One all-pervasive theme that waxes and wanes in the sci-fi genre more than warrior-maidens’ hemlines is the role of warfare in the future of humanity. This concept swings from the space war operas spawned in the pulp era of the 30-40s to the doctrine of a “shinny happy future” as an antidote to the Cold War era. War seems to be on the upswing again, perhaps as an extension of the human condition and the impact of the current Global War on Terrorism on the popular psyche. The Quiet War by Paul McAuley and out this month by Pyr Books takes the concept of warfare out into the Solar System of the semi- near future. This novel follows several characters through the complex geopolitical environs of the Solar System as three Earthly powers vie for dominance with those termed the Outers, true spacers that seek to diverge from humanity entirely. The ambitions of the Earth powers range from altruism to the jingoistic, as they seek to assert their dominance. But don’t expect a long-form, extended video game that Hollywood seems to be fond of passing on to us as tepid Sci-Fi fare these days; The Quiet War is instead smart and tech-savy and much of its science is dead on with what we know about the outer solar system. The authors’ years as a research biologist shows in his meticulous explanations of life adapted for the off-world colonies and the genetic manipulations conducted by the Gene Wizards of the Outers. Prime action is set first in the system of Jupiter’s moons and then culminates with a show down in the Saturnian system, pitting an Earth military expedition against the Outers. Spanning moons from Phoebe to Tethys, and centering on the onslaught around the colony of Paris, Dione, the action finally reveals the bizarre world of the Tank Farms of Titan.The title itself refers to the illicit war of subterfuge and propaganda that each side wages right up until the declaration of open hostilities.
Of course, military science fiction has a long and storied history as a sort of sub-sub genre, from Heinlein’s’ Starship Troopers to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. What The Quiet War does is juxtapose our own ambitions against what our technology might be capable of. But even though we’ve survived the scourge of climate change on this envisioned 23rd century Earth, our instincts to conquer and subjugate have not changed. The universe of The Quiet War is sophisticated and complex, leaving the reader begging for more. How ’bout a peek at those Outer colonies around Neptune or Uranus? Or any hidden goings on in the Oort Cloud or Kuiper Belt? The adventures in this realm could be limitless… I think its interesting to note that many mainstream Sci-Fi dramas are now shifting back to our own Solar System as a backdrop, much like the aforementioned pulps of yore. Certainly, as we explore our own worlds around us, writers can “get away” with a lot less, but those who do their homework and have a grounding in science tend to now shine even brighter.
The whole cloak and dagger interplay in The Quiet War shows that conflicts are not always won by armies, but by those who are skilled at political maneuvering. Sun Tzu himself was known to have said “one spy is worth a thousand foot soldiers…” Wars of the future may indeed be over before they begin.
Read The Quiet War as either a high energy space opera or as a speculation on the ultimate diaspora of humanity…or both! Its certainly one of the best offerings we’ve seen from Pyr books (or Sci-Fi, period, now that Battlestar’s wrapped up!) this year…this tome would make for a movie/series that’s original and head and shoulders above whats out there today. (are you listening, SyFy?) At very least, it poses the question(s)… when we meet the “Martians,” will they be…us? (and will we then promptly exterminate them?)
Next Week: Stay tuned for the third review in our cosmic “Doom & Gloom,” Death from the Skies!/Cosmic Connection saga: I give you Heaven’s Touch!