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The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

The Quiet War (original 2008; edition 2009)

by Paul McAuley

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3821728,205 (3.51)48
Title:The Quiet War
Authors:Paul McAuley
Info:Pyr (2009), Paperback, 405 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:SF, McAuley

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The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (2008)

  1. 00
    Heart of the Comet by Gregory Benford (tetrachromat)
    tetrachromat: Both tell stories of how humanity uses genetic engineering to construct habitats and survive in space.

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Two hundred years from now, following catastrophic climate change and devastating wars, the remaining people of Earth have been united under a handful of super-states: the Pacific Community, the European Union, and Greater Brazil (encompassing most of the Americas). In the solar system, meanwhile, genetically altered human colonists called “Outers” have fled to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn after a war with Earth saw their colonies on Mars totally eliminated. As the Outers intend to spread further and deeper into space, and the repressive, conservative governments of Earth feel uncomfortable with allowing what they see as a new species to prosper, war seems to be brewing once again.

The Quiet War is at least in part a parable about the Cold War, with two sides holding diametrically opposed philosophies and conflict seeming inevitable despite the fact that most people don’t want it to happen. Or one could read it as an allegory for the Iraq War (not that either side matches up), given that it’s instigated almost entirely by a small group of people on one side, and the reader is led to sympathise with the large but ultimately marginalised peace movement. The novel is told from the point of view of a few different characters, the most important amongst them being Macy Minnot, a American scientist sent as part of a team to work on the construction of a biome on Callisto by the government of Brazil. The biome is a good faith gesture which elements of the Brazilian government want to sabotage, and through a series of events Macy is framed for murder and forced to defect to the Outers. McAuley is thus given the opportunity to take us on a grand tour of his invented world as Macy begins her new life as an exile in the outer system, the drumbeats of war growing louder.

You can easily see the influence of Kim Stanley Robinson in this novel, not just in the thoughtful scope of his futuristic world-building and the repeated scientific infodumps, but also in the sort of worldviews he, as an author, seems to possess. There’s an awful lot of exposition when it comes to both scene-setting (understandably hard to avoid in this type of story) and character motivation (less tolerable). His two major characters are both scientists – rational, intelligent, level-headed people constantly troubled by the lesser minds around them. There’s one particularly telling scene on Ganymede, where Macy is trying to settle into her new life and is constantly harassed and bullied by a “cosmo angel” named Jibril, a narcissistic performance artist who films and disseminates her reactions. Jibril is the only “traditional” artist of any kind in the book; certainly the genetic creations of some of the more genius scientists are presented as art. The presentation of this character, along with a fellow Ganymedean’s suggestion to Macy that she should “video them videoing you and post it; make your own art that critiques Jibril’s,” gave me a fairly clear idea of what Paul McAuley, hard science fiction writer, thinks about the respective importance of art and science.

But as with Robinson, it’s hard to fault him for it, when he’s presenting such a beautiful vision of science as art: of the human race spreading out across the worlds, harnessing technology to create new life, building floating gardens in the atmosphere of Saturn or treetop cities on low gravity moons where humans fly between the branches. It’s a compelling vision of a possible future for humanity, war and all, which makes you vaguely depressed to look up from it and remember that it’s 2014 and we still have no plans to go to Mars. I can see why it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award; it’s a pretty classic candidate.

It’s a shame, on the whole, that The Quiet War’s story – with its clunky exposition, constant political subterfuge and doublecrossing, and unmemorable characters – doesn’t quite live up to the world it takes place in. (Story of science fiction’s life, I guess.) It also ends on a somewhat abrupt note, with the war over but the outer system in disarray, and the characters treading water. There’s a sequel, which I’ll probably read, but I’m in no rush to do so. ( )
  edgeworth | Oct 29, 2014 |
Not as good as 'Gardens of the Sun.' The reason for the war between Earth and the Outers was really contrived. Last 50 pages or so was a ho-hum type of battle. ( )
  skraft001 | Feb 23, 2013 |
Paul McAuley has been on my “I really should read something by that guy some time” list for quite a while now, and now I finally got around to it. He’s been around for a while and apparently quite versatile, writing, among other things, alternative history and near future thrillers. The Quiet War (which was on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2009) is space opera – not so much the pulpy Golden Age variant of E.E. Smith but the contemporary variant that was started off by C.J. Cherryh with her Downbelow Station and that aims for more realism and psychological depth.

Unusual even for the modern version of the genre (and one, although not the only, reason why the book is titled as it is) there is only a single space battle in this novel, and even that is very small in scale, involving only three fighters and the automated self defense system of an asteroid. Which does not mean that the “small, quiet war” (as it once called by one of its main instigators) does not cost any lives, quite to the contrary - but those are mostly civilians, acting to defend their homes or even outright executed, and in that sense the novel’s title is a cutting sarcasm.

The war itself is also very brief: It only takes up about the final fifth of the novel, while its main bulk is dedicated to the political shuffling and military intrigue paving the way towards the eventual outbreak of open conflict, attempts to maintain peace becoming more and more desperate as war appears increasingly inevitable. The forces arraigned against each other are an Earth ruled by dictatorships and the grass-root democracies of the Outer Planets of the Solar system. While it is quite clear which faction has the author’s sympathies, McAuley does not paint the Outers of unblemished paragons of all that’s good – among the widely varying societies and their lifestyles colonising the moons of Saturn and Jupiter there are many that are just as repressive and as disregarding of their members’ happiness and wellbeing as any dictatorship, and neither are the Outers in general immune to intolerance.

Nuanced characterisation is generally one of the strong points of The Quiet War, and that applies not just to the various factions but also to individual protagonists. A good example (and my favourite point of view character) is Sri Hong-Owen, a genius scientist who becomes a puppet in the political scheming between factions vying for power in her home nation of Greater Brazil. But while she herself continues to perceive herself as an innocent victim who is only interested in pursuing her science, it gradually is shown to the reader that she is willing to go to absolutely any length to realise her own goals, and that those have a lot more to do with satisfying her own vanity than with furthering science.

The writing, if not brilliant, is at least solid; there are some very impressive vistas of places where humanity has carved out a niche for itself in the Solar system’s moons and McAuley is very good at describing the helplessness of living in a dictatorship where one’s very existence hangs on the whim of the powerful or the atmosphere in a city under siege where slowly but inexorably paranoia and mob rule take over. In general, and that is probably its greatest strength, The Quiet War succeeds very well in making the reader feel what it would be like to live out in space, where the environment is unforgivingly lethal and a small carelessness or a minor freak accident can be fatal, but where humanity rises to the challenge and realises its full potential. Which, everything considered, is a very Golden Age attitude after all.
2 vote Larou | Jan 31, 2012 |
McAuley takes a handful of common themes in science fiction—an Earth rebuilding after some (unspecified) disaster, genetic engineering, cyberpunk-ish type dystopias, conflict between Earth and her colonies—and melds them together into a piece of social and political science fiction that feels creative and new.

There is a strong thread of hard science fiction in this story, not suprising given that McAuley was a biologist by profession. At times, this makes for a few daunting pages as the genetic engineers discuss the environments they've created but he was smart enough to keep the narrative from depending upon those details; the story moves on smoothly whether they make sense or not.

I think this book would appeal to fans of Stephen Donaldson's "Gap" series, Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age, or some of Cherryh's social science fiction, though I'm not sure how much it would attract those who are only marginal about the genre. I'm looking forward to picking up the sequel in this two-part story. ( )
1 vote TadAD | Aug 8, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
This novel is one of the best SF novels of the past couple of years. It is fullthroatedly SFnal, distinctly "hard."
added by sdobie | editSF Site, Rich Horton (Dec 1, 2009)
Though flawed, The Quiet War makes you want more precisely because there's so much promise in its primary characters and settings. McAuley makes science incredibly exciting, and you'll have his weird images and ideas in your brain for days after you put the book down. War may not have been the best plot device to get this story in motion, but the vacuum organisms and communes on Uranus make this a novel well worth your time.
added by PhoenixTerran | editio9, Annalee Newitz (May 6, 2009)

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Paul McAuleyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cooke, Jacqueline NassoCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Twenty-third century Earth, ravaged by climate change, looks backwards to the holy ideal of a pre-industrial Eden. Political power has been grabbed by a few powerful families and their green saints. Millions of people are imprisoned in teeming cities; millions more labour on Pharaonic projects to rebuild ruined ecosystems. On the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the Outers, descendants of refugees from Earth's repressive regimes, have constructed a wild variety of self-sufficient cities and settlements: scientific utopias crammed with exuberant creations of the genetic arts; the last outposts of every kind of democratic tradition. The fragile detente between the Outer cities and the dynasties of Earth is threatened by the ambitions of the rising generation of Outers, who want to break free of their cosy, inward-looking pocket paradises, colonise the rest of the Solar System, and drive human evolution in a hundred new directions. On Earth, many demand pre-emptive action against the Outers before it's too late; others want to exploit the talents of their scientists and gene wizards. Amid campaigns for peace and reconciliation, political machinations, crude displays of military might, and espionage by cunningly wrought agents, the two branches of humanity edge towards war.… (more)

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