Anyone who has thrilled to John Varley's Eight Worlds saga or Bruce Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories will find comparable delights in Paul McAuley's new novel, The Quiet War (Pyr, $16.00), making its first US appearance after racking up a Clarke Award nomination last year in McAuley's UK homeland. (Pyr Books, under editor Lou Anders, has a knack for skimming and reprinting the cream of Brit SF for our delectation.) This intrasolar space opera features a deeply inhabited, deeply imagined future that offers a mix of realpolitik, cutting-edge tech, and characters who are a blend of posthuman and all-too-human.
The scenario: in the early years of the 23rd century, humanity is still struggling to deal with the aftereffects of the Overturn, that period when our current civilization collapsed due to environmental, fiscal and societal instabilities. Since that chaotic period, the species has more or less split in two. On a recovering Earth, the survivors pursue remediation of damaged biomes and extension of their autocratic political systems. Brazil and Europe are two of the main players,with the USA extinct.
Meanwhile, on the small moons of the Outer System, the Outers maintain their artificial niche communities, and embrace a more liberal style of government that offers arguably greater personal freedom. These two incompatible polities fought one war a hundred years ago, and seem fated to fight another. Unless a few concerned individuals can pull at the overt and covert levers of power and divert hostilities.
McAuley's main theme in this tale, as I take it, is that dire necessity breeds hopeful monsters. His characters—such as Sri Hong Owen, Brazilian bio-genius, and her counterpart among the Outers, Avernus; the killer clones named Dave; and the wired battle pilots such as Cash Baker—manifest, to our eyes, as ethically compromised, utilitarian schemers, willing to stop at nothing to bring their complex schemes to fruition. And yet they are precisely the kinds of beings that this somewhat dystopic future has called forth to meet its needs. Tough cookies for tough times.
McAuley excels at rendering the surfaces and guts of his habitations utterly tangible. From Avernus's strange vacuum garden crater to the cabins of the symbiotic fighter craft piloted by Cash and crew, you'll feel as if you had been teleported across time and space into this savage, yet strangely optimistic future.