World-building is an area of writing you hear a lot about when you read speculative fiction. Yet it also proves to be a seldom-addressed aspect of the stories many writers actually tell. How many planets have we seen in science-fiction where everything was “just like Earth, but with” a single relatively unimportant difference? How many fantasy novels seem to take place in a generic sword-and-sandal era? Don’t think I don’t see you nodding grimly on the other side of cyberspace. You know what I’m saying is true.
Usually writers seem only to be interested in a particular story that has caught their fancy, so they write a world around that story and then fill in a generic background for everything that doesn’t need to be rendered in close detail. And when you see writing that deviates from this norm, it tends to the other extreme: the world is all-consuming, and the characters and ideas are trite clichés meant to help us explore it. Only among masters do you find people who are interested in world-building for its own sake, and who also have the desire to use those worlds as vehicles for powerful stories.
Well, my friends, you’re in for a treat today. Paul McAuley is such a master. And Stories from the Quiet War, which contains five short works ranging from a medium-short story to a novella, has everything you could ever want from near-future science fiction.
The venue for McAuley’s stories is the solar system of the late 21st century. Mankind has colonized its outer reaches; there are domed colonies on the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, and others inside hollowed-out asteroids. Earth (a very different Earth, with a very different balance of power among its nations) regards these colonies essentially as subjects of the mother planet. But after several decades of de facto independence, which include the developments of whole new cultures – and even whole new biologies, to match their environments – the human settlements of the outer moons decide they would rather be de jure independent as well. The alliances of the mother planet launch several fleets in response, to bring their errant children to heel.
Thus begins the Quiet War, so named because on Earth the effects are barely felt. Much of the fighting is actually done from Earth, via drones; people put in normal shifts at the office and then go home. For the colonies, the situation is quite different. They are on the front lines of a war that is far from quiet. Within a very short time, their settlements are wrecked, the cities they have peopled and nurtured mere shadows of their former selves. Those settlements that surrender early or remain neutral are largely left alone. Those that resist are made an example of, their citizens treated to the experience of total warfare and left to die like dogs in the streets.
Most people who came up with an idea like this would be driven to tell the story of this war. Indeed, McAuley has – in another book. But in Stories from the Quiet War, he is interested in far deeper and more interesting tales. Only one of the stories takes place even partly during the actual fighting; most of the action here takes place in the aftermath, and some of it isn’t even concerned with the war that has just concluded! McAuley wants to examine the people of the colonies, and a few here and there from Earth. But these people are not, for the large part, grand figures. They are scientists-for-hire, lonely surveyors, scholars, and other such members of the lower and working classes. They are who we would be if we lived in this world. And they are simply trying to make a living, to heal their shattered lives and their shattered homes, to rebuild what they had. Or, in a few cases, to head even further out into the darkness…and plot their revenge.
“Big deal, Dwayne,” you might be thinking just now. “Where’s my world-building? You promised me world-building!” So I did. And this book delivers. McAuley has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the most likely ways in which humans might be driven to colonize our solar system. He sketches a fully-realized political picture, with dozens of settlements on Europa, on Dione, on Rhea, on Proteus. And he’s seemingly filled in every detail about them, constantly answering questions during each story that you didn’t know you had. Better still, the answers to these questions actually matter. If any were answered in a different way, the stories would change. Ever wondered how a biome for an extraterrestrial settlement might function? How people would deal with the lower gravity and the different lengths of day? What lines of work would develop? What sorts of devices might be mothered by necessity, revolutions in every field from scientific research tools to transportation devices to liquid containment? How a settlement might best be attacked? It’s all here…a whole new world that is fascinatingly divergent from our own in many respects, and which holds up remarkably to both common-sense intuitions and deep logical examination.
Yet the people who inhabit it, bizarre though they would surely seem to our eyes, are human. McAuley understands the great truth of humanity – though we may observe different customs and live in different places, the things that drive us remain mostly the same regardless of variances in time and space. His characters, though living in a strange world, act always out of recognizable motives: self-protection, the protection of others, curiosity, fear, a desire for truth or power or profit, aiding the living, remembering the dead. Though several characters are either mentioned or appear in more than one story, we are presented with an astonishing array of people from all ages and walks of life, and the means to infer a vaster and more complicated picture still. Some of the characters we meet prove capable of moving on from the Quiet War. Most never will. But for good or for ill, they come across as complex people struggling to live in a complex world. Even the most unambiguous villain has his admirable qualities. Even the most unambiguous hero isn’t perfect.
The reader who appreciates more than one type of story will be pleased to hear that the five contained in this volume have as much variety between then as the characters. “Making History,” about a historian writing a biography of one of the most important figures in the Quiet War while navigating political intrigue in an occupied settlement, is the standout. But every story has its high points, and none addresses its central mystery in quite the same way as the others. “Incomers” follows two young boys as they try to uncover the past of an old man. “Second Skin” is a tale of espionage, love, and genetic engineering. (It’s even stranger than I just made it sound, too.) “Reef” touches on everything from scientific inquiry to neo-feudalism. And “Karyl’s War” is about one man whose life was turned upside down the day the warships arrived from Earth, and whose only desire is to go back to the way things were. Though the strongest stories are the ones that bracket the collection, the middle three are still well worth your time.
Perhaps the best thing about Stories from the Quiet War is the lovely balance it achieves between hard and soft science fiction. People whose tastes tend toward a rigorous examination of scientific possibility will be thrilled by the attention to detail given the various lunar environments, and fascinated by the ways in which mankind has both adapted them and adapted to them. It’s also nice to see a hard sci-fi setting that takes seriously the laws of physics, and works within them to create both unusual settings and excellent story complications. Yet if you prefer the more human element of sci-fi universes, as I do, you have not been forgotten. McAuley seemingly has a layman’s grasp of a wide range of subjects: psychology, sociology, political science, history, philosophy. And he uses that knowledge to good effect. Even after all my compliments, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the quality of the writing. The prose here is clear and powerful, and occasionally rises to the level of poetry – as when one character “picked his way across the moonscape by the mellow light of Saturnshine.” That’s just beautiful.
Normally by now, I would have started to tell you about the things I thought were wrong with the stories. Here’s the problem: I can’t. There’s nothing really wrong anywhere, which shouldn’t be a surprise – unlike most of the authors I plan to review on here, McAuley is a bona-fide professional with a number of publications to his credit. The more you dig into his stories, the more you come to realize how much care and thought went into their crafting. The world-building, the characters, the conflicts and ideas…everything is wonderful. And to think I never would have gotten to experience this universe if I hadn’t committed myself to trying new books on the Kindle!
Well, that’s more than enough from me. You should already have figured out by now that Stories from the Quiet War is a book you should pick up. And once you do, maybe you should check out some of Paul McAuley’s other work. I know I will.