Paul McAuley’s “The Quiet War” [2008]

There’s a scene towards the end of Paul McAuley’s Clarke Awardnominated novel, The Quiet War, in which two ‘gene wizards’ – scientists who manipulate the genome to adapt life to unusual or artificial environments – discuss the source of their inspiration. “We carry a standard of beauty from Earth,” explains Arvenus, the ‘Outer’ who led her people away from the influence of Earth following the period of climate change catastrophe known as the Overturn. Sri Hong-Owen, the Earth loyalist who has for much of the novel chased Arvenus across the solar system, is unconvinced: “People like us need no common standard,” she insists. “And, anyway, it’s purely random. We should be free to create anything we want.”

“I freely chose to create this,” Arvenus replies [pp. 422-423], and the question of freedom of choice is the novel’s centre of gravity (does Arvenus choose to replicate beautiful forms, or is her very concept of beauty inherited by cultural diktat?). The Quiet War, as its title may imply, is therefore far from the usual military sf space opera with a complex plot of double-dealing and conflicting agendas. That’s not of course to say that its influences don’t show, sometimes heavily – everything from The Forever War to the Hyperion duology is brought to mind – and in this sense McAuley has written quite a conservative slab of trad sf. There are, after all, the usual tranches of text devoted to exposition and extrapolation; nothing about the novel screams revolution. But then, it is a quiet war which McAuley wages.

In her review at Strange Horizons, Abigail Nussbaum said some good things about the novel but ultimately couldn’t care for it: “between the flatness of its narrative and the predictability of its characters, there’s not much to feel passionate about in The Quiet War.” At Torque Control, Niall’s conclusion might as well have quoted her verbatim: “too much of the quietness of The Quiet War is a lifeless quiet, which could have done with a bit more human noise.” In one sense, you can’t fault their logic – McAuley’s novel is indeed a cool read, almost studiedly distanced. I’m not sure, though, that I exprienced this as bloodless. Rather, I agree with Edward James’s more positive Strange Horizons review of the book. Simply, “McAuley’s book is quiet in all kinds of ways.” And this is not a bad thing.

Take the below. Cash Baker is a pilot engineered by Hong-Owen’s methods to be, in the way of the wet dreams of military sf, the best of the best. He has represented one of the novel’s five key voices, all gung-ho spirit and derring-do. His craft has been crippled in action:

The Glory of Gaia was too far away, but maybe he could raise Luiz and Vera, appraise them of his situation. The proxy was equipped with more than a dozen analysis packages, including a laser spectrograph. He aimed it past Phoebe and started blinking it on and off, three long flashes, three short flashes, three long. The pilots had been taught Morse code for situations like this, and he was grateful for the foresight of the training team. Three long, three short, three long. SOS. Save Our Souls.

Cash kept sending for a long time.

No one responded. [pp. 349-350]

There’s surely more going on here than a simple lack of punch. Baker was head-hunted for the gruelling and transforming pilot programme which replaced his teeth with plastic ridges and drilled into his skull, and he is now trapped within it. Sri Hong-Owen, for her part, designed the process but did so at the behest of a member of the Peixoto family, all-powerful in the post-Overturn power bloc of Greater Brazil. The members of that family, in turn, are beset by their conflicting goals and the pressures of expectation and inheritance. The book returns again and again to these concentric circles of agency, which come to resemble a mobius strip. Ultimately, contra Arvenus, no one has freely chosen anything.

Much is made of the environmental crimes of our own generation – everyone in the novel has inherited their broken worlds from selfish environmental criminals, and all that is left to them is the coping mechanism. “We are engaged with a great work of penance,” one character suggests, framing his own life and that of his contemporaries by reference to the past and to received circumstance. [pg. 136] What Niall and Abigail see as a lack of passion seems to me, then, key to the book’s broader project. When Sri Hong-Owen confesses a moment’s self-doubt to her son, Alder, he shrugs. “You did the right thing. […] The only thing you could do, in the circumstances.” [pg. 243] This formulation recurs frequently. The clone soldier Dave #8, for instance, is told of his compelled murder of a teacher, “orders were orders, he’d done what he had to do.” [pg. 206] As Dave #8, so Sri Hong-Owen – every character in The Quiet War is functionally a clone, wound up by a system and set to go. Even the Outers, amongst whom are factions passionately of the belief that humanity must be allowed rapidly to evolve into a panoply of new species, and whom practice a sort of reality TV version of open democracy, cannot quite get past their conceptions of the Proper Ways of Doing Things. (“We’re a democracy,” one protests. “We shouldn’t arrest someone because we disagree with them.” [pg. 324] Ah, the idealism.)

It is this very human inability to encompass the other that robs each character both of their ideals and their agency. The Quiet War breaks out not because it is inevitable, just or even necessary, but because enough people on both sides think it is acceptable. It happens by default, as a result of momentum and inertia – it happens, Arvenus suggests, “because we cannot help being other than what we are, because the behaviour of the mob is closer to our true nature than the aspirations of the individual.” [pg. 433] Arvenus has the habit of coming across as priggish, but her pessimistic view of the human ability to fashion their own societies, rather than submitting to the opposite, is a stripe of the same cynicism which informs the whole novel.

All of which puts me closer to Adam Roberts’s view of the novel as a calculatedly modest statement: “It is, for all the sense of wonder the book cultivates, an example of literary understatement.” Many reviewers (for one, Niall in the comments to Roberts’s review) have referred to the vacuum in which the war takes place as its source of quietness. Certainly the physics of McAuley’s worlds are scrupulous and minutely drawn. But the real quietness of the war and of the novel is in its very de facto nature, its bald emergence.

The last line of the book is, “Nothing would ever be the same again.” McAuley does not, as Roberts goes too far in arguing, deny war’s impact. Instead, he simply holds the continuity of conflict in equal weight to its change. The book is in this way at every point measured, scientifically but also morally. Both sides in the war are allowed room to win our sympathies; each of the characters is given as valid a voice as any of the others; and war itself is seen as both loud and quiet, typified not by shields at maximum and laser guns blazing, but by a lonely pilot sending an SOS, or a clone soldier undertaking espionage work, all conveyed in hypeless and carefully de-glorifying prose. This isn’t lack of passion; it is simply the equal presence of moderation.

The Quiet War represents with considerable poise a world betrayed by individualism, where the emphasis has shifted entirely from the individual to the presiding corporate polity. It is a mistake to look for individual heroes in such a world – had McAuley included them, he would have lost his balance.


9 thoughts on “Paul McAuley’s “The Quiet War” [2008]

  1. Correction: The Quiet War was nominated for the Clarke but lost it to Song of Time.

    And that passage you quote is everything that bothers me about the novel in a handy, compressed form. Do I really need to be told what the morse code for SOS is, or that pilots are taught morse code? I think McAuley could have written the same quiet, passionless narrative without making it so bloody blatant, so completely devoid or mystery or a sense of there being anything beneath its surface.

  2. Correction: The Quiet War was nominated for the Clarke but lost it to Song of Time.

    Er, yes, of course you’re right. *shuffles* I can only beg post-midnight brain collapse. Correction made!

    As for the faults of the passage … as I said above, it’s not that I’d dispute your argument per se. Bathos is usually my own first criticism of works like McAuley’s, and his prose does indeed volunteers itself for the stocks. But I do think it needs saying that sexy space pilots of the future are taught Morse code – and that this has a richness to it when put aside the much-vaunted transhumanism of the pilots in question (and the wild fantasies of most military sf). That for me is the key to the book – all is absolutely not surface with it (we never see the levers which exert all this pressure on the characters, but that are, like dark matter, irrevocably present), but what depth there is is there only by implication. The Quiet War doesn’t make much of itself, that’s true, but I think. conversely. that this makes it a more, not less, impressive work.

    I wouldn’t by any stretch want to argue that the book is a work of genius. I’m just trying to figure out why I didn’t experience it in the same way as you and Niall.

  3. Hmm. We’re clear that my reservation is not that the characters are low-key and modest in their roles, but that they’re not terribly interestingly done, yes? Edward’s comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson is very apt, I think, except that for me KSR manages that humanity-in-modesty in a way that McAuley doesn’t (in this book). The humans of The Quiet War feel dry to me; the book’s interest too-obviously elsewhere.

  4. Niall:

    We’re clear that my reservation is not that the characters are low-key and modest in their roles, but that they’re not terribly interestingly done, yes?

    We are, yes. And, again, it’s not that I disagree with you – McAuley is not going to (hur hur) win any awards for the characterisation on show here. But, whether deliberate or not, that thinness feeds into the book’s project. Or at least, that’s how I read it – and why my enjoyment of the novel wasn’t spoiled like yours. I suppose that, when you say “the book’s interest too-obviously elsewhere,” we are in total agreement … and I rather liked the elsewhere. (The world has indeed turned upside down).

    Adam: Yes, exactly. You’re doing both at the same time. Good work!

  5. Interesting discussion. Ultimately my reaction on reading this book was profound disappointment, after all the hype I’d caught whiffs of, to the extent that I think Abigail and Niall were far too generous in their reviews. I liked the subversion of common military SF tropes, the political ideas on display–but the actual narrative bored me profoundly, and it was a real struggle to finish. Awkward, overwritten prose, flat and flat characterization, and severe issues in pacing. I’m not glad I read this, except insofar as it allows me to understand different reviews and some of the varied criteria people pick up on.

  6. Alexander – it is indeed interesting to see how differently readers can react to a text. One criticism of The Quiet War I’ve seen before is that it is under-written – that is, graceless and artless. But overwritten? How so, do you think? Merely by dint of how hard McAuley’s prose is working to appear bald?

    As above, I don’t disagree that the characters are flat – Macy in particular for me was dull company, and her sections were the ones I was most likely to skip (were those where you were most conscious of the poor pacing?). I still can’t quite say why that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book, but I do think it was to do with the deliberateness of it all. This is unusual for me – I’m usually not one to defend either the deliberately bland or the tone-deaf weaknesses of space opera writing – so McAuley must have done something right. Maybe. 😛

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