Paul McAuley’s “Gardens of the Sun” [2009]

“You’ve wasted too much time in debate. You’re all infected with the pernicious virus of democracy. The idea of fairness. The idea that everyone deserves an opinion about everything, and everyone’s opinion is worth the same as everyone else’s. That kind of stupidity was wiped out years ago in Greater Brazil. Its hosts were killed by the Overturn, and it was unable to find a foothold in those who survived. For only the strong survive. Because they are able to withstand everything the universe can thrown at them. Because they have proved themselves strong by defeating the weak, not by treating them as equals.” [Euclides Piexoto in Gardens of the Sun, pg. 389]

Gardens of the Sun, by Paul McAuley (UK Cover)

Euclides Peixoto, the patriarch of a great ruling family of Earth in Paul McAuley’s sequel to The Quiet War, is no pantomime villain. One of the reasons that McAuley’s future operates on the level of the believable is that his awful logic is in some senses irrefutable: following catastrophic climate change, biology has been grafted even into stage religions, and the doctrine of natural selection demands of the evolving organism that it simply be strong enough to beat the competition. The human society created on Earth by men like Peixoto is feudal and brutal – but, crucially, it works. Unlike the culture of greed and individualism that preceded it, Peixoto’s does not repeatedly rape the planet.

In The Quiet War, the tightly controlled, rigidly hierarchical political settlement on Earth was contrasted sharply with the democratic, consultative societies of Saturn and Jupiter. Gardens of the Sun picks up where that novel left off – with those city states of the ‘Outers’ subjugated and occupied by Earth, and the culture they once championed kept alive only by a small band of survivors who have fled all the way to Neptune, the ‘Free Outers’. This alone suggests something of the structure of the book – it cycles through points of view separated by even greater distances than was the case in the first novel: we have Macy Minnot with the Free Outers, the rescued pilot Cash Baker on Earth, the spy formerly known as Dave #8 on a wandejahr around the former Outer societies, and the diplomat Loc Ifrahim at the centre of a complex web of alliances and conspiracies stretching across all the inhabited rocks of the solar system.

So where The Quiet War could be imagined as conical – broad at the start, but inevitably tumbling towards a clear, non-negotiable bringing-together, Gardens of the Sun is structurally far more ambitious. As Duncan Lawie noted in his Strange Horizons review, Gardens of the Sun covers the same plot developments once, twice, often three times, as it flashes through its various protagonists. Duncan is astute to note that “this approach says as much about perspective and context as it does about the data.” He ultimately finds this method, however, a little wearying, and yet I think it central to the book’s purpose. Here is a novel, contra Peixoto’s powerful and inexorable logic, which champions and puts the case for respectful diversity. Its multiplicity of voices underlines the sheer range of human experience and potential.

Towards the close of the novel, the gene wizard Sri Hong-Owen, who has slowly become as isolated and mysterious a figure as her inspiration, the Outer Arvenus, reveals her great project to Alder, her biological son:  “We are the clade now,” she tells him. “One flesh, one purpose.” [pg. 423] Hong-Owen has cloned a whole population of “sister-daughters”, using her own genome as the basis for an entire ecosystem. “You have become a nation of one,” Alder observes [pg. 425], and silently concludes that his mother will never achieve her life-long goal of equalling or bettering the great Arvenus. The reason for this is simple: Arvenus never tired of reiterating humanity, constantly recycling the species’ endless potential in order to adapt it for disparate environments. In collapsing her society into a simple self, however tweaked and twisted, Hong-Owen has abandoned this project in favour of dictation and narcisissm. What Gardens of the Sun suggests is that the mark of true genius is to accept multiplicity and work with it.

Perhaps this grand – and intelligently enacted – theme lies at the heart of the problem Adam Roberts identifies with the novels final quarter. To quote in full:

“I don’t exactly mean that Gardens of the Sun’s ending is too happy—although, and without spilling spoilers, it kind of is, both in the way it delivers a dividend to key characters, but in the way it embodies a weirdly symmetrical didacticism, by which the two books’ agents of aggression and reaction are killed off, and the agents of peace and reform are rewarded (and agents of the former who reformed and became the latter are doled a mix of punishment and reward). But I mean that it is too neat.”

The novel’s wider project has been softly-softly (as Roberts says, nothing much happens in the novel – all its biggest events are captured in hearsay and elision, which is of course again a way of emphasising the disparate human reaction to a given environment over the pow-wallop of events); its final hundred pages or so try very hard to round things off with something approaching finality. There was indeed a sense of forced pay-off in this, that McAuley was aware the reader had followed his characters for hundreds of pages, and that said reader therefore deserved some dividends. But “symmetrical didacticism” rubs ungainly against the more expansive mood of the book as a whole. It is against didacticism and forced endings, and for organic development and open-ended consideration; if the novel has a fault it’s that narratively it doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions.

Eric Brown in the Guardian wrote of McAuley and this novel that, “Even when his characters seem cold and unsympathetic, they are convincing creations manifestly of their time and environment.” I find that a particularly useful observation – again, both Gardens of the Sun and The Quiet War make no apologies for their at times aloof or cold characters, because they are of their environments. Being of the environment is absolutely central to this duology – working with it rather than against it, adapting to its demands rather than subjugating it to our will.

There are passages of stark beauty in this novel, most of which come from McAuley’s capacity to describe and extrapolate the solar system; there are moments of science overload, too, but it is the other side of McAuley’s prose coin and your toleration for each may be a matter of degree. I’m not sure that Adam is right when he says The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun should be published together – as above, I rather found them to be different both structurally and thematically, one resolving into a focusing event, the other resisting the same – but, even when they are clumsy, they are undoubtedly unified works in and of themselves, carefully constructed and deeply considered. At times cold and uninviting, perhaps – but then so, too, are the environments in which we can find ourselves.

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One thought on “Paul McAuley’s “Gardens of the Sun” [2009]

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