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The Quiet War
Paul McAuley
Gollancz hardcover £18.99

review by Duncan Lawie

[W]e are disadvantaged because we cannot stoop to the level of our opponents by spreading false counter rumours. We must cleave to the truth because otherwise we will become like our enemies, and traduce our own cause. At the same time there is no point being right, logically, morally, historically... Being right in every sense, but losing. (p. 241)

These lines form the core of The Quiet War, manifesting the struggle before its conscious actors. This novel is a study of compromise rather than of power, as Paul McAuley focuses on people with limited control of their lives. Faced with death, they attempt to make themselves a little room, to not compromise too much. Macy Minnot becomes a refugee in the outer system because she tries to be honest but chooses not to kill. Her antagonist, Loc Ifrahim, comfortable with murder and manipulation to advance his career, is used as he uses others. Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen, genius, works genetic miracles for the great families but must apply as much effort to keeping herself and her sons alive. The political system sustains itself, whether through incidental kindness or explicit threat.

The dark tone of The Quiet War recalls the shadows of McAuley's first novels, of the miserabilism close to the heart of much mid-1980s' British SF. Greater Brazil was in the background of Paul [J.] McAuley's first novel Four Hundred Billion Stars, published in 1988. At the time, Brazil as an interstellar-capable superpower seemed rather unlikely. In the decades since, the world we live in has given McAuley a viable path to such a future (although this is not quite the same Greater Brazil). In this book, the Earth is beginning to recover from the depredations of climate change and the resultant chaos of the Overturn. Cleanup crews are still working their way through the world, regenerating natural systems from disasters as large as the ruins of Chicago, whilst the reduced human population are constrained to largely self-contained cities. Greater Brazil is now the principal power of the Americas, where the ruling families extend their control of society through life extending technologies.

Beyond Earth, the Moon is under Brazilian control, and Mars is empty, its terraforming a victim of interplanetary violence. During the Overturn, some of the richest and the luckiest of human society fled Earth, but those left behind begrudged this abandonment. Fleeing further, the 'outers' have colonised the environs of Jupiter and Saturn, but mutual suspicion remains; the war of a century before is within living memory for leaders from both sides. The outers are ruled chaotically - they could almost be the inheritors of the 'Space and Freedom Party' of Ken MacLeod's early novels - but their low birth rate and longevity have created a de facto gerontocracy.

This is all delivered through pellucid prose. The 'window pane' style esteemed in SF before the 'new wave' is aligned here with the pared back prose McAuley has mastered in his thriller novels, to the extent that this novel almost disappears into primary school language.

They were standing in a little clearing. The leaves of a clump of maple saplings glowed red as fresh blood in the afternoon sunlight. There was a chill edge to the clean air. Macy said, "Can I ask you a question, Mr Vargo?" Emmanuel Vargo's smile showed crooked brown teeth and his eyes shone with fine humour. "Anything you like." (p. 41)

This lightness, almost an absence, of style leads, at first, to an intimation that there is no substance to the book either. There is a vague but overpowering sense of threat, of powerful inimical forces 'back home' on Earth that, combined with the setting, recall Ben Bova's Saturn. Perhaps Bova's book was more convincing for readers familiar with the rest of his series. I feared that McAuley would be relying on the same broad knowledge here. This history has clearly been floating through McAuley's mind for a long time, with such stories as Reef, while Making History (2000) is set in the aftermath of the Quiet War.

Fortunately, as this book opens out from the claustrophobic first section, it also deepens, revealing context and explaining the origins of much of what occurs in the novel's present. The reasons for paranoia and loathing are well demonstrated amidst political struggles within the Brazilian families. Similar conflicts within outers' society are more openly played out; their message boards and public interactions ensure a great deal of shouting and display in their process. The arguments on both sides of this divide are over conflict or co-operation between Earth and the outers and, given the subtlety of the book's title, the extent of the forecast war is by no means certain.

Encompassing these human dramas is a Solar system rich with space-probe detail and gritty with the reality of living in forbidding - but not impossible - places. The precision with which McAuley can write about the moons of Saturn marks this book out from Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix. Sterling's requirements from his settings were, of course, quite different, but still he could not have introduced a Titan like this with such confidence:

At the poles, methane and ethane rains filled lakes and rivers that carved ramifying channels through water-ice highlands and flooded lowland basins. (p. 436)

Coating these no-longer-speculative landscapes are genetic marvels reminiscent of fairyland - and of Fairyland (1995). Vacuum organisms, powered by solar energy, extract trace elements from their surroundings or combine to form factory farms across the Solar system. Where there is an atmosphere, they have been grown into bizarre ecosystems. The gene wizard Avernus, still leader in the field, snaps into focus in the novels final pages, but slips away again.

Almost everyone slips away at the end of this novel, in fact. To hide? To rebuild? The Quiet War builds a platform, and McAuley could leap off in any direction.
The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

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