Writing SF about the outer solar system is a hard task. In 1979, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg edited an anthology called The Science Fictional solar system, which included an introduction by Asimov that commented on how former realms of fantasy were being reshaped, as the first eyes of our culture were reaching such distant shores. Asimov proposed that much in that volume, carefully accurate as it could be, would end up being made imaginary by the continued exploration of space. In McAuley's latest pair (this book is a sequel to The Quiet War), we are presented with evidence of how that journey of imagination has continued. This work is shaped by what is now known, by the technical data and extensive panoramas available online from space probes young and old. The detail has driven McAuley's imagination, aided by the shared imagery of real space which fills much of the volume between writer and reader. Since Cassini, many of his readers know the Saturn system with the result that a list of moons—"[t]wo-faced Iapetus; tumbling cavern-riddled Hyperion; smoggy Titan; battered Rhea" (p. 382)—triggers images in our minds and is freighted with meaning not available to earlier writers of the genre.
McAuley's form of writing may have been shaped by NASA's robotic probes, but he also ensures he has plenty of opportunity to use the details of the outer planets and their moons. The Free Outers, who have escaped the occupation of their home systems, almost seem to be moved around the scenery to ensure we see as much as possible of the solar system. Early on, Macy Minnot and Newt Jones arrive at Uranus. They visit Pluto, are propelled on to Neptune, and eventually head towards the inner system. In the process, each detail of the political turmoil amongst the Outers is presented, as Macy Minnot maintains her position near the centre of events. But this volume lacks the impetus of a central conflict that drove The Quiet War, and its plot appears to wander across its pages. Perhaps if McAuley had chosen to limit himself to the outer system, the book would have felt more coherent. Instead, the cast of characters and number of settings are quite similar to The Quiet War and although the novel’s search for structure manages to reflect the moral that winning the peace is harder than winning the war, the many threads add up to less than the sum of their parts.
The contrast between orderly orbital mechanics and the strange loops of humanity is further emphasised by repetition and elision. At times, it seems that the reader must share each character's discovery of the same information. On close reading, this approach says as much about perspective and context as it does about the data.
A new prison is first mentioned in the story of a man already held captive by the Outers on Saturn's moon Rhea:
he could . . . go to the Moon, Earth's moon, and work in a new, experimental prison facility built by the European government and its allies in Brazil. (p. 214)
It is next mentioned in a discussion between two Brazilian veterans of the Quiet War:
"Right now we're building a prison on the far side of the Moon to accommodate the worst of the Outers—the ones who fought back." (p. 235)
Later, Loc Ifrahim, a Brazilian functionary, muses on events in the Outer system:
They were constructing a facility on the Moon that would house their most important political prisoners. (p. 271)
For the prisoner, this is a step towards liberation, perhaps even a chance to eventually get to Earth. For the veterans, an indicator of how completely the War is over, that the losers can now be shipped about at will. For the functionary, it is progress towards "settling" the Outer system. Equally, Ifrahim's conception of "political prisoners" maps to the veterans' idea of anyone who fought back, whilst we know that the prisoner on Rhea was imprisoned for violence. Whilst near-repetition is effective at building depth of field, it is often too close to direct restatement, and it often felt as though I was just being reminded of things I already knew. For example, in two close chapters telling Macy Minnot's story:
Triton had been claimed and colonised by the Ghosts, the cult whose reclusive leader claimed to be guided by messages sent by his future self from an Earth-like planet around the star Beta Hydri. (p. 220)
The Ghosts had begun to settle Triton in secret more than a decade ago. According to their unseen guru, Levi, they were the chosen people. He claimed to have received messages from his future self. (p. 248)
Such an approach lulls the novel into an extended sense of quietude, a conception that so little is going on that we need to be told about the same things several times. However, there is also a sense that much is occurring out of our sight, out of the sight of the characters we are following. Sri Hong-Owen moves herself out of sight, eventually becoming a snatched moment from Fairyland (1995) rather than a protagonist. Avernus the gene wizard remains off stage for much of this book, as elusive as she was in The Quiet War, and where she does act the impact again seems slight, not the driving force one might expect from the effects of all she did before the story started. Political events in Greater Brazil are referenced mostly through hearsay as few of our protagonists are closely involved. More positively, the Earth is re-imaged, more complex than it appeared in the first book, and we are reminded that Earth is the original garden of the sun.
The final section of the book feels like an epilogue, pushing forward in time to show some of the ways in which life can go on after the story is over. This throws a similar light on the whole book, though, making it seem altogether like an epilogue to The Quiet War itself. That life goes on seems rather a thin message for this novel, given all that seemed possible at the end of the previous volume. That, even amidst our own tiny lives, we can perceive the universe may be marvel enough.