Fiction Reviews

The Quiet War

(2008) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, 18.99, hrdbk, 464pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07932-8
(N. American edition 2009) Pyr, US$16, trdpbk, ISBN 978-1-591-02781-2


It is the 23rd century and the Earth has been through the ravages of the overturn. The overturn was a severe episode of global warming: though it is not said by name it sounds like it could have been an Initial Eocene Thermal Maximum (IETM or PETM) analogue climate event. Either way, this and the intense population boom of the 21st century has left the Earth's ecosystems severely disrupted/transformed. The Earth's population is recovering and the latest science (especially bioscience) and technology as well as hard human labour is put to the regeneration effort.

Meanwhile off the Earth there is a community on the Moon. There was also one on Mars too, but it went renegade and Mars was dealt a crippling blow by an asteroid the Earth forces deflected onto the planet. The rebels in space retreated further out to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Though out there you may think their lives were austere, and in truth some true grit is needed, soon it was possible to have the luxuries of life due to these 'Outers' having high tech. This high tech includes GM technology and other developments that a number of the masses on Earth are wary (since it was the industrial technological society that caused the Overturn) but which the political classes respect as they recognise the power technology represents.

In this future humanity is therefore split between a recovering Earth (and its Lunar colonies) on one hand and the Outers on the other with real enmity between both camps. Add into this mix some Outers wanting to go further into space and use even more exotic technologies, and a powerful political-military class on Earth envious of the Outers' resources (and secretly, from their own people, envious of the Outer technology and you have tension. Furthermore the Outers themselves are somewhat split with those wishing to go further and those seeking trade with Earth.

This then is the set-up. Divided into five sequential novellas, The Quiet War novel follows a handful of disparately located protagonists through political intrigue that gradually leads up to a battle between some of the forces from Earth to control the key settlements in the Saturnian system: the Quiet War. We have: a pilot of a new fusion war craft; a middle-ranking scientist come politician; a junior scientist caught in the heat and so is forced by circumstance (not belief) to switch sides; and a genetically modified warrior who gets to be sent to soften the enemy up with terrorist action.

Let me say straight away that The Quiet War is an accomplished space opera. For those wishing a more precise position with the SF landscape, it is a cross between mundane SF with a dash of cyber- and biopunk. 'Mundane' because we have conventional reaction rockets and technology which largely we can foresee as happening in the coming decades. 'Cyberpunk' because there is artificial intelligence, internet activity, cyber conferences, e-privacy issues and so forth. And 'biopunk' because there are not only the cyberpunkish computer-human direct interfaces, but also human GM as well as synthetic biology (for example vacuum plants).

But this is McAuley and the man will not be constrained by typecasting. So this is different from other of his recent books (in fact you have to go back quite a few years to see any similar from him in genre terms). Indeed it is very distinct from his last book, the absolutely marvellous Cowboy Angels. That novel had a solid SF concept at its heart from which streams of sense of wonder flowed inexorably gushed. Here the SF is more evenly embedded across the whole novel. Aside from the space opera future there are some marvellous throw-away snippets. I liked the intelligent, escaped lab rats that made pest control a tad difficult, and enjoyed the notion of a religion based on distant far future astronauts sending messages back in time to ensure that their future would come about. These are delightful one-offs and there are others to enliven what is an already rollicking story.

So do I recommend The Quiet War? Well I guess you might have gently begun to suspect that there is the remotest possibility that, yes, I believe I do even: though for my money I feel Cowboy Angels was even better. Such is life at the top edge of SF.

Jonathan Cowie

Tony has reviewed the paperback here.

Follow-up Quiet War novels include: Evening's Empires, Gardens of the Sun and In the Mouth of the Whale.

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