Fiction Reviews

The Quiet War

(2008) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, 12.99, pbk, 439pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07933-5


In the mid-twenty-first century the Earth falls into chaos following the effects of catastrophic climate change and an event known as the Overturn. Just before the Overturn, several people escaped to the Moon and Mars, establishing colonies on both using advanced scientific techniques to transform the inhospitable landscapes. A war broke out during which the Martians tried to 'bomb' the Earth with an asteroid, but the Earth averted the attack, overran the Moon and 'bombed' Mars with a comet. Those that escaped the Moon and Mars fled to the outer system planets and colonised many of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. On the Earth, power was seized across the globe by powerful families who, under the direction of their 'green saints', set about restoring the environment. As this book opens we are a little way into the twenty-third century. There are three main power blocs on Earth: Greater Brazil, the European Union and the Pacific Community. Each is controlled by a dynastic family; Brazil by the Peixotos. The 'Outers' have again transformed their new homes, partly through the use of novel gengineered vacuum organisms, and partly through adaptations to their own genome. Although it is a time of relative peace, the old enmities are still remembered. On the surface there are many attempts at reconciliation and co-operation, but factions on both sides seek change through war. On Earth there are those who believe that the Outers will always be a threat and, despite the extensive use of their own genetic techniques, fear those of the enemy, though other pro-war factions would like to get their hands on said techniques. The Outers fear equally the aggression of Earth, not least because all the Outer colonies are democracies of one kind or another, but also because those with genetic adaptations fear that their diversification will be curtailed in a very permanent way. The book follows a few individuals, such as Sri Hong-Owen, an Earth-born geneticist who would like to get her hands on the work of the Outers' best gene-wizard, Avernus; Macy Minnot, forced to flee from Greater Brazilian authorities after being framed for a murder she did not commit; Loc Ifrahim, an ambitious Brazilian diplomat in the pro-war camp; and General Arvam Piexoto, Ifrahim and Hong-Owen's boss.

It would be easy to overthink this book, especially as (like McAuley's other work) it is very rich and thorough in its painting of its large canvas, not least the detailed and well-researched romp across the Jovian and Saturnian satellites. It could be about conservatism versus change, it could be about the old versus the young, or it could be about religion versus scientific rationalism, it could even be about plain old greed. But I think that what it really is is a good, old-fashioned anti-war novel. And nothing wrong with that! McAuley points unfailingly to the verities of war: the stupidity (in this case of pursuing a competitive strategy over a co-operative one), the hypocrisy (so many characters say one thing, and then do the opposite), and the greed (as groups seek to assert supremacy and ownership over others and their assets). While the message is simple, the context is complex; so complex in fact that, although there is no indication that this is 'book one of a series', there is plenty of scope to extend the story further. Not that McAuley is known for such (to the best of my knowledge, his only trilogy/series are the Books of Confluence).

Tony Chester

See also Jonathan's review of The Quiet War.

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