Newt asked all sorts of questions about life on Earth. ... What did the air taste like? Were there places with no oxygen? Did rain hurt? Was it true that weather changed the way you thought? What was it like to sleep under the stars with no roof overhead?
"I tried that once," Newt said. "Inside a plastic bubble I inflated outside the ship. It bugged the hell out of me, frankly."
"I guess it helps to have a horizon," Macy said. (p. 180)
The Quiet War is set a couple of hundred years from now. Ecological catastrophe -- the Overturn -- has struck Earth, driving many to the outer planets (Mars fell victim to warfare and is uninhabitable). Back on Earth, power is shared between three major factions: Greater Brazil, the European Union and the Pacific Community.
There are several levels of war going on here: between Earth and the Outers, between young and old, between city-dwellers and a culture that 'doesn't need cities', between human and post-human. For most of the novel the war remains quiet, a conflict of 'propaganda, espionage, sabotage and political coercion' (p.199): it may be quiet on the grand scale, but it's deafeningly loud to those on the front line.
The narrative follows four major characters. Professor-Doctor Sri Hong-Owen, Machiavellian gene wizard responsible for some astonishing 'cutting', or genetic manipulation, of both humans and animals:
Sometimes she dreamed of plagues that would winnow humanity to a sustainable level. Of a green, wild planet in which just ten million people roamed the plains and forests, sailed the clean blue oceans. Tall strong intelligent people who lived lightly on the land, linked by a planetary net, carrying civilisation in their heads. A utopia in which everyone was like her. Billions had been killed by climate change and ... the Overturn, but it had not been enough. (p. 257)
Macy Minnot is the tough, no-nonsense leader of a Reclamation and Reconstruction gang when she's recruited to help design a biome in Rainbow Bridge, Callisto. Through her eyes we see life in the Outer Worlds -- and the level of political intrigue, double-crossing and shady dealings in which she's ... encouraged to participate. Dave #8 is one of a series of clones (on the very first page we learn that they're not consecutively numbered because about half of them have already been culled) being trained up as soldiers in the fight against the enemy. And Cash Baker is a neurologically-enhanced young pilot, altered to mesh seamlessly with his ship at the flick of a switch, really only in love with the sky.
A complex web of intrigue and double-dealing links these characters together: other focal figures are the green saint Oscar Finnegan Raimos (Sri's mentor), diplomat and spy Loc Ibrahim (who takes a personal dislike to Macy) and the reclusive, mysterious gene wizard Avernus, the oldest living human. Yet it's by no means clear which -- if any -- is the hero of the story, and in fact I don't think it's a story that has a hero:
Printed books lay in heaps on the floor of one room. When Sri picked one up, it fell open to the first page and a young man's voice said, 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' A sentiment that so precisely echoed her present situation that she felt a little shock, as if someone has crept up behind her and suddenly spoken into her ear. (p. 378)
That quotation from Dickens' David Copperfield could equally apply to any of the major characters, whose fates are often surprising and occasionally lacking in closure.
I was surprised by how much certain characters grew on me, how much more I ended up caring about their fates than I had at first. There's a lot of quiet speculation in The Quiet War about what it means to be human, and about the nature of the continuum between human and post-human. Avernus uses the herring-gull analogy to point out that when you've destroyed the elements least like yourself, there are still elements that are least like yourself. On the other hand she's talking to Sri, and Sri makes post-humans ...
McAuley's prose is level and easy, seldom poetic: on the contrary, he has a habit of unobtrusive info-dumping. That said, there is some arresting writing in The Quiet War, usually on the subject of alien landscapes: below was a yawning plunge of freezing, oxygen-free water, black, salty and acidic; a fish would drown in it as quickly as a human. (p. 128)
There's plenty in the novel that fascinates me: vacuum organisms; the mysterious 'wildsiders' back on earth; the super-bright chimps, 'evolving away from conventional mathematics' and the cut rats, wearing jewellery and creating a written language; frontier life on the moons of Uranus ... The Quiet War doesn't engage my sensawunda, but perhaps that's because the future it portrays is, for all its beauty and the survival and growth of the human species, a future separated from our present by catastrophe and war. Things will get worse before, if, they get better.