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REVIEW: The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

REVIEW SUMMARY: Excellent character narratives highlight this political space opera.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The depiction of escalating tensions between the ruling families of Earth and the Outer colonies.

PROS: Realistically complex setting, characters and relationships; good world building; individual character stories were interesting.
CONS: The lack of clear antagonists led to an emotional detachment to the story.
BOTTOM LINE: For a space opera steeped in political ideologies, it worked marvelously well to hold my personal interest.

In Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, 23rd century Earth is an ecological mess and governments have been reformed such that the few ruling families who are in control seek to return Earth to its ecological splendor. Meanwhile, the technology-loving Outer colonies — descendants of those who fled the totalitarian regimes of Earth for other planets and moons — uphold the concepts of democracy and concern themselves with advancing the human race, their eyes ultimately on posthumanism. Simplistically speaking, these are the ideological lines drawn that lead to escalating tensions, but it’s not really that clear-cut; proponents for peace exist on both sides as well.

Moving around in this politically fluid background are the main characters of the novel. Macy Minnot is a bio-engineer initially assigned to a political PR project on Callisto, one of Jupiter moons. The project is meant to ease tensions between Earth and the Outers, but that goal is quickly smashed when one of the scientists dies on the trip and other suspicious events occur that, eventually, force Macy to defect to the Outers. This is partly due to the selfish maneuvers of Loc Ifrahim, an unseasoned diplomat. Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen, meanwhile, working in the employ of one of Earth’s powerful families, is conflicted between the family’s desire for war and her own growing realization that peace may be the answer — not that that stops her from nurturing an army of clone soldiers on Earth’s moon, one of whom, Dave #8, becomes a spy on the Outer worlds. Sri idolizes the legendary gene wizard Avernus, an enigmatic recluse whose work made possible the expansion of humans in space.

Taken together, this realistically complex setting and interesting cast of characters and situations is wonderfully alluring. And just when you think you have the complete picture, new facets unfold. It helps, too, that the author liberally sprinkles in awe-inspiring technologies and vistas. For those looking to read between the lines, there are enough real-world parallels to satisfy. Yet for all this complexity, I must confess an emotional detachment to the novel.

On the one hand, the characters and their situations were engrossing. I was interested to see where they were headed and how they would resolve their inner conflicts. Also, at a high level, the novel beautifully handles with intricate world building, cool technology, real-world parallels and politics. Yes, this last one is a plus. Much to McAuley’s credit, his handling of politics does not kill the story for me as it has in other sf novels.

On the other hand, because of the enormous (and again, realistic) gray areas of ideologies, it was difficult to pick out a clear antagonist. Which side was right? Who should I be rooting for? Those blurry lines led to an emotional detachment that lingered just beyond the individual narratives of the characters. So it was difficult to care for, say, Macy when she was being consistently controlled by one faction or another.

So while the novel worked for me when I concentrated on the individual narratives, it worked less so when I considered the overall picture showing the conflict between Earth and the Outers. That said, for a space opera steeped in political ideologies, it worked marvelously well to hold my personal interest.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on REVIEW: The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

  1. I had to stop reading in the middle because I got so fed up with the underlying Fear of a Black Planet vibe throughout the text.  I’m sure McAuley isn’t trying to be racist, but what he wanted to do was simple and complex out of the pattern of his capabilities.  Also, I had the recent experience of reading Joel Shepherd’s C Kresnov novels which are largely the same ideas but much better executed and thus put The Quiet War in diminished light.


    Ah, that reminded me, another biiiiig problem I had with the Quiet War was just how small-mindedly baroque (and absent elegance) the science and tech was.  I understand that he was trying to push a map of new technologies that would allow the spread of civilization further out into hostile space but none of it really hung together in a way that anyone familiar with Kuhn or scientific/commercial (transportation) revolutions would appreciate.  At the end of the day, something as ambitious as The Quiet War can’t be written for a general audience in mind, even sci-fi audience–sorta like the issues many people had with Hal Duncan and myth/time.

  2. This book is not good. I am a little surprised by this review…

  3. Dnix-

    I agree. The setting/politics was interesting but I found the character microcosm displayed in the book (Dave 8, Sri, Mary, Cash and Loc) to be very unsympathetic, arrogant, and boring. All in all, they didn’t really have any special roles in the story. It was like a ride-along with a military division that never sees any action.

    All of the most interesting things happened mostly off-camera.


    Hmm, better redress the balance a bit since all the preceding comments are all negative. The characters certainly are not charming nor are they in pivotal roles and some are exceedingly odd (e.g. Dave #8) but at least they are characters and not the cardboard, good/bad stereotypes that weigh down a lot of SF. I found the politics quite clear: feudal, militaristic Deep Green Earthers are the baddies. Gardens of the Sun (the sequel) does try to dent the freedom and personal development-loving Outers a little with a nutty religious faction they harbour. The technologies the Outers use and the ease with which they live in vacuum environments do seem sometimes too easy but the beauty of their habitats and the audacity of of the neo-expansionst vision do inspire.

    Alan P.

  5. This book is actually pretty bad. The chatacters are plain, the plot is extremely simple and not developed at all. It seems as if the author doesb’t know human nature or real politics, not to say anything about strategy.
    Good biologist but awful writter.

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