Thursday, 10 February 2011

Deflating sequel

Back to science fiction sequel land with Paul McAuley's Gardens of the Sun, follow-up to his 2008 novel The Quiet War. I reviewed the latter somewhat coolly last year, and expressed the hope that McAuley's seeming parable about Gulf War II picked up somewhat in its sequel.

The Quiet War is over. Bar a handful of refugees bound for distant planets and moons, the Three Powers Alliance (TPA) from Earth has bested the Outers and captured their colonies in the Jupiter and Saturn systems. Viewing the Outers as heretical experiments in genetics, the TPA is quick to turn their cities into prison camps, and brutal in its response to the resulting civil disobedience. But creaming off the best of Outer technology leads to squabbles both between the TPA partners and within the elites who run its component parts, most notably within the Gaia-worshipping nation of Greater Brazil. For too long they have held Earth in a tight grasp, and things have not changed or gotten easier after the conquering of the Outers, both of which serve to foment a grassroots rebellion. Furthermore, out in the distant reaches of the solar system there are remaining Free Outers, including in their number the Ghosts, a fanatical sect who believe a victory over the Earth has been foretold in messages sent from the future by their leader. Their beliefs, in conjunction with the unrest on Earth, are about to turn the tide of the war, and threaten to make it anything but quiet.

Much as with the earlier volume, the novel is structured around the "adventures" of five principal characters spread among the various competing factions. The geneticist Sri Hong-Owen ceases her pursuit of her Outer rival, Avernus, and turns instead to investigating the latter's work in the now subjugated Outer colonies, a change that leads her in utterly unexpected directions. Dave #8, one of Hong-Owen's genetically engineered charges who fell in love with an Outer and ultimately went native during the Quiet War, continues his search for his lost love, but is mindful at every turn that his former superiors are still on the lookout for him. Macy Minnot, a former ecosystem engineer and now traitor to Earth, is on the run with her Outer partner Newt in the far reaches of the solar system, but her past connection to Earth keeps her fellow refugees mistrustful, even when they rely on her to intercede on their behalf. Loc Ifrahim, though an agent of the victorious Earth powers, finds himself side-lined as internecine disputes shift power in the conquered colonies, and while he plots a resplendent future on Earth with his partner, Captain Neves, begins to have a change of heart about the justness of his employer's cause. Finally, after a near-fatal incident during the Quiet War, combat pilot Cash Baker returns to Earth initially to a hero's welcome, but he too becomes a victim of squabbles in the ruling elite, and while down on his luck turns to the black market for work, a move which brings him to the attention of those interested in overthrowing the authorities and in the market for military pilots.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I have to come down against this novel. Certainly, it's more at the "disappointing" end of the spectrum rather than the "fiasco" end (unlike, for example, a certain disaster novel I recently endured), but that's hardly a ringing endorsement. In large part, I think its undoing stems from its disengagement with current events. The Quiet War, though not exactly flawless, could at least be read as a thinly disguised parable about Gulf War II. Here, McAuley hasn't got an easy subtext underpinning him. The response of the Outers to occupation has little in common with the situation in Iraq, or elsewhere for that matter, so the novel just flounders about a bit. But it also doesn't help that there's no-one to really get behind in it. The most sympathetic, Macy, is an outsider in her new world, so feels perpetually downtrodden rather than someone that the reader is drawn to championing. And the shifting allegiances of the other characters, all previously on the side of the TPA, removes the possibility of any gratifying change of fortune for them. This doesn't make for a bad novel, but just one that's hard to engage with, and a relief to get through.

Furthermore, for much of the novel I was convinced that it was the second in a trilogy, since the pacing seemed to suggest there was a whole lot more to happen. But, no, the pacing was just poor. In fact, the rather swift toppling of Greater Brazil's leadership, which largely seems to happen off the page, came as a disappointing surprise. Not least because it skipped over any satisfying comeuppances for various evil elites. Similarly, the whole closing saga with the spectre of a Ghost counterattack appears far too near the end of the novel for it to be in the least suspenseful. It's clear by then that no further sequel is forthcoming, so the outcome is never seriously in doubt (even if the actual events come as something of a surprise).

Another aspect of the novel that's more than a little infuriating is its last-act interest in (serious) post-humanity. Two strands of the story end this way, and in both cases do so in what should be fairly spectacular fashion, particularly so Sri Hong-Owen's transformation. But since both come out of the blue with literally no build-up, it feels like a late addition of spice that McAuley has thrown in to celebrate finishing the novel. Sri Hong-Owen does, to be fair, disappear for a long stretch, which gets the reader suspicious, but her big reveal is completely against the run of play, so it comes off as false. Which is a shame, since McAuley has done good work with these topics before, particularly in his first-rate short story Gene Wars. That skilfully squeezes a much more imaginative tale out of prose a fraction of the length.

All that said, unlike Baxter, I shan't be giving up on McAuley. Gardens of the Sun was more of a trudge than I'd hoped, but it's no travesty. For all of my complaints about pacing and subtext, it's still a fairly solid yarn, just a bit of a dull one. And McAuley's back-catalogue includes too many novels I've enjoyed for me not to forgive him a damp squib.

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