Tuesday, 2 March 2010

For "Saturn", read "Iraq"

Another day, another science fiction novel with a thinly veiled commentary on contemporary politics, this time by Paul J. McAuley, the British botanist-turned-novelist. Much as Iain (M.) Banks' latest poses questions about the (strangely familiar) activities of secret agencies, The Quiet War paints a (strangely familiar) tale of a trumped-up threat being used as a pretext for an invasion by superpowers.

The threat here is the technology, bio- and nano-, used by the "Outers" who live in the far flung corners of the solar system. The superpowers are three politico-economic blocks who have survived, but still struggle with, climate chaos on Earth. Convinced that the Outers are diverging too greatly from conventional human genomics, and fired up by an adherence to a quasi-religious version of Gaia, these powerful factions slowly orchestrate a series of minor events that both weakens the unity of the Outers and provides a pretext for a swift and decisive conquest.

Against this dramatic background, the novel describes the lives of characters both peripheral and central to the unfolding events. Sri Hong-Owen is a leading Earth geneticist, allied to the belligerent forces, but drawn to the scientific excellence of the Outers. Dave #8 is one of her genetically engineered charges, a clone grown and trained to act as a sleeper agent in the unsuspecting Outer colonies. Macy Minnot, an ecosystem engineer happy to escape Earth, finds herself out of a job and on the run when Earth agents sabotage the goodwill project on Callisto that employs her. Loc Ifrahim is one of her pursuers, an ambitious Earth diplomat tasked with sowing dissent in the Outer colonies. Meanwhile, Cash Baker is a combat pilot, enhanced and enmeshed in an advanced military spacecraft, and awaiting the end of the "quiet war".

Overall, a bit of a disappointing read from McAuley. It's competently written, and I'll definitely be reading the sequel volume(s), but it's a fairly uninspiring read. There are very few stand-out moments or characters, and even the technology that McAuley envisages feels stale and unimaginative. He even includes some plankton-based material from his former academic life that's handled in a decidedly ham-fisted manner (and I say this as a Skeletonema fan).

It's particularly disappointing because McAuley has a great back catalogue of work. For instance, his early book Red Dust is easily one of my favourite science fiction novels. It imagines a fantastically baroque future Mars in which a failing Chinese attempt at terraforming is the backdrop for an incredibly rich journey that eventually takes in a battle atop Olympus Mons, a virtual reality version of Heaven from Chinese mythology, and an benevolent, anarchistic AI that fashions itself after Elvis. It's a joy to read by contrast, and it casts a long shadow over this book.

Which isn't to say that this is a bad book, just that it's a little grey and uninspired. It may well be that McAuley will step things up in the successor volume(s), but I'll definitely be waiting for them in paperback. And even then, not exactly with bated breath.

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