If I didn’t have this compulsion to finish everything I start I would have stopped reading The Quiet War around page 50. But in spite of the voice in my head telling me that life is too short to be reading stodgy prose, endless descriptions of space plants and space engineering and the potted life history of dull characters, I kept reading. And you know what? Eight days later, after turning the last of 439 pages, I decided that I wanted to read the sequel.
Much of this has to do with the fact that after about 100 pages the book calms down and starts telling a story rather than describing everything in obsessive detail. McAuley, who has written pot boiler-like thrillers in the recent past (which I’ve enjoyed) starts too ramp up the tension as the war between Earth and the outlying colonies on Jupiter and Saturn becomes inevitable.
Earth, of course, is frightened that if the colonies becomes too independent they’ll start throwing asteroids at the mother planet. It was what the colony on Mars was planning to do until Earth stepped in and blew them away. So, not surprisingly, the Brazilian Government (who have control over the Americas – both South and North) and the Europeans want to retain a stranglehold on the colonies. War seems the only option. Others on Earth and out in Saturn are looking at more peaceful solutions and that’s where the dramatic drive of the novel lies. Though as often happens voices for peace are drowned out by those on both sides looking to show off their vast array of killing machines.
There’s plenty going on here, which probably explains why McAuley spends so much time explaining the back history – the environmental disasters, the war for water and natural resources, the Overturn where the power dynamics on Earth changed forever. And yes, I’m willing to admit that to appreciate the last half it’s worth knowing all that stuff. But bugger me it’s a slog. And it means that it takes along time to actually get to know or even like any of the characters.
I know, though, that there are a number of SF fans who’ll love those early pages, with the future history and especially all the vast engineering projects that allows life on Jupiter and Saturn to exist and even flourish. For me though, it’s the politics and the reasons for the war and the way this leads to such hatred and racism of the other, that makes this book one persevering with. The siege of Paris on one of the moons of Saturn is genuinely gripping and disturbing and tragic.
From a gender point of view this is a strong book with a number of strong female characters moving the novel along. Macy Minot is a particularly wonderful example, a woman constantly hated on by others for being not like them, but who’s willing to push back against the prejudice.
Ironically, in a book that’s about the other, there’s a whiff of unintentional racism with a number of the evil characters being people of non white heritage – I’m thinking here of Loc Ifrahim and the Peixoto family, ostensibly the rulers of Greater Brazil. But there are enough shades of grey that it becomes increasingly difficult to know who is good and who is bad.
So, yes, I will read the second book. I’ll grit my teeth and power through all the space plants and space engineering just because I know that at its heart The Quiet War series is about human destiny. About prejudice and hatred and hope and survival and adaptation in impossible places. And when it deals with those subjects it’s a wonderful read.