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The Quiet War
By Paul McAuley
The more genre books I do critical reviews of, the more I'm coming to realize that one of the biggest things genre fans crave is the sort of consensual cloud of topics that all the writers in that genre will form at any given time, and how indeed this cloud eventually coalesces as to define an entire era in that genre's history -- just to cite one example, I in particular am a big fan of science-fiction from the 1950s and '60s (a.k.a. that genre's "Silver Age"), and love that nearly every SF title from that period tends to touch on one or more of roughly a dozen common subjects, from nuclear fears to moon colonization to the growing civil rights movement. But this is also the curse of most genre fiction, in that those who aren't natural fans of that genre tend to look at these books as hacky endless reshuffles of the same old tired cliches, over and over again -- to cite another example, I am not much of a fan of crime novels, and tend to look at titles in that genre as a never-ending mishmash of crazed serial killers, cynical detectives, weasely low-level henchmen and the like. It's this dichotomy that so fascinates me about genre work, and why it is that such titles make up the vast majority of all books sold in a given year, yet are constantly struggling for respect from anyone outside of that particular cliquey circle.
I got to thinking about all this again last week while reading through veteran SF author and multiple award-winner Paul McAuley's latest, 2008's The Quiet War (itself a nominee for the 2009 Arthur C. Clarke Award); because it's essentially a textbook example of a well-put-together genre novel, one where every topic being explored can be traced back to multiple novels in the past that have already given that subject a whirl, yet with McAuley putting them together here in an utterly original way that makes the book stand on its own. And in fact, just the basic premise underlying the entire story as a whole is almost as "ripped from the headlines" as you can get; set 200 years in the future, it posits a post-disaster Earth where unchecked climate change ended up wrecking a huge swath of the industrialized world (the US bearing most of the brunt), leaving the charred remains mostly in the hands of the planet's former third-world countries, who themselves are now governed by radically green political philosophies. (In fact, in McAuley's universe, it's the government of Brazil that now manages almost the entirety of both South and North America, where the barely civilized remains of the US population are forced to live in a handful of crowded urban centers, while allowing the majority of the environmentally destroyed continent to "go to seed" and essentially revert back to its natural state.)
Ah, but also like many post-apocalyptic novels, these surviving governments are not actually run in the way we think of it, but are rather controlled by a series of all-powerful royal-family corporations, those ruthless individuals who rose up as warlords in the wake of the "Overturn" (as it's known in the book), whose Mad-Max fiefdoms a century later have evolved into entire private city-states, territory most famously explored in the "cyberpunk" books of the 1980s and early '90s. But then McAuley adds yet another SF cliche to this speculative world, by building into its history the fact that humans had already started colonizing the solar system long before the Overturn, leading to an entire "Outer" culture that has long been at odds with Earth's, freedom-loving societies predicated on a radical form of direct democracy (in other words, electronic town halls for each and every decision their community makes); and in this you can see a direct parallel to, say, Adam Roberts' Gradisil which was reviewed here last year, with of course both books heavily indebted to the work of Robert Heinlein, who many credit as the inventor of the entire "libertarians in space" meme now so popular in SF. And so are there both liberals and conservatives in both these societies, who alternately wish to create alliances or go to war with the other, which is what mostly drives the complex, politically dense plotline actually fueling the three acts of this traditional "space opera."
And this isn't even all the well-known themes that McAuley pulls into The Quiet War: he also touches on the Strossian idea of using genetic engineering to usher in a transhuman age, riffs on Cory Doctorow's concept of a reputation-based economy in a post-scarcity society, and even borrows heavily from Orson Scott Card's idea of cruel, spartan compounds designed to turn children into unstoppable warriors. And this is why those who aren't natural SF fans can easily complain about a book like this, and why McAuley has never reached the kind of mainstream recognition of, say, his peers William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, because this book is essentially a regurgitation of topics that have already been explored in better and deeper ways in other books; but this is also what makes McAuley such a favorite among hardcore SF fans who are "in the know," because he's able to magically weave together a nicely unique and original story out of these well-known elements, one worth sitting and reading even if you've already read the dozen older books that inform this one. (And on a related yet side note, let me mention my pleasure in watching the pure glee that McAuley [a biologist during the day] takes in exploring the issue of terraforming, of how there are literally now "artists" in this post-disaster future who know how to mix together just the exact right combination of minerals, bacteria and other organic compounds in order to, say, "reboot" a former wetlands area.)
It adds up by the end to something that will be a real treat for existing genre fans, but mostly likely not for those who have to be talked into every science-fiction novel they read; and that of course is why it's receiving a score of 8.9 today, because as regular readers know, that's the highest a book can score here without appealing to a wide general audience, no matter how well that particular book is written. It comes highly recommended to fans of any of the other authors mentioned today.
Out of 10: 8.9