After spending the early and mid-oughts writing near-future technothrillers, Paul McAuley returns to his roots with The Quiet War, the first volume in a new space opera series. Set in the 23rd century, The Quiet War finds humanity still recovering from the environmental and economic collapses of the 21st century. On Earth, efforts to restore a ravaged environment are proceeding slowly but doggedly. On the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, humans (known collectively as Outers) have painstakingly carved out enclaves for themselves, establishing a loose conglomeration of city-states. Relations between Earth-bound humans and Outers have been strained since a war a century earlier in which both sides tried to exterminate the other. Now, parties on both sides are moving towards reconciliation, while other, louder voices are calling for a rematch.
The Quiet War alternates between the points of view of five characters, but is dominated by two: Macy Minnot, an environmental reclamation specialist who is part of a team dispatched from Earth to Callisto to build a biome, a gift from Earth to the Outer colonies meant, by its sponsors on both sides, to foster friendship and understanding, and Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen, a scientist in the service of one of Earth's ruling families. The others are Loc Ifrahim, a junior diplomat attached to Macy's expedition, Cash Baker, a pilot surgically altered to fly Earth's newest, state-of-the-art space fighters, and Dave #8, one of a platoon of identical, genetically engineered soldiers, raised and trained on the Moon to act as Earth's secret spies and saboteurs in the Outer colonies.
For all its good intentions, the biome project gets off to a rocky start when its head scientist dies under mysterious circumstances upon arriving at Callisto. Further diplomatic incidents follow, and then several other deaths, in the wake of which the terraforming expedition is expelled from the colony, leaving the stage clear for belligerent voices on both sides to strengthen their calls for war. The Quiet War's title is perhaps deliberately reminiscent of our own Cold War, and much like the violent flare-ups of that struggle, the war McAuley describes is not so much sparked as sidled up to, in ways familiar from recent history. Conciliatory gestures such as the biome project are cancelled out by inflammatory rhetoric and "training maneouvers" in Outer space, and even as war seems inevitable, diplomatic missions are exchanged between the two sides. The war, in the end, happens not because of conflicting interests, or because of any single act, but because enough people on both sides are persuaded that it is a good idea.
The influence of the Cold War can also be detected in McAuley's construction of the two sides, which, like the West and the Soviet Union, present a contrast between a society that values individuality and one which prioritizes dedication to a cause. Earth-based humanity is single-mindedly focused on environmental restoration, making of it a religion and dubbing the original architects of this movement "green saints." It is also a feudal system, with leadership of its mega-nations (the one featured most prominently in The Quiet War is Greater Brazil, which encompasses South America and much of the North) divided between ruling houses who own the people born in their territories and have total power over them. The Outer colonies, meanwhile, are absolute democracies in which every decision is arrived at through debate and public polling, and everything is a matter of public record and discussion. The result, McAuley tells us, is a group of inward-looking, self-obsessed, stagnant societies, intent upon preserving what they believe to be a utopia, rather than, like Earth society, continuing to strive towards a grand goal.
Though both Earth and the Outer colonies are described with loving care and attention, McAuley's depiction of the latter feels less persuasive, less like what real human civilization founded under the conditions and driven by the philosophies he describes would be like. At several points throughout the novel Macy is accosted by characters who are convinced (and would like her to help them convince others) that life on Earth is an unmitigated misery, a perpetual enslavement of the many by a privileged few who oppress their subjects with impunity. Though there is some truth to this depiction, it is also, as Macy insists and as we ourselves see, a vast oversimplification. Much like many of the people who lived out their lives under the similarly tyrannical Soviet regime, she was content with her life on Earth, constantly aware of the restrictions placed on her and the dangers of coming to the attention of those in power, but able, if only because of long use and familiarity, to work within those limitations. In contrast, our view of Outer society, as a vast chattering mob perpetually plugged into a deafening conversation and ruled by the tides of public opinion and received morality, is never complicated in a similar manner. With one or two exceptions, all of the Outers we meet are singular versions of this plurality. This may, however, be because all of the point-of-view characters in the novel are Earth citizens visiting or making a life for themselves in the colonies, who can't adjust to what they think of as the Outers' unsophisticated approach to power and politics. (Alternatively, it may because the depiction of an ultra-liberal society of plenty whose detractors accuse it of insularity and lack of initiative instantly brings to mind Iain M. Banks's far more successful version of same in his Culture novels.)
That his characters have a limited and perhaps limiting perspective on the events of his novel, however, may very well be McAuley's greatest achievement in The Quiet War. What unites his protagonists, and sets them apart from those of other space operas, is that they are, without exception, cogs in the machine, pawns of those who possess real power. Dave #8 and Cash Baker are tools, weapons deployed without understanding or moral judgement. "He felt no remorse about attacking a civilian ship," we are told of Cash. "Once war was declared, battle orders were to intercept and terminate or cripple all Outer ships inside the orbit of Iapetus" (p. 424), and having received those orders, Cash follows them unthinkingly (and when he does, towards the end of the book, make an independent decision, he suffers a grim fate for it, sacrificed in the pursuit of others' goals). Macy Minnot is a talented engineer who just wants to do her work, but almost as soon as she arrives on Callisto she is drawn into political maneuvers when Loc Ifrahim uses threats and intimidation to get her to spy on a troublesome expedition member, and later tries to frame her for murder, forcing her to defect and subsequently spend the rest of the novel bouncing from one temporary safe haven to another. But Ifrahim himself is at the mercy of his political masters, to whom he is only as valuable as his most recent accomplishment or uncovered secret, and who will cheerfully abandon him to his death once they have no further use of him. Even Sri Hong-Owen, though in some ways the most powerful of the novel's protagonists (for example, she is responsible for the scientific innovations through which Dave #8 and Cash Baker are, respectively, created and enhanced) is at the mercy of Greater Brazil's ruling family. Though she has goals of her own—to make the acquaintance of, and learn from, the renowned Outer scientist Avernus—she must approach them obliquely, constantly serving up morsels to her masters in order to persuade them of her usefulness and loyalty.
The Quiet War, therefore, describes the war not simply from the point of view of the groundlings, caught in a situation they have no power over, but from the perspective of characters who have a tremendous effect on their surroundings—Dave #8, for example, is instrumental in weakening the defenses and enabling the capture of the city of Paris on Saturn's moon, Dione, one of the hotbeds of anti-Earth sentiment—while remaining in thrall to forces far more powerful than themselves. Crucially, there is no escape from such forces, and no form of government—neither Earth's totalitarianism nor the Outer colonies' pluralism—safeguards against it. When Macy defects, she's told that she's escaped slavery, but as she quickly recognizes, so long as she is part of a human system there will always be people more powerful than she is seeking to use and control her. After her defection she is genteelly imprisoned in an out-of-the-way colony until its leaders have a use for her, at which point they blackmail her into helping them, and once she escapes them the mayor of Paris tries to use her as a tool in his anti-Earth propaganda, and, when she refuses, brands her a traitor and an enemy of the Outer cause. Actual, complete freedom is impossible so long as the novel's characters participate in society.
It's an interesting approach to space opera, which so often centers on characters who are key operators, manipulating others but resistant to manipulation themselves (this, for example, is the approach taken in Adam Roberts's Gradisil, a novel which like The Quiet War seeks to portray the process of arriving at all-out war in as realistic a manner as possible, but focuses on the chief mover and shaker in that war and her immediate family), or wild cards, loners who exist outside the system and out of its rulers' reach, and whose presence often throws it into disarray. It's a shame, therefore, that from a stylistic standpoint The Quiet War is such a disappointingly unsubtle book. McAuley has no aversion to infodumps, and clearly had a lot of fun puzzling out the mechanics of human habitation and survival in the outer reaches of the solar system—he seems particularly pleased with the invention of "vacuum organisms," which "[inhabit] the borderland between machines and life: hives or self-organizing swarms of various kinds of microscopic machines that behaved like cells in living organisms, making copies of themselves, changing their shape and metabolic repertoire according to simple rules programmed into giant self-replicating molecules analogous to DNA." (p. 107), frequently pausing the action of the novel to describe the "fields" or "gardens" in which they are grown. Perhaps because his SFnal invention is really quite exciting, and perhaps because of the baldness with which he bombards the readers with paragraphs of enthusiastically described technical details, McAuley's infodumping doesn't rankle. Far more problematic, however, is his choice to use what amounts to infodumping when building characters and advancing his narrative.
When it comes to his characters, McAuley invariably tells rather than shows, and when telling, leaves very little to imagination or inference. "Macy was certain that Loc Ifrahim and Speller Twain had been planning to frame her for the murder of poor Ursula Freye. She'd ruined their plans by managing to get away, so now they had to kill her" (p. 89). "Like his mother, Alder believed that peace and reconciliation was a better option than war, but he also believed that the family's green saint still had significant power and influence, a view that in Sri's opinion was supported more by sentiment than reasoned judgment" (p. 103). "Devon Pike spluttered out some reply, but Sri paid no attention to it. She felt a bright singing in her head. This wasn't propaganda. She had no time for propaganda. She really and truly believed it" (p. 110). "Sri knew that Euclides knew that Oscar had asked her to collect the damned data needle" (p. 247). Rather than suggesting and allowing his readers to conclude for themselves what his characters' personalities, opinions, and relationships are like, McAuley lays them all out on the page in inelegant expository sentences. Certain chapters begin with several pages of political infodumping, describing the societies McAuley has constructed rather than allowing us to get to know them through immersion:
This burgeoning frontier spirit, combined with radical notions about posthuman utopianism, was beginning to cause serious social and political unrest. The Outer System's economy was build upon a barter and social ranking system based on the value of volunteer work and exchange of scientific, cultural and technological ideas and information. But now the brightest and the best of the new generation were devoting themselves to planning new kinds of social groupings that deliberately excluded themselves from the mainstream. Young people were quitting the cities for oases, shelters and other microhabitats constructed by tireless crews of robots. And they were engaged in fierce and frequently divisive debates within the collectives and family trusts that owned most of the ships in the Outer System. (p. 116)
Even the novel's central theme, the smallness and powerlessness of its characters, isn't something that readers are allowed to deduce on their own. While searching Avernus's compound after the fall of Paris, Sri triggers a recording of David Copperfield which rattles off the novel's first sentence: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by someone else, these pages must show." A clever enough way of drawing our attention to the subject, if only McAuley hadn't felt compelled to hammer in the point by adding that this is "A sentiment that so precisely echoed [Sri's] present situation that she felt a little shock" (p. 388) and if he hadn't anyway had Sri's son Alder point out, more than a hundred pages earlier, that "the rich and the powerful can be unthinkingly cruel and capricious. They can change the lives of their servants on a whim, and think nothing of it" (p. 252).
The cumulative effect of what can only be interpreted, after so many instances of it, as lack of faith in the readers' powers of deduction and imagination, is a novel that is all surface and hardly any depth. There is still, however, much to look forward to in The Quiet War. The characters, though all recognizable types and not particularly complicated, are engaging and believable. Macy in particular is a lot of fun—a level-headed, no-nonsense person who is remarkably pragmatic about the repeated blows she's dealt over the course of the novel, never surrendering to despair and always remaining skeptical in the face of inflammatory rhetoric or subtle manipulation. Sri is a less wholesome creation. Consumed by her desire for Avernus's respect and for the secrets the Outer scientist can teach her, and made bitter by the constant necessity of kowtowing to her benefactors, she repeatedly makes compromises with her conscience in order to get what she wants. Nevertheless, she is smart, determined, and a great deal more clear-sighted than most of the Brazilian higher-ups we meet. Loc Ifrahim is an excellent villain, twisted by ambition and incapable of handling its frustration. It is also worth noting that nearly all of the women in the novel are independent, smart, strong-willed, and, inasmuch as their situation permits them to be, in charge of their own lives and choices—not only Macy and Sri (who is also, and without compromising either her strength or her intelligence, a mother), but also Avernus, and Macy's benefactor on Dione, Abbey Jones—whereas the men are usually more firmly under someone else's thumb.
That said, between the flatness of its narrative and the predictability of its characters, there's not much to feel passionate about in The Quiet War, and for the first part in a series this may be a fatal flaw. The novel is undercut by not amounting to a single story—it ends as the war ends, but with the solar system still in turmoil, the political situation and ultimate disposition of Earth and the Outer colonies still unclear, and our characters hanging in limbo. On the other hand, the novel's ending isn't nearly open-ended enough to create the suspense that'll whet its readers' appetite for the next installment, and since the story itself is not much more than enjoyable, I for one don't feel any compulsion to read the next chapter. I'm not sorry to have read The Quiet War—in fact, on the whole, I'm quite pleased to have done so—but neither will I make an extra effort to seek out its conclusion.
Abigail Nussbaum (email@example.com) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.
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