leeway. Yet I do mention it because this concept is likely to become one that is explored a few times in the coming years as the subject itself garners increasing scientific attention. (If all this is new to you then here is a science article on the Eocene climate change topic.) Other than this notion of a climate overturn dramatically affecting the Earth and the human global society, the novel has numerous SF tropes as well as a few ideas that go beyond mundane SF. Here the vacuum organisms must take centre stage. This notion is engaging for while at the moment such synthetic biology (using the term loosely) is clearly impossible, thermodynamically the concept is not implausible even that far from the Sun. (Remember its E = hv that counts not temperature alone.) However such consideration of the SF tropes is not what the two books are about all be they very welcome tinsel for the SF reader. The two novels are very much a story of humanity presenting both its better and worse aspects through adversity: an age-old tried and tested formula for a story and there is nothing wrong in that. That nearly all of the plot is acted out against the spectacular, and McAuley's well-researched, backdrop of the Solar system's gas giants' many moons throws the human grubbing about in stark relief. Had a similar story of human politics, conflict and strife, been set on present-day Earth then it would be almost unremarkable. After all we see war for political ends, career politicians, bribery, corruption, cronyism, etc., everyday in the news: we take it for granted. Take the same out of its familiar context and not only does it make for an interesting tale but you wonder if there is any hope for humanity? However despair ye not for it is only SF…

With the duology of Gardens of the Sun and The Quiet War McAuley has done a fine job that demonstrates, if demonstration be needed, that he continues to be a major force in British SF. I look forward to the next one.

Jonathan Cowie

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