The Quiet War by Paul J. McAuley


462 pp
ISBN: 978-1-59102-781-2
Trade Paperback
September 2009

 Review by Dan Bieger

Some times, when presented with a political saga of epic proportions, I can get confused about who it is we are supposed to root for. In The Quiet War there is a big cast of characters but, as you would expect, some are merely props to move the action forward. What I soon discovered, the tale belongs to four major players. In order of appearance, that would be:

Dave #8, a clone in a gene enhancement experiment in building super-soldiers. Dave and his fellow clones are undergoing serious training for what will someday make them spies in a war to be determined. When first we meet Dave #8, he is spending his time worrying why he is not quite like his brother clones.

Cash Baker is a fighter/test pilot recruited to fly a new singleship. He must have himself cut to mesh with the machine. After significant modification, he and the ship will be one. Cash doesn’t care what they do to him as long as he can fly the best machine there is.

Macy Minnot outgrew her humble beginnings to earn her a spot on a team building a fresh water lake on Callisto, Jupiter’s second largest moon. Macy is the project’s microbial ecologist.

Sri Hong-Owen, a gene wizard, one of the best and brightest, responsible for Dave #8 and his fellow clones as well as a handful of other projects. There are two gene wizards in her universe who exceed her accomplishments. One is her mentor and the other is a recluse in the Outer Worlds. Sri wants to assume her place as the best and brightest.

A lesser character but one with the important role of villain is Loc Ifrahim who begins the tale as minor diplomat attached to the embassy on Callisto. His family ties to the dominant Brazilian family cause him to be around at crucial points of the story. Loc’s major character flaw is ambition, an ambition that everyone recognizes. His enemies tend to sneer at his efforts; his allies tolerate them. You just know he will come to a bad end.

All five players are part of the Brazilian empire that rules the Americas on an Earth where a new political order emerged after the Overturn – an ecologic disaster that doomed the political order we all know and love. The new order boasts a European Union, a Pacific Union, and Brazil as the powers-that-are.

The folk in the Outer Worlds tend to work at the far ends of a liberal spectrum while the folk on earth work at the far end of a conservative spectrum. The Outer Worlds experiments have led to life spans ranging to two hundred years and cuts to their bodies to make them individually unique. A cut can be anything from the nip-and-tuck that we are familiar with to a radical gene modification. This tendency becomes a rallying point for Earth as it builds towards its war.

In order to make the distances manageable, Sri Hong-Owen’s labs come up with a fusion motor that drives space ships at really fast speeds enabling the invasion force – both the carriers and the singleships and Marines they carry – to get to Saturn quick. Once there, their superior speed and maneuverability make them too much a match for anything the Outers might have in their arsenal.

In Part I, The Quickening, the stage is set amidst meticulous reports of what it takes to reclaim a lake on Earth and to build a functioning fresh water lake on Callisto. McAuley gives us everything we never cared to know about microbiology and almost loses us in the process. For 25% of the tale, we get more science than development, more ecology than plot while focusing on Macy, Ifrahim, and Sri Hong-Owen. The first act of war does occur but it slides by almost unnoticed.

In Part II, Survival of the Fittest, we finally get the action underway though never without side trips to the science involved: astronomy, geology, physics. The head of the Brazilian family dominating all politics maneuvers Sri Hong-Owen into an untenable position, threatening to remove her livelihood, her access to the technology she needs to pursue her dreams. She bows to the inevitable all the while knowing she is smarter than the family and will, somehow, come out on top. The other three focal points are maneuvered into the position they must occupy in the upcoming war. Macy meets a love interest while Dave #8 commits his first murder. Cash gets bored with flying show-and-tell missions.

In Part III, Close Encounters, the players move into position for the final act. Sri Hong-Owen betrays her mentor, outfoxes her employers, and prepares to capture the prize: the woman who is the greatest gene wizard of all. Macy finds a way to alienate most everyone in the Outer camp and ends up in prison on Dion; Dave #8 infiltrates the major city on Dion; Cash finds himself in orbit above Dion where he and his fellow pirates are embarrassed by the Outers when they fly their first mission.

In Part IV, The Quiet War, all the players prosecute the quiet war. Nothing goes as expected save the fact the Earthers seem to have won but lack a clue as to what they’ve won. Two of the four major players seem to be down for the count and the other two seem headed off into distinctive versions of happily-ever-after. But you know this cannot be; there must be a sequel. There are just too many threads left on the table.

The detailed descriptions of the science involved in developing habitats for humanity in the outer worlds can make this a tough read. But McAuley has a talent for describing people and the things they do and the reasons they do them. He asks some very good questions and then gives some decent answers while leaving some meat for the next book. In Part I, I had my doubts but at tale’s end, it’s a good read that rewards the perseverance to keep turning the pages. 

© 2010 Dan Bieger

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