Paul McAuley has been on my “I really should read something by that guy some time” list for quite a while now, and now I finally got around to it. He’s been around for a while and apparently quite versatile, writing, among other things, alternative history and near future thrillers. The Quiet War (which was on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2009) is space opera – not so much the pulpy Golden Age variant of E.E. Smith but the contemporary variant that was started off by C.J. Cherryh with her Downbelow Station and that aims for more realism and psychological depth.
Unusual even for the modern version of the genre (and one, although not the only, reason why the book is titled as it is) there is only a single space battle in this novel, and even that is very small in scale, involving only three fighters and the automated self defense system of an asteroid. Which does not mean that the “small, quiet war” (as it once called by one of its main instigators) does not cost any lives, quite to the contrary – but those are mostly civilians, acting to defend their homes or even outright executed, and in that sense the novel’s title is a cutting sarcasm.
The war itself is also very brief: It only takes up about the final fifth of the novel, while its main bulk is dedicated to the political shuffling and military intrigue paving the way towards the eventual outbreak of open conflict, attempts to maintain peace becoming more and more desperate as war appears increasingly inevitable. The forces arraigned against each other are an Earth ruled by dictatorships and the grass-root democracies of the Outer Planets of the Solar system. While it is quite clear which faction has the author’s sympathies, McAuley does not paint the Outers of unblemished paragons of all that’s good – among the widely varying societies and their lifestyles colonising the moons of Saturn and Jupiter there are many that are just as repressive and as disregarding of their members’ happiness and wellbeing as any dictatorship, and neither are the Outers in general immune to intolerance.
Nuanced characterisation is generally one of the strong points of The Quiet War, and that applies not just to the various factions but also to individual protagonists. A good example (and my favourite point of view character) is Sri Hong-Owen, a genius scientist who becomes a puppet in the political scheming between factions vying for power in her home nation of Greater Brazil. But while she herself continues to perceive herself as an innocent victim who is only interested in pursuing her science, it gradually is shown to the reader that she is willing to go to absolutely any length to realise her own goals, and that those have a lot more to do with satisfying her own vanity than with furthering science.
The writing, if not brilliant, is at least solid; there are some very impressive vistas of places where humanity has carved out a niche for itself in the Solar system’s moons and McAuley is very good at describing the helplessness of living in a dictatorship where one’s very existence hangs on the whim of the powerful or the atmosphere in a city under siege where slowly but inexorably paranoia and mob rule take over. In general, and that is probably its greatest strength, The Quiet War succeeds very well in making the reader feel what it would be like to live out in space, where the environment is unforgivingly lethal and a small carelessness or a minor freak accident can be fatal, but where humanity rises to the challenge and realises its full potential. Which, everything considered, is a very Golden Age attitude after all.