Let me tell you a story.
In the far-flung future, humanity has spread across the stars. Earth has very probably gone the way of the dodo: if it exists at all, it's a smoldering mess of a planet, barren, stricken, utterly bereft of life or the prospect thereof. We past generations have had our wicked, heathen way with the world, leaving our by-all-accounts more evolved descendants no choice but to venture further afield in order to survive. People have colonised distant planets, moons, built interstellar cruisers, fleets of space-liners. They have gone on.
But resources have become dangerously scarce. Despite centuries of peace, humanity has fallen back on fears it had thought long forgotten. Tensions are at an all-time high; factions squabble with one another; politicians bicker pointlessly. And then someone, somewhere, starts a fight. Like a rash of pimples, war breaks out.
Stop me if you've heard this one before, why don't you!
Evidently, Arthur C. Clarke award-winning author Paul McAuley has. The Quiet War - part the first of a duology concluded in this year's Gardens of the Sun - is smart, self-aware sci-fi from an author who's learned his lesson. It's a novel which takes as its refreshing core tenet not another interminable iteration of the same old space battles we've been reading about for decades - dare I say centuries - but the build-up to boiling point. McAuley's business in The Quiet War is the slow burn which leads to the titular conflict rather than the fast thrash of so much science fiction.
In Professor Doctor Sri-Hong Owen and "the traitor" Macy Minnot, McAuley offers up a pair of narrative chaperones - one on either side of the ever-escalating crisis. Macy is a reclamation engineer come to the Outer reaches of the galaxy that she might assist with the construction of a biome: an ambitious self-sustaining tented environment on Callisto seen by some as a generous gift from friendly elements in the Pacific Community's government who hope to foster peace, and by others among both strands of humanity as a golden opportunity to deposit a spanner in the works.
Sri, meanwhile, is more highly placed in society than Macy. A gene wizard to rival Avernus, who in her youth - after the great Overturn - pioneered the very technologies which made life so far from home sustainable, the Professor Doctor answers directly to the heads of the ominous and powerful "families" who domineer over the people of Earth like Mafioso prime ministers. She too becomes entangled in the ill-fated construction of the Callisto biome, and when, inevitably, the last hope for peace between the Outers and the Pacific Community comes crashing down, preparations for war begin in earnest. Neither Sri nor Macy wants war, but war it will be, and they must each pick a side.
Says Avernus: "In the past hundred years we have built a plenitude of societies founded on principals of tolerance, mutualism, scientific rationalism, and attempts at true democracy. And on Earth, people have united in common cause to heal the great wounds inflicted by the Overturn, climate change and two centuries of unchecked capitalism. I hoped to see these two worthy and hopeful strands of human history unite and go forward together as equals rather than rivals, sharing unselfishly the best of each other's abilities and achievements. But instead we have war."
The Quiet War isn't about exhilarating space battles or explosive action planetside. Presumably to keep those readers who hunger for such in check, there's a sprinkling of each in McAuley's novel, but The Quiet War is more concerned with the micro than the macro of Hamilton and Heinlein. Accordingly, there's a great deal of maneuvering: relentless propagandising from representatives of both quarters of belief, press-ganging to which both Sri and Macy are subject whatever their respective stations in life. Even when the hammer finally falls, we spend only a little time in the proverbial trenches, for the true climax of The Quiet War is a spirited standoff between Sri and Avernus, the gene wizards of each "strand of human history" united at last - and yet crucially at odds with one another. It makes for a quiet finale, but a perfect one, and perfectly appropriate according to the terms McAuley has established.
On the basis of this novel you could feasibly call Paul McAuley the K. J. Parker of sci-fi, for The Quiet War is interested in the politics of war over the war itself. Perhaps some less patient readers will take issue with that; perhaps, if I'm to be blunt, they can get their fix elsewhere. Those who appreciate a measure of thought in their science fiction will find much about McAuley's novel to like, if not to love - not quite. Sri and Macy are fine characters, a little overpowered by the narrative burden they share; McAuley's prose is fluid and rich in vivid imagery, though his fondness for info-dumping too often halts the tale in its tracks; The Quiet War raises a handful of fascinating questions not often addressed in the genre and addresses them meticulously while leaving enough unanswered to make Gardens of the Sun required reading for anyone taken in by McAuley's intimate rebuttal of space opera as we know it.