Fiction Reviews

In the Mouth of the Whale

(2012) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 376pp, ISBN 978-1-575-10074-9


Set in the future, The Child is being raised in Brazil by her mother who protects her from the pressures of a world under stress: the biosphere has suffered the 'overturn' resulting in much ecological dislocation. But The Child has a mind of her own, and an enquiring one at that. Soon she develops an interest in biology while hoping that her mother will not be seduced by the local rich landowner…

Meanwhile in the star system of Formhault, not too far from Earth, an awful lot is going on. The True (true humans) have taken dominion over the Quicks. The Quicks are genetically modified humans who fled the Solar System following tensions between various political and politico-human factions. Both the Quicks and The True are defending the Formhault system from attack from the Ghosts who are another modified human faction that arrived via another star system that the Ghosts originally colonised when they left the Solar System… I hope you are still with me as there is more…

Formhault has an asteroid belt populated with settlements of Trues and Quicks. There is also a gas giant, Cthuga. A giant airship floats in Cthuga's dense upper atmosphere that both 'mines' Cthuga's lower atmosphere (via a lengthy cable) and explores Cthuga's depths. This giant airship is known as the whale and among its crew is one of the subservient Quicks called Ori. She experiences some sort of 'telepathic' contact with something from deep within Cthuga…

And then in the asteroid belt true human Isak and his Horse (a Quick) get summoned for a mission. Their expertise is to root out software demons in the system's interconnected virtual library. The Library has been compromised and that has major implications, not least with the war between the True/Quicks and the Ghosts intensifying.

McAuley is a varied and an accomplished writer: no less so when he turns to space opera. (An early example of McAuley's space opera excellence being Eternal Light (1991).) With In the Mouth of the Whale he successfully manages to bring the afore various disparate and colourful plot threads together into a fascinating tour de force of sense-of-wonder reminiscent of a blend of Greg Egan combined with a more than heavy dollop of Alastair Reynolds. Brilliantly written. Superbly crafted and intricately plotted. This is a wide-screen, hard SF, space opera joy. A sequel is expected and I simply can't wait.

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read on if you do not want a spoiler… But do come back to this spoiler once you have read In the Mouth of the Whale

OK, if you are still with me then don't blame me if the following detracts from your enjoyment of the novel in the event that you have yet to read it.

It becomes apparent half-way through In the Mouth of the Whale that the events here follow on sometime after (generations later and in a different star system) from those in the duology The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. Indeed you sense early on, with The Child growing up in Brazil, that there is some sort of connection but it is more than that as some of the characters from the former books are reflected in In the Mouth of the Whale, so this is actually a sequel. Indeed it transpires that one of the events in Gardens of the Sun, that I took from that novel to be the delusional beliefs of a megalomaniacal leader of a cult, actually has some substance: the Ghosts really consider themselves to be literally ghosts (albeit in a hard-SF sense). So what we have with In the Mouth of the Whale is in fact a continuation of McAuley's previous work. As far as I know this is the first time Paul McAuley has written three books (with a fourth anticipated) that are part of a single grander vision. This broader work could easily end up as having the stature within SF of Reynolds' Revelation Space related novels or Iain Banks' 'Culture' stories (such as Matter). Having said that, you do not have to have already read the duology The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun to enjoy In the Mouth of the Whale as there is simply so much there and its own story arc is reasonably self-contained. However readers of In the Mouth of the Whale who have not read the two prequels (and who now know of them) may well want to go back to these previous works.   Yet there is nothing in the In the Mouth of the Whale's accompanying blurb (or any author afterword) to point to this connection and so one can only presume that the author is more than happy for some readers to read this book (at least initially) as a stand-alone novel: hence the need for the afore 'spoiler alert' because such folk will be delighted to know that in addition to the forthcoming sequel there is more that precedes this work. Meanwhile, it surely has to be an odds-on bet that In the Mouth of the Whale will be shortlisted for a number of awards next year.

Jonathan Cowie

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