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The Quiet War
Paul McAuley
Gollancz, 462 pages

The Quiet War
Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley was born in England in 1955 and currently lives in Scotland. He worked as a researcher in biology at various universities before going to St. Andrew's University as a lecturer in botany for 6 years. He's chosen to move on to become a full-time writer.

His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award and several subsequent novels have been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, winning one for Fairyland which also won the 1997 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best SF Novel. His short story, "The Temptation of Dr. Stein," won the British Fantasy Award. Pasquale's Angel won the very first Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Long Form) in 1996. McAuley also produces a regular review column for Interzone and contributes reviews to Foundation.

Paul J. McAuley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Fairyland
SF Site Review: Cowboy Angels
SF Site Review: Mind's Eye
SF Site Review: White Devils
SF Site Review: Making History
SF Site Review: Fairyland
SF Site Reading List: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Review: Whole Wide World
SF Site Review: The Secret of Life
SF Site Interview: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Excerpt: The Secret of Life
SF Site Review: Shrine of Stars
SF Site Review: Pasquale's Angel
SF Site Review: Ancients of Days
SF Site Review: The Invisible Country
SF Site Review: Child Of The River
SF Site Review: Fairyland

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

It's worth taking a moment to consider the title. Is a quiet war meant to make us think that in space no-one can hear you scream? But this is no space war, and the pitched battle, when it comes, is fought under a dome on a moon of Jupiter away from the silence of vacuum. No, I think we are meant to see this as war on the quiet, a stealth war, formented away from the public eye. Certain political factions and extremists on either side are eager for war, but while they are doing their best to stymie the peace movement and bring on the conflict, most people see no need for war and are actively promoting peace.

Sound familiar?

Although the physical landscape is very different (it moves from Brazil, Antarctica and lower California to the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn), the political landscape against which this subtle novel is played out has clearly been inspired by the approach to and start of the Iraq War. Which is not to say that the eco-friendly authoritarians of the new Brazilian empire are meant to stand on a one-to-one basis with America, still less that the independent-minded individualists of the outer worlds in any way represent Iraq. But the lies, deceptions and manoeuvrings perpetrated by both parties in their rush to war certainly echo the realpolitik of the time. Moreover we are meant to identify not with heroes of either side, but with the peace campaigners in the middle.

The book begins as if it might turn into a conventional war novel. We are introduced to a clone being trained with his siblings for some unknown purpose, and to a fighter pilot being chosen to work on super-secret equipment. But though both these characters will play significant roles later in the plot, they are far from being major figures, a glimpse of the military apparatus not of the military mind. The novel only really gets going when we join Macy Minnot, newly arrived at Callisto aboard a Brazilian cargo vessel. Macy is a bio-engineer, part of a team charged with constructing a lake for the Callistan city of Rainbow Bridge, a good-will gesture from Earth's greatest power to one of the leading players in Outer politics. Unfortunately, the peace party in Brazil is already losing power and there are forces that are working to ensure the project fails before it even begins. Macy inadvertently exposes the plot, only just avoids being implicated in murder, and earns the undying enmity of an Earth spy.

Forced into unwilling exile from Earth, Macy's subsequent adventures take us behind the scenes of the complex Outer politics. We see the familiar libel that anyone working for peace is identified as working for the other side. The extremists who are eager for war, despite the obvious fact that they are vulnerable to the vastly superior forces of Earth, want to recruit Macy for their cause, trying to persuade her to make a broadcast about life on Earth that will suit their propaganda purposes. But Macy makes an even-handed broadcast, describing the good alongside the bad, and is instantly branded a traitor by the pro-war faction. She is imprisoned on a trumped-up charge, and when she is unexpectedly released, she makes her way to the city of Paris on Dione just at the point when Brazilian forces attack.

Running parallel with Macy's story we follow the adventures of Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen. She is one of Earth's top scientists, one of the leading spirits behind the ecological regeneration of the planet. (It is important to point out that Paul McAuley paints neither side as being in the wrong in this war: Earth's concerns are with the recovery of the planet after the ravages of global warming; the Outers are concerned with the development of the race to cope with the challenges posed by expansion into space. Each side sees the other's concerns as antithetical to their own, but both are clearly right in what they are trying to do. This is not a novel of villainies. Or, not yet.) Though not herself of the war party, the intricate network of patronage that permits her scientific work inevitably leads to Sri being associated with the leaders of the war party. Through her, therefore, we see the success of pro-war figures on Earth, the cynical preparations that run alongside the goodwill gesture for Rainbow Bridge (of which Sri is one of the chief architects), and the eventual launch of the military expedition.

The central character, though she is off stage for most of the novel, is Avernus, the legendary "gene wizard" responsible for engineering most of the ecology that allows the Outer communities to exist. Sri goes along with the war party on Earth because she believes it will allow her to get to Avernus and learn incalculable secrets; Macy finds Avernus a willing partner in her attempt to tell the truth about Earth and later helps Avernus to escape from the victorious Brazilian forces. Since there does, however, seem to be something magical about the older woman, both, of course, underestimate her, and she proves to have engineered defences with which no-one had reckoned.

Macy, Sri and Avernus: this is a very female novel. The men in the book (with a couple of honourable exceptions) seem to be eager for the adventure of war; it is the women who are central to the struggle for peace, and therefore central to the story. There are women prominent among the Outer extremists, but, in the main, it is men who want to fight, women who want to maintain peace. A cliché, perhaps, in its perception of sex roles, but it makes for novelty in the old sf staple of planetary adventure, which is essentially what The Quiet War is. It is a dense novel, and there are longueurs when the pace of the action is allowed to flag while McAuley indulges in lengthy and often rhapsodic descriptions of the turmoil of the Jovian atmosphere or the harsh landscape of a frozen moon. Indeed there are some incidents which seem to have been inserted into the plot merely to allow such a description. What we have, in fact, is a novel that seems to find far more excitement in the setting of the war than in the war itself. But it is a long time since a science fiction novel generated such a straightforward thrill about the notion of simply getting into space, and for once the monochrome and inhospitable realms of our solar system are made to seem beautiful.

So a war novel that breaks all the unstated rules of war novels -- it is about women not men, about peace not war, about the slow drift towards war rather than the rapid pace of conflict, about the peculiar charms of landscape more than the thrill of heroism -- The Quiet War fits one of the oldest traditions of sf and ignores those traditions at the same time. It is not always a gripping read, there are too many stretches where not much actually happens for that to be the case, but it is always vivid (there are times when McAuley seems to be describing the landscapes of the Jovian moons with the eye of one who has actually been there, a sense of place not as common as it should be in science fiction). And though it works well enough on its own, it is only part of the story since a second volume is in the works that will tell of the post-war world (if the analogy with Iraq holds true, one suspects it will be a story of confusion, poor planning, the breakdown of order and perhaps even of atrocity). Without wishing to prejudge that second volume, this first novel suggests that we are looking at a work that demonstrates how fresh, relevant and engaging the great imaginative sweep of planetary sf can be.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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