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.

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.