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.

Mr H and Mr H Discuss The City & The City: Part Two

China Mieville’s The City and The City has just been published by Macmillan. It’s been getting some good press, yet I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. Nor did Torque Control’s Niall Harrison, so we’ve been talking over the book and trying to get at why we weren’t as impressed as other reviewers. The first part of this conversation can be found over at Torque Control. The second starts here, though those intending to read it should avoid both these installments – unlike other reviews of the book, we couldn’t contrive in this format to avoid discussing the central conceit of the novel, which Mieville has been quietly encouraging critics to obscure. Anyway … onwards.

"The City and The City", UK cover
"The City and The City" in the UK


Thanks for that Encyclopedia quote — I think it’s clear that the uncomfortable slush of elements is part of the point, then. That makes the book interesting as a lark, but winds up being integral to its failure. Mieville’s love of the neologism and pun isn’t new to this book, though, is it? He’s used termplay to do some heavy lifting in each of his novels, and in fact I’d say it’s central to his technique. It seems to me that one of the ways he inspires that ol’ sensawunda is by keeping things so vague: his characters, his cities, his political structures very often seem to be at one remove from the reader. We never quite understand them, and that deliberate inscrutability is key to his art. It’s on show here, too — those clever wordplays hint at without expositing different ways of thinking and being, whilst all of the characters, even Borlu, remain just in one way or another undrawn, unknowable.

And, again, this is where the ‘In Our World’ stuff intrudes. You can’t make a world so similar to ours as to be exactly that unknowable, you can’t hold it at one remove from us for a long enough period of time for us to begin to believe in its impossibility. As we’re agreed, it is very difficult to imagine the ways in which the Cleavage was enacted and sustain because we do know how the world works, and the author cannot succeed in dangling that knowledge just a little out of reach. I think you summarise the ambivalence of the book’s political position well — the complexity of the issues are not underplayed, and the book allows even hardline nationalists to be simulatneously both right and wrong — but, again, much of it is too familiar to us to fit this radically different way of living. I know exactly what you mean about thinking Borlu a dolt, but as I said I can believe he has been conditioned — or as you put it, believe he believes — but despite that the concept, too, remains doltish. This is fatal: it makes the complex politics fall down, because the ‘nationalism’ on show is so obviously a false iteration, and the depiction of culture so gratingly artificial. The book tries hard to depict a difficult world which must be inter-connected to survive, but in which borders are crucial and cannot be ignored; yet that conceptual failure undermines the whole edifice.

So, sure, globalised business exists apart from both unity and division, of course, which is why the businessman appears hypocritical from both perspectives — but whether the nationalists criticise the ‘false consciousness’ of the twin cities, their nationalism is in turn equally false because of the novel’s own weaknesses. I’d like to think that all this falseness is some clever piece of cultural criticism, but I fear the novel is in fact just poorly conceived. The mystery stuff is a case in point: undoubtedly, this is an homage to noir and suchlike, and in particular its first chapter is very strained in its attempt to read like Chandler (a much harder effect to achieve than is often allowed). The twists and turns of the story are quintessential mystery novel, and the nearly comedic summary by the detective at the end a study in the form. But none of that part of the novel ever felt to me remotely as inventive as Mieville’s fantasy stuff — imagine the mystery without the fantasy setting, and you get something close to the masterfully over-cooked genre parody in Cloud Atlas.

Over on his blog, MJH is saying ‘read that book whatever you do’. I don’t get it.


Without wanting to put words in that other Mr Harrison’s mouth, my guess is that what he values about the book is that it challenges us to think about what we mean by “fantasy”: not in the taxonomic/lexicographic literary sense we’ve just been discussing, but in the real-world sense. Why do we choose to believe the narratives by which our day-to-day real-world lives are shaped — narratives, in the end, as virtual as any “fantasy novel”? What do we gain and lose by it? That sort of thing. You say that wordplay is not a new feature of Mieville’s works, and that’s true, but I’d say that in The City & The City the way in which words actively shape reality, rather than merely reflecting it, is more foregrounded than in anything else he’s written, precisely because it is a version of our world being shaped.

Of course, if you read it and remain un-shaped, it’s less impressive. Your point that we already know how the world works, and Mieville can’t hide it from us, is an excellent one, I think. I appreciated the extent to which Mieville added more and more exceptions to the rules, ultimately making it clear that everyone who believes in the separation does so because they choose to do so. I thought the Ul-Qoma ex-pat community in Beszel was really very well handled, nicely disorienting; and I appreciated that he acknowledged that unsmelling or unhearing would be rather more difficult than unseeing, to the point of it sometimes being impossible to know whether to un-sense something or not. But again, ultimately these are portrayed as temporary, resolvable confusions, whereas it seems to me they would quickly become catastrophic, peoples’ choice or no.

"The City and The City" US Cover
"The City and The City" in the US

As to the book’s other advocates … I’m waiting on a review from Clute at the moment, and I gather he liked it; I’ll let you know what his arguments are. Gary Wolfe, in the April Locus, feels that it is Mieville’s “most disciplined and sharply focused novel to date” (I suppose it is), that “what’s most impressive … is not what amazes us about these imaginary cities, but what is familiar about them” (which I take to mean he bought into the conceit more than I did), that it’s “quite unlike anything [he’s] seen before” (to an extent, although there are books like Hav); and he’s pleased by “the manner in which [Mieville] respects and maintains the integrity of the police procedural”, even while unpacking the book’s mysteries. That last one I thought was a bit of a problem, actually. Borlu’s job requires him to be highly observant; but his life requires him to be highly selectively observant. Surely a deliberate contradiction, but also one that handicaps the novel a bit, since Mieville resolves it by having Borlu’s narrative be basically un-visual (until near the end, when he really does see both cities at once). Points for impressive technical achievement, somewhat fewer points for a believable detective protagonist.


I’m still not sure I was as impressed as you by the wordplay stuff: sure, the way the residents of the cities use language shapes their reality, but this isn’t restricted to fantasy novels, or even very good ones. That Mieville finds some useful ways to depict this common process is power to him, but I don’t find it that noteworthy, within his oeuvre or outside it. As for what we think might be MJH’s reasons for liking it … well, OK. The book certainly does that, but for all the reasons we’ve been discussing it does not manage to do it very well. Again, why give a book a pass because it merely tries to something? Likewise, Wolfe is right on all his counts in terms of what the book does but, as you say, whether it does those things well is a trickier question. I don’t at all find the detective fiction stuff particularly clever — in fact, I kept thinking that Martin Cruz Smith should have been in Mieville’s acknowledgements. At times, The City & the City reads so much like Gorky Park that I find it hard to believe Mieville is unfamiliar with it (though he may be). Gorky Park was a bestseller, but in terms of the genre of police procedural it is as by the numbers as Mieville.

This is less maintaining the integrity of a form to my mind, and more using it as a crutch as everything else falls down around you. What keeps the novel together is its tight crime focus — it could not work as a straight fantasy novel, because its elements do not cohere. Yes, the tension between the two forms (as personified in Borlu) is deliberate: but it sets up something for us to watch, to focus on, so that we pay attention to the world largely as background to the mystery. Canny. Mieville says here that he’s always seen something of the fantastic in detective novels, that they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not. Going through all those Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s not difficult to accept what he’s saying. But if he’s right, then what detective fiction manages better than The City & the City is to convince us that the world of its fiction is very much ours, and that what happens in the story could happen in our lives. MJH may like the central questions of the novel, but Mieville’s attempt to write them large is to my mind what dooms the book to failure in this key generic regard.

I agree that Mieville is as clever as he can be with the conceit — I too enjoyed watching, as the book went on, all the imperfect ways in which unseeing and unsensing were at times negotiated — but ultimately you come back to that failure to hold our world in this world together. I’m glad others have been more convinced by the book — but I think we can agree that we weren’t, and that there are serious problems with the book that tell us why.