Teahouse on the Tracks (Alastair Reynolds)
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Friday, 7 November 2008
The Quiet War
Now Playing: Nowt

I said I'd say something about Paul McAuley's new novel "The Quiet War" when I'd finished it. This is Paul M's return to hard SF/space operatics, after a series of near future SF thrillers and even one non-SF crime novel, and it's also the first novel length work set in the same universe as his Quiet War stories, which have been appearing in various places over the last decade or so. I liked the stories and liked this novel a lot - it's very much my cup of tea, in that, while the book in no way conforms to a rigid genre template, it nonetheless sits well in the company of a number of SF novels that I hold in particular regard, including Kim Stanley Robinson's Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness, Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers, Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix, and several other books that one might loosely call "tour of the solar system" books. The key thing here is that these books have the colour and sweep of epic, galaxy-spanning space opera, but the frame is much more restricted - we're in the solar system as we know it, and there's little or no travel beyond the outer planets. A lot of 70s SF operated within superficially the same parameters, but ended up being rather grey and bleak - they'd drained out the colour, but hadn't put much back to replace it. It was all boringly sterile lunar colonies, Mars bases, O'Neill colonies, people in silver jumpsuits and so forth - rendered with all the dreary lifelessness of a black and white artist's impression.

By contrast, the "tour of the solar system" books that I mentioned above restored much of the colour by the simple trick of making humanity weirder. Instead of technocrats and colonists, we got variegated factions, none more so than in Sterling's fabulous Shaper-Mechanist sequence. We got our eyeball kicks not from space princesses and swordfights on the decks of battle cruisers, but from pondering the way the environment would force people to change and adapt, often in unsettling ways. 

There was another factor, too, which was these new works took on board the latest data from space missions. It was perhaps no coincidence that the results from Voyager - those gorgeous close-ups of Saturn, Jupiter and their entourages of moons and rings - got writers thinking, their imaginations fired off in ways that had never happened before when all they had was grainy black and white photographs of distant smudges.

THE QUIET WAR belongs to this tradition, but it's also clearly a work of the early twenty first century, rather than the eighties or nineties. The landcapes and environments depicted are based on cutting-edge data, or cutting-edge speculation. There's little here that feels second-hand or derivative. The biology - heavily foregrounded, as you might expect - always feels believable and real. The worlds impress as gritty and lived in, underpinned by decades of plausible backstory. The character politics chime with some of the recent history we've lived through - this is a book about the road to war, and how that unstoppable machine crushes the best of intentions. It's a kaleidoscopic novel, told through multiple viewpoints, and while there are clearly heroes and villains, it's no one-dimensional melodrama. Macy Minnot is a really good, believable heroine.

What I especially liked - and I haven't seen commented on too much elsewhere - is the stuff Paul M didn't put into this book.  There's no rampant nanotech. There's no transcendant AI.  There are no mind uploads. Travel around the solar system still takes a long time; there's no magic, super-efficient spacedrive. Since we know Paul M can do the super-science stuff, these omissions are clearly deliberate, and refreshingly so. It's a sober blast of fresh air after so much recent hard SF that has seemed to take the coming Singularity as a god-given certainty. THE QUIET WAR suggests that things might play out on a much slower timescale; that the future will seem strange in some respects but rather familiar in others.

Paul M also doesn't shy from showing us what Earth looks like - and again, there's a sense of restraint, a cool disavowal of such standard future-Earth tropes as domed cities, space elevators and flying cars. The Earth we're shown, while radically different from a political standpoint, (dominated by Greater Brazil, although this doesn't place the book in the "Greater Brazil" universe of his first few novels) still looks recognisably derived from our own. There are still aircraft, helicopters, limousines and motorcycles.

What's best of all is that the story continues in the next volume. THE QUIET WAR is complete unto itself, it ends on a pause, a time to draw breath, but it's not the end of the larger story.

Posted by voxish at 1:52 PM CET

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