Dave #8, alarmed by the shine in Dave #27's eyes, warned his brother that he was committing the mortal sin of pride. "Our lives may be dedicated to the defence of God and Gaia and Greater Brazil, but that doesn't mean we're in any way like the heroes of the great stories."
"What are we, then?"
"Soldiers," Dave #8 said. "No more, no less."
[Warning: here be spoilers.]
The fifth book on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist takes us back into space - there are significantly more spaceships on this year's list, aren't there? - and also into the realms of genetic engineering, posthumanism, and climate change. More than any other book I've read this year, though, I find myself in two minds about my response to Paul McAuley's The Quiet War. On the one hand, it's a lean and (at times) quite pacy novel, which both builds interesting characters and does interesting things with them, and its big theme - humanity's relation to its environment(s) - arises organically from its exceptionally well-drawn twenty-third-century setting. On the other hand, it is desperately uneven - what in some parts of the novel is polished, careful leanness becomes talky, underwritten infodumping in others - and overall I feel that it doesn't play to its strengths nearly enough. Certain plotlines are sidelined into near-oblivion, while others go in unproductive, repetitive circles, and so much of the meat of it - the seething social tensions, the dirty politics, even the titular war itself, quiet or loud - is told, rather than shown.
But my strongest reason for feeling in two minds about the book is that I only learned after I'd finished it that there is a sequel in the works. Had I known this, I suspect I would have read The Quiet War in a different way (and perhaps would've enjoyed it rather more): I would not have spent so much of the novel looking for stories that were not (yet?) being told, and expecting a conclusion that never really came. Too late, I know why I was plagued, as I read, with a vague sense that something was missing; something was yet to start.
Ironically - and there is a part of me that wonders if it isn't deliberate in design, if nonetheless unsatisfying in practice - a vague sense that something has yet to start aptly describes the prevailing mood in McAuley's twenty-third century. Whether in the confined, environmentally-trammelled cities of Earth, or the domed colonies on the moons around Jupiter and Saturn (collectively known as the Outer System), there is a crushing weight of expectation: war, it is widely felt, is inevitable.
The Outer System is by no means a unified polity, or even something as close as a confederation: each moon, indeed each major city, seems to be largely self-governing, and the societies that have developed in them range between fairly liberal and quite conservative. But the Outers share certain cultural traits and ideals, including a penchant for genetic engineering, body modification, and (on the radical fringes) posthumanism more generally. Accommodating diversity is key; as one character puts it, Outer life is about:
"[...] the perfectability of the human mind, that goodness is worth trying, and that happiness is not only beneficial but constructive. In the past hundred years we have built a plenitude of societies founded on principles of tolerance, mutualism, scientific rationalism, and attempts at true democracy."
This is, of course, an expression of the Platonic form of Outer society. In practice, their fidelity to combative democracy and decisions reached by consensus has manifestly led to a rather superficial 'tolerance': as we see through certain characters' experiences in the colonies, loud public debate is fine, but only within certain pre-existing bounds of conformity, and (especially in the heightened time of approaching war) woe betide any really obvious outsiders, or younger and more radical voices. Even with these caveats, I still found A Quiet War to be a less convincing portrait of space colonisation than Adam Roberts' Gradisil, in which freedom is more obviously a magnet for sociopaths and libertarians; but McAuley nonetheless does an excellent job of establishing the idiosyncrasies and tensions of life on the various moons, and the important ways in which the freedom is illusory when manmade domes are the only things protecting you from the freezing vacuum of space. Wonderful descriptions of these alien moonscapes emphasise the beauty, but also linger over details like how their topography is shaped by asteroid craters - a clear sign of vulnerability if ever there was! - and the effort that had to go into making them habitable, like the city of Baghdad, on Enceladus:
The domed city came up above the horizon, standing on an ancient cratered plain whose contours were softened by layers of bright frost. [...] The city's tent stood on aerogel and fullerene composite foundations fitted inside the low ramparts of a small impact crater, and its interior had been flooded with melt water to create a circular lake with shellfish reefs. kelp forests, mangrove islands and vast rafts of giant water-lilies. From green islands at its centre rose a spiky city of skeletal spires scaffolded from fullerene spars.
One Earth-born character, no-nonsense biologist Macy, is enchanted by "Ganymede’s naked and unforgiving icescapes stretched cold and still under the infinite black sky", but notes:
She was a stranger in a strange land. Trying to imagine the long and possibly endless exile that stretched ahead gave her a strange, vertiginous feeling [...] year after year of breathing canned air, the low-grade but ever-present fear of a blowout or some other sudden and comprehensive disaster, cramped horizons and closed spaces. Living with strangers who had nothing in common with her. Strangers who sometimes seemed barely human.
The most urgent issue for the people of Earth, meanwhile, is dealing with the "terrible wounds" left on the planet by industrialisation and climate change:
The dead zones in the oceans, the flooding along the shorelines of every continent, the deforested deserts of the Amazonian basin and Africa, the vast and tumbled deserts of North America, the ruined cities...
Much salvage and reclamation work has been done, but population levels are beginning to bounce back after the climate catastrophes - and the colonial departures - of previous centuries. We see little directly of Earth, but are told repeatedly (this technique is a recurring flaw in the book, as we shall see) that life there is grim, only viable within vastly overcrowded and heavily policed cities. Environmentalism has, rather too late, been elevated to the status of religion, partly due to the work of "green saints" - geneticists and biologists who have led "a holy mission of returning the planet to a prelapsarian paradise". But some sections of the elite are unwilling to wait for Earth to be remade.
Thus, as the book begins, everyone knows that Earth's superpowers - in particular Greater Brazil (which controls large swathes of the Americas, and whose propaganda trumpets "one Earth under Gaia, indivisible, restored, replenished, and purged of all human sin") - have an acquisitive eye on the resources and the legroom of the Outers. Everyone knows that Earth's authorities cannot stand the Outers' autonomy, and that it is only a matter of time until an invasion is launched.
The tone seems to be set in the marvellously atmospheric opening chapter, which is told from the point of view of Dave #8, product of a covert Brazilian cloning programme. Genetically-altered and trained (or, more accurately, indoctrinated) as super-soldiers, Dave #8 and his brothers are kept under strict discipline - both military and FutureCatholic - in an offworld compound. Dave #8 dreams of the sky on Earth, and feels "a flutter of longing in his heart" when he glimpses it behind the Brazilian flag on a suitably patriotic video. But difference and introspection are suppressed at every turn:
Dave #8 his brothers also dream of a declaration of war and the chance to kill Outers, as they have been promised - they have been bred for a 'quiet war' that is to be waged primarily through "propaganda, espionage, sabotage, and political coercion", dividing the Outers among themselves to destroy their resistance before it can begin.
Before that can happen, though, the factions favouring peace - both terrestrial and Outer - have to be defeated and discredited. Here is where the novel falters, and the promising tone set in the first chapter turns out to be a red herring, because what comes next are several long sections following attempts, of varying levels of secrecy and competence, to engineer or prevent war. There's nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a story in which the build-up to war is much bigger and more significant than the war itself, and when it works The Quiet War is much more compelling than a simple gun battle in space would be: the central irony of what eventually sparks overt military conflict does not come out of the blue (or the black), but is a perfectly-judged culmination of a lot of patient work on plot and theme.
The problem is that the book expends considerably more pages explaining what is happening than in letting us see it. Even when character are in the thick of things, their short conversations and cursorily-sketched thoughts keep being squeezed out by paragraphs of compressed context and summarised developments, telling us how to analyse the situation, like this:
In order to protect the city's freedom, habeas corpus had been suspended, the city's council had been given emergency powers by popular vote, and the council had granted the mayor, Marisa Bassi, the kind of absolute authority that would make most dictators weep with envy. Strict food and water rationing had been introduced.
Surely the point is better made by the experiences of viewpoint characters who are living through the tensions, as when Dave #8, finally put into play as an undercover agent on Dione, faces escalating daily hostility and is subjected to repeated invasions of his privacy, including apartment searches and interrogation; or when the Outer authorities arrest Macy and try to coerce her into 'speaking out' about life on Earth, and thus to bolster Outer resistance: "'Tell the truth about the repression and cruelty. How ordinary people are treated like slaves. How free speech and free thought are ruthlessly suppressed.'" Macy has no love of the cut-throat, hierarchical Earth - a society in which she is at the mercy of, as Sri puts it in a different context, individuals who are "noblesse without the oblige" - but refuses to take part in such blatant propaganda for anyone; her scruples are given short shrift, however, when she asks, incredulously,
"What exactly is he trying to save?"
"As far as we're concerned? It's the future of the human race," Sada said. "Little things like freedom, change, diversity. The kind of things you enjoyed while you were living with Newton Jones and the rest of his clan. Please, Macy. I want you to think very hard about cooperating because this really is your last chance."
It's a pity there could not have been more of the latter - the lived experience, the ground-level view - and rather less of the former. Still, both these passages point to the novel's central themes: that the Outers will gut their way of life in order to 'save' it - that Earth and Outer forces alike will go as far as rendering cities uninhabitable, by compromising their domes, in order to control the territory on which they stand - not only has clear present-day parallels, but also echoes what has happened before the story begins, on Earth. Explicit in the backdrop to the story is that humanity has progressively wrecked its homeland through climate change and exploitation, rather than change its way of thinking; now, clearly, it is doing it again. There is thus also a telling parallel between the beautiful-but-thoroughly-hostile environments in which the Outers have carved out their homes, and the planet on which human evolved, a land once perfectly suited to them because they adapted to thrive on it, but large swathes of which they have since rendered inimicable: if not swift death by vacuum, certainly poisonous to human life.
There are, as I've noted, some engaging characters. Dave #8 is disturbing in his brainwashing, and intriguing as he starts to move away from it through exposure to life on Dione. A brief recurring motif of people entering his apartment there, and commenting that he should put some clothes on, operates both as a subtle indicator of the ways in which he doesn't quite fit in normal human society (he replies "I was asleep" both times, oblivious to the fact that he 'ought' to be alarmed by his nakedness), and as a sign of how intrusive Outer society has become under stress (that people repeatedly barge into his apartment without giving him time to dress).
Macy starts off promisingly, as a successful and highly-skilled biologist, with a pleasingly blunt mode of expression ("'Why don't you tell me exactly what's troubling you?' she said to the diplomat. 'Then I can tell you why I can't do anything about it and get back to my work'"). But she is the character who is most let down by the meandering, inconclusive plotting. For virtually all of The Quiet War, her story cycles through the following steps: 1) get chased by the authorities for a crime she didn't commit, 2) get captured by said authorities and badly treated, 3) escape unbowed to some other part of the Outer System, 4) settle down for a brief while (so that McAuley can show us another moon); 5) return to 1). Over and over again! It gets annoying. Her main antagonist, meanwhile, is cardboard villain 101.
Finally, there is Sri Hong-Owen, the "gene wizard", who gets the most ambiguities and depth. She is an enormously talented geneticist, driven by self-assurance ("'They inherited their positions, Alder, but we earned ours. That's why we are better than them, even though they own most of the world'") and a burning ambition that eventually becomes debilitating, as she pursues her desire to be the best at all costs. Her devotion to her sons (well, mostly the elder) contrasts with her willingness - even if it is slightly reluctant - to abdicate moral responsibility for the human products of her lab, as when the Brazilian military make clear their intention to use her experimental 'Dave' clones for warfare:
"Don't involve me in this," she said.
"But these are your boys," the general said. He was smiling, but it was only to show his teeth. "Your creations. The flesh of your flesh, transformed by your skill and hard work. Surely you must have an opinion."
Here, arguably, her choices are limited - although she undoubtedly knew what her clones would be used for, and what they had been trained for. When some of her other creations are deemed too dangerous, and she is called in to deal the killing blow (via poison gas, when they have all been sedated...), her reaction is to feel "sorrow and self-pity swelling her heart"; later, she stamps down on scruples for the sake of her politicking - note that her empathy here is labelled 'sickness':
She could save their lives with just a few words. The impulse rose up in her like a sickness, making her dizzy and lightheaded, and then it was gone. She was in control of herself again.
But Sri, again, is doomed to spend too much of the plot going in circles and achieving little, and her climactic encounter with a fellow gene-wizard is fun to read, but hardly feels like a fitting conclusion to the novel.
This review has probably come out a little more negatively than The Quiet War really deserves; there are plenty of very good sequences (the coming of war to Dione, for instance, which brings exactly the kind of ground-level view I'd been craving), and it captures the fragility of human life both on and off Earth so evocatively. But it is frustrating at least in part because of these flashes of greatness; McAuley is evidently a writer capable of sharp-edged wonder, but the effect is lost here because the whole is so unfocused. In the end, I just don't think the book is structured or paced as a standalone.