Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (2008)

This book is quietly brilliant. It will probably prove to be—quietly—the best science fiction novel of the year; certainly it’s the best I’ve yet read.
It tells a simple tale, parsing four main characters and half a dozen minor ones, through the run-up, outbreak, prosecution and into the immediate aftermath of 23rd-century solar-systemic war. In the green corner we have Earth, dragged back from the brink of environmental collapse by radical measures, governed by essentially feudal power blocs, most of the population penned in the cities and the countryside given over to reclamation projects aimed at undoing centuries of environmental damage. In the purple corner are those humans who have colonised myriad sites and arcologies in the Jovian and Saturnian moons, not to mention Uranus and various other places. Unlike the radical ‘nature’ conservatives of Earth these colonist revel in genetic modification, of plants and animals and of humans too, the better to adapt them to the extremes of their worldlets. To the Earth such genetic modification compromises the Outers' humanity: they are a kind of freak people existing under the chaotic and unpredictable governance of democracy. To the Outers Earth is a backward-looking tyranny pursuing a nakedly imperialist project to grab the wealth and genetic innovation of their scientists. These latter ‘gene wizards’ (I presume ‘gene genies’ was a touch too aladdinsane for McAuley) are key players in the political, economic and culturals worlds of the future, and one of them—Avernus, two hundred years old and responsible for many of the most important innovations—is a sort of demigod.
It is superbly, and often exquisitely written; for despite (or who knows, because of) his academic background in the hard sciences McAuley is simply one of the best prose stylists working in the genre today. To an extent his writing shows the balance of clarity and considered poeticism also found in William Golding—both McAuley’s blog, and the epigraph to this novel (it quotes the last line of Free Fall) suggest that Golding is one of his influences. It is also, as it says in the blurb, a ‘scrupulously realised’ novel: every aspect of the worldbuilding, from science and technology to sociology and psychology, has been carefully worked through, and the result is a fictional environment that has the absolute smack of verisimilitude. There was only one detail, in the thousands of expertly pitched details, (and a bogglingly minor one at that) that struck a dud note to me. [Which one? Oh, Macy, a key character, is working to help quicken the biome of Rainbow Bridge, a huge tented settlement on Callisto; and in the sixth chapter we learn that ‘after a restless night, Macy got up early the next morning and ate a bowl of microwaved porridge and sipped lukewarm coffee.’ Why lukewarm? The narrator adds a parenthesis: ‘(atmospheric pressure in the tent was five hundred millibars, significantly reducing the boiling point of water)’. That last detail gives us a sense of how such tents will probably be, but I baulked at the lukewarmosity of the coffee, for it implies that the 23rd-century has forgotten the principle of the pressure cooker. I for one, projected into that world, would insist upon hot coffee, even if I had to drink it out of a specially adapted mug. I'd call that a trivial point, except that coffee is anything but a triviality to me ...] Otherwise the worlds were superbly rendered: vivid and believable and wonderfully immersive.
The most impressive feature of the whole, I’d say, is that it works its quietness through its whole aesthetic in a superbly controlled manner.
One of my favourite environments McAuley describes is on Europa, beneath the layer of ice (30km thick) in ‘a canyon cut into the underside of the ice and filled with air’ [132].
Huge biome chambers had been excavated on either side of the canyon and its walls were hung with tiers of platforms gardened with alpine meadows and dwarfed pines and firs, jutting out into above a silvery halflife membrane that flexed and undulated with the heavy wash of currents beneath. Despite the elaborate seals along the edges of the membrane, a faint curdled-egg odour of hydrogen sulphide leaked in from the anoxic ocean, and although chains of sunlamps brightened the air and panels of ice were tinted with bright, cheerful colours, it was very cold. The older citizens wore long fake-fur coats and tall fake-fur hats and many of the younger people had been cut to give them thick lustrous coats of fine hair and insulating layers of fat.
Sri (an Earth character) is on a fact-finding tour, and she visits a scientist called Tymon Simonov, who ‘lived in a pressurised, triple-skinned can that hung in black water to the west of the canyon, beneath a sold ceiling of ice that stretched away in every direction … undulating in long smooth swales … no end to it, a ceiling wrapped all the way around the world ocean. And below was a yawning plunge of freezing, oxygen-free water, black, salty and acidic; a fish would drown in it as quickly a human.’ [132-4]
How cool is that?
Not everything about the novel is perfect; and one particular problem in The Quiet War is that this application of carefully chosen detail in the service of spine-tingling worldbuilding teeters constantly on the edge of indigestible infodumping. For instance: Tymon is genengineering seaweeds to live in Europa’s ocean.

In the vast and lightless deserts of Europa’s ocean only thrifty chemolithrophs survived by splitting hydrogen from scanty molecules of metal oxides. But just as green plants on Earth used light energy to drive reactions that transferred hydrogen ions and electrons from water to carbon dioxide, forming the simple sugar glucose with oxygen as a by-product, forming the simple sugar glucose with oxygen as a by-product, so Tymon’s weeds used light to reduce inorganic compounds containing sulphur and iron. They soaked up carbon dioxide and nutrients from the water and grew at ….
Enough of that. To be fair, it’s kept in better control than is the case in some of McAuley’s other fiction, and only occasionally slows the whole; and I can imagine readers for whom it is a positive delight (not me, though). I had a couple of other problems with the novel, more to do with its overall storybuilding construction. So: much of the momentum of the narrative revolves around Avernus, attempts to protect her (by the Outers) or seize her and her knowledge (by Earth). For this to work we need a sense that Avernus is special; a sense of her worth, so that it matters profoundly whether she escapes or not—and this we do not have. We’re told plenty of times that she’s special, unique, a genius etc.; but telling isn’t showing. Since [(in the voice of a whaler) spoi-LERS!] the novel’s denouement depends largely upon whether Avernus manages to escape or no, this contributes to the slightest sense of anticlimax about the book, the more so as it has spent 400 pages expertly and compellingly ratcheting up the tension as the system slides along the inexorable rail-gun of its path to war. I cared about Sri, and I cared about Macy; Avernus was a blank to me.
But having finished the book a week or so ago, and had that much time for it to mulch into my mind, I’m wondering whether ‘anticlimax’ isn’t the wrong word: what’s going on here is not that the book lets the reader down, but rather that it fulfils it promise of relating a futuristic interplanetary war—something other SF novels style crassly as a! FUT-ur-ISTIC! IN-TER PLLLLANETARY WARRR!!—precisely quietly. It is, for all the sense of wonder the book cultivates, an example of literary understatement. There have been other novels published recently on the subject of a war between a powerful, dominating neo-imperialist earth and a scattered group of ideologically-rhizomatic spacers in the near future; but such novels have been more (if you like them) operatic, or Jacobean, and (if you don’t) melodramatic. McAuley’s treatment is very far from that; and to the extent that less is more (which is a large extent) it succeeds much more completely than any earlier novel on a similar theme. It’s not that the book lacks excitement, for there’s lots of that: hairs-breadth escapes, spectacular scenery, massive SFX explosions … it’s that McAuley mutes his representation of these, like a virtuoso jazz trumpeter holding his bowler over the mouth of his horn. This is an Earth attack on an Outer settlement:
Sparks flared high in the black sky as kinetic weapons aimed from somewhere beyond the horizon used boosters to kick themselves towards their targets, plunging down and striking trenches and blockhouses and throwing up fountains of dust and white-hot debris. A tug dusted off from the far edge of the spaceport and was struck by a missile fired from the marine’s position. Its upper part was blown away in a brief flare of red flame; the remainder, motor still lit, rolled across the plain in a vast pinwheel of dust and flame. Lumpy shapes dropped straight out of the sky: battle drones inside protective impact bags. The machines tore open the bags even as they bounced and rolled through vacuum-organism fields, raising themselves up on tall tripod legs and running forward. Several were struck by missiles fired by the city’s defence force and disappeared in brief clouds of dust and machine parts. The rest raked the slope in front of the city with miniguns and heavy-calibre kinetic weapons and rockets as they galloped along.
All this in the utter silence and clarity of hard vacuum. [368]
It’s that last line that seals the deal—renders what could have been cheesy Phantom-Menacesque CGI into something haunting and powerful. It’s simple physics, of course, but that’s not the heart of its appeal; it works because it focuses a broader thematic of the novel. Amazing things happen quietly. Less is more. People with grandiose ideas of their destiny, or technical expertise, or importance, are smaller than they think; war, though it involves real misery and real death, is quieter than we think; the best way to tell a marvellous tale is unobtrusively. And this is a marvellous tale.


Max Cairnduff said...

Good to see McAuley returning to sf after his sojourn in the realm of the technothriller.

Niall Harrison said...

"war, though it involves real misery and real death, is quieter than we think"

I'm not so sure about this. I took it more as irony: war, even when ostensibly a "small, quiet war", even when literally taking place in vacuum silence, is always and irrevocably anything but quiet.

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