Sep 20, 2009

YetiReview: The Quiet War

21 Words or Less: A Hard SF extrapolation of intrasolar colonization that emphasizes excellent scientific elements at the expense of plot and characterization

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Good: Solid Hard SF that lacks any scientific errors apparent to the average reader; Filled with intriguing ideas of genetic manipulation and social experimentation; Offers a complex, multifaceted political system that seems realistic

The Bad: Characters are all bland and unappealing; Plot suffers from book-one-itis; Pacing problems make retention more difficult.

Space is a cold, dark place; unwilling to compromise and necessitating brilliant science and fantastic technology just to stay alive. Paul McAuley's The Quiet War is no different. Arrogantly intelligent, dispassionate, and otherwise off-putting; the five central characters fail to create any type of tension or reader engagement. Two are genetic scientists who are reluctantly pulled into the rapidly dissolving political situation between the Earth based nations and the populations of the Outer Systems. No matter the abuse or external manipulations Macy Minnot and Sri Hong-Own face, they remain self-centered and otherwise disinterested in the titular "quiet war." Not to mention the fact that they repeatedly assert their own intelligence, despite making illogical decision after decision. This brings into question, McAuley's choice of including these characters in the book. They do stuff but it's just stuff: forgettable events that don't influence much of anything and aren't particularly interesting or entertaining.

Similarly, the inclusion of Cash Baker, another of McAuley's PoV characters, is suspect. Cash, a fighter pilot who is genetically cut to interface with his ship, has only a few point of view scenes and his minor contributions to the book are outweighed by the extra page count they result in. There was simply no reason for including him in this already bloated book. While the fourth character, Loc Ifrahim, manages to evoke some emotion, the desire to see a character die so his scenes stop is rarely a good thing. He's wormy, irritating, and insignificant (despite his own delusions of grandeur). The last character is Dave #8 who as his name suggests, is one of a batch of clones who are raised to be perfect supersoldiers devoid of personality. He's also the most interesting character in the book.

Luckily, the novel is mostly redeemed by the strengths of McAuley ability to conjecture. His vision of the future solar system is extremely interesting and the technology that allows humanity to survive in the harsh environs of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons is fascinating. Vacuum organisms that are engineered to construct valuable resources in the cold emptiness of space, futuristic cults that believe they are receiving messages from their time-traveling selves, secret underwater gardens where no life should exist, livable outposts on every place imaginable (and some that aren't), plants that utilize electrical currents or temperature gradients instead of photosynthesis. And those are only a few of the wondrous concepts introduced by McAuley. The science appears to be solid if hypothetical, and on more than several occasions the potential repercussions engaged the ever important "What If?" function of the imagination. The problem here is that the story and the characters are what distinguish a science fiction novel from a science journal article or text book entry and it's not good when your science is more interesting that the people interacting with it.

To be fair, The Quiet War is the first book in a multiple book arc. It's possible that the books are more serial than episodic and there are several volumes telling a single story. If that's the case, then The Quiet War represents little more than an introduction of the characters and settings that will be utilized down the road. Cash Baker and Mary Minnot might end up influencing the political future of the entire solar system. It's certainly possible. However, in the 470 pages provided thus far, McAuley doesn't appear interested in maintaining an audience to reach that point.

Not only does he bloat what should be 200 pages or less of introductory material into a full novel, the way McAuley chooses to structure the book is almost unexplainable. Rather than rotating point-of-views, he opens the book with two quick scenes with Dave and Cash and then doesn't return to them until 125 pages later by which time I had almost forgotten about them both. The infrequent Dave chapters feel out of place for the majority of the novel and the even more infrequent Cash chapters never manage relevance. And it's not only the PoV decisions. The Quiet War lacks a concrete plot and any semblance of a traditional story structure (rising action, conflict, etc.) except for lots of introduction/exposition and a very weak climax. The closest thing to a plot is the repeated encounters between Loc and Mary but it simply doesn't work and even if it did, it still wouldn't have mattered in the big picture. Throughout the book, the ratio of page count to plot relevance is mind boggling. If it wasn't for the strength of the occasional aside as McAuley expounds upon the hypothetical science of the Outer System colonies, the book would suffer greatly.

All in all, whether it was overly inflated expectations resultant from positive UK reviews, the nearly flawless record with an otherwise brilliant line of Pyr books, or the unrealized story potential represented in McAuley's carefully crafted future, The Quiet War was a disappointment.  I expected more and I simply didn't get it. At this point, I don't know if I will read McAuley's follow up, The Gardens of the Sun, which makes its UK debut in October. I still might tune back in as I remain curious why McAuley included the characters he did. They've got to do something down the line, right? It's also possible that McAuley simply wrote an epic too large for a single book and didn't do enough editing to turn the first part of the story into a story capable of standing on its own. While that's still worrying, it's less disturbing than the alternative. Either way, you've got to weigh the inferior story elements against the excellent setting they occur in. It's your call on this one.

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