The Quiet War, Paul McAuley
Fans of science fiction often try to place works in the genre into one or more subcategories. It is “space opera” or it is “cyberpunk”; it is “steam punk” or it is “military SF”. It is “Hard SF” or “New Wave”. These distinctions can be helpful to the reader picking up a book by an unknown author, I for one will take a space opera over a military SF novel almost any day, but the constant categorization is also terribly limiting.
Take the Quiet War. In one sense, it is a classic “space opera”. Shuttling between planets and factions, it follows various characters in the lead up to a war between earth and various breakaway colonies throughout the galaxy. Intricate plotting based around political and romantic entanglements? Sounds like space opera to me.
In another sense, it is very “hard SF”. McAuley is a former research biologist, and the book includes extensive discussions of various genetically engineered people, plants and weapons. (All of which are handled very well. Hard SF can too often descend into some sort of lab report where the authors flights of scientific fancy ramble on with little connection to the plot.)
And finally, the Quiet War is also a work which takes some of its ideas from the New Wave’s insistence on tying the “science” in SF to its political and social ramifications*. The “war” at the center of the novel is at least in part about what it means to be human. How far can we take genetic engineering before we have created a new species? What does it mean to be human? The sort of questions the book brings up around genetic engineering are the main reason I read science fiction; it gives us a place to toy with outlandish ideas and imagine problems and solutions which, while they may arise from far future conjectures, have analogies to the problems we suffer today.
But enough about how the Quiet War fits into the world of science fiction sub genres, was it a good book? Yes. McAuley can write, which is more than you can say for many genre authors, and the characters and conflicts he imagines here are captivating. I do wish he had spent more time on the social consequences his scientific speculation creates. But finishing a novel wanting more is a fine criticism to have of any work. There is apparently a prequel to the Quiet War, I will probably read it.
*I realize this definition of “New Wave” is very vague, I’ll write a lot more about how I view New Wave in the future.