Monday, December 15, 2008

McAuley's The Quiet War: Hard SF With Ecology

It was the kind of problem that Macy enjoyed solving. Biome engineering was more of an art than a science, an intricate game or puzzle in which everything affected everything else, its complexity increasing exponentially with the addition of each new species. Plants competed for the nutrients and light; animals grazed on plants or preyed on other animals; microorganisms broke down dead organic material and recycled nitrogen and phosphorus and sulphur into forms that other organisms could use. If a single species was removed from or added to this web, the relationships between every other species were changed in large and small ways that could not always be predicted. Macy had the useful knack of being able to hold models of nutrient and energy flow in her head and examine them from every angle, visualising their interlocking checks and balances, predicting how changes in one parameter would propagate through the system. She wasn't as good at it as Manny Vargo, who'd been able to conduct the equivalent of two or three symphonies at once, with choirs and bells and thundering organs. But she was competent, she was used to hard work and impossible deadlines, and the city had given her two good assistants and sole use of a well-equipped facility on the west bank of the lake. She had every confidence that she would succeed.

~ The Quiet War by Paul McAuley
I like browsing through the year-end "best of" lists. While I don't always agree with the selections, and the lists tend to be repetitive - Anathem has gotten multiple nods this year, for example - occasionally an interesting-sounding book gets mentioned that I completely missed when it was released. An example of that is Paul McAuley's space opera-with-ecology novel The Quiet War. In a discussion of the Best Books of 2008 at Ambling Along the Aqueduct, it got a mentioned twice.

Cheryl Morgan gave it a rave review:
Probably the best bit of straight SF has been Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War. Even that, however, focuses more on biology than physics, and does not yet have US publication so many people will have missed it.
Lisa Tuttle enjoyed it too:
The Quiet War by Paul McAuley – More hard science, but closer to home, being confined to our solar system, and set in the near future, with more explicable technology. I’m in awe of writers who can do this sort of thing as well as Paul does here. How does he know so much, about so many different things? Occasionally he gets a bit carried away with the info-dumps – the nerd aspect of hard SF – but the nerd in me secretly enjoyed that, too. He’s good at evoking different atmospheres and settings, and the plot is exciting and kept me guessing all the way.
Biology-based hard science fiction? Sounds right up my alley.

The Quiet War takes place in the 23rd century where the teeming millions on an Earth ravaged by climate change work on massive projects to rebuild the planet's ecosystems. Humans who left Earth many generations ago for the moons of Jupiter and Saturn - the Outers - live in self-sufficient settlements amid "exuberant creations of the genetic arts".
The fragile detente between the Outer cities and the dynasties of Earth is threatened by the ambitions of the rising generation of Outers, who want to break free of their cosy, inward-looking pocket paradises, colonise the rest of the Solar System, and drive human evolution in a hundred new directions. On Earth, many demand pre-emptive action against the Outers before it's too late; others want to exploit the talents of their scientists and gene wizards. Amid campaigns for peace and reconciliation, political machinations, crude displays of military might, and espionage by cunningly wrought agents, the two branches of humanity edge towards war . . .
As a gesture of friendship Earth sends a team of specialists to Callisto to build a biome, but the project goes awry when the head scientist dies under mysterious circumstances.

I suspect McAuley's background in botany provided him with ample material in describing the novel's biome project. As he described his background in an interview with ActuSF:
I’m a science junkie with a Ph.D in plant science. I worked as a research scientist in universities in Britain and the United States of America for twenty years. My special area of interest was plant-animal symbioses ; interactions between microalgae and the cells of the host animals in which they live - reef-forming corals are probably the best-known example of this kind of symbiosis.
Ecology, genetic engineering, and two massive powers moving towards war - it definitely sounds like an interesting read.

You can peruse the first 9 chapters of The Quiet War for free.

You can also order The Quiet War from Amazon.co.uk or, if you are willing to wait a month for it to be shipped, from Amazon.com.

And while you are waiting for your order, you can read a couple of free stories by McAuley with biological plot lines:
  • "Gene Wars" a short story from The Invisible Country
  • "Meat", originally published in Nature
Image: The Eden Project by Manuel.A.69
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