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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Gardens of the Sun" by Paul McAuley (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Paul J. McAuley Website
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Read FBC Review of "The Quiet War"
Read Extracts from both "The Quiet War" and "Gardens of the Sun" HERE

INTRODUCTION: "Gardens of the Sun" is the direct sequel and completion to the highly acclaimed hard space opera "The Quiet War". Since I reviewed this last one and discussed there more about its relatively unique setting, I will focus here on the main characters and their paths following the high drama at the end of The Quiet War and then talk a bit about the similarities and differences between the two novels.

The best way to think of the duology is as a huge 800 page novel split into halves by the main global event happening in their universe - the "shooting" war between the Earth Alliance led by Greater Brazil and the Outer colonists. So one novel presents the escalation, "the quiet war" if you wish, the other presents the aftermath which maybe not that surprisingly turns out somewhat differently than the results of the "shooting" - with which "Gardens of the Sun" starts in a very powerful passage I will quote from below - would indicate.

"Gardens of the Sun" stands at about 400 pages and follows essentially the five main Pov's from "The Quiet War" and through them we glimpse all the important aspects of the sprawling story. The importance and in consequence the number or pages dedicated to each character shifts throughout the novel and their paths sometimes intersect only to diverge. Hard space opera at its best, "Gardens of the Sun" concludes the arc started in "The Quiet War".

ANALYSIS: In my review of the “The Quiet War” I presented the five main characters of the novel:

"Dr. Sri Hong-Owen is the top geneticists on Earth—at least in her opinion—and a subordinate of the Greater Brazil powerful Peixoto Family, though as a personal favorite of the family's Green Saint, the elderly Oscar Finnegan Ramos, she is quite powerful on her own.

Macy Minnot had a tough life in the slums of Pittsburgh after running away from home. Getting a lucky break by coming to the attention of the Fontaine Family, Macy becomes a soil treatment specialist and crew leader. When she is chosen to represent her lords on an Earth-outer cooperative construction project on Callisto under the leadership of Earth's top engineer Emmanuel Vargo, she believes the job will make her career.

Loc Ifrahim is a Brazilian diplomat with secret instructions from his true masters.

Dave #8 is one of Sri's secret war projects—a batch of clones altered to look like outers and trained from birth in the arts of war, spying and sabotage—but Dave #8 nurses secret doubts about his humanity and the goals of his superiors.

And Cash is a special forces pilot surgically altered by Dr. Sri to pilot one of the new attack warships and is eager for war and teaching the “outer abominations” a lesson."

"The Quiet War" ended with momentous events that were presented in quite low key but they had dramatic consequence which get an excellent overview in the opening pages of "Gardens of the Sun"

"A hundred murdered ships swung around Saturn in endless ellipses. Slender freighters and sturdy tugs. Shuttles that had once woven continuous and ever-changing paths between the inhabited moons. Spidery surface-to-orbit gigs. The golden crescent of a clipper, built by a cooperative just two years ago to ply between Saturn and Jupiter, falling like a forlorn fairy-tale moon past the glorious arch of the ring system. Casualties of a war recently ended."

So it seems that there are clear winners and losers and the ascendancy of the Earth powers led by Greater Brazil is unstoppable with the few Outer holdouts to be mopped at leisure. But as history keeps teaching us even today, it's much easier to win a war through overwhelming might than to enforce the resulting peace on the unwilling defeated. Coupled with political infighting among the winners and with another historical fact, namely that in an oligarchic regime a winning general that is part of the oligarchy cannot afford to be *too* successful and the Alliance triumph seems much shakier than the above lines would suggest.

And of course our main characters through which we observe the events, have their own "battles". While Macy is running for her freedom and possibly her life with the few Outer ships that escaped the destruction described so eloquently above, even the ones that are seemingly on the winning side find the aftermath of the war complicated. While Cash barely survived and has to deal with both physical and mental trauma, Dave 8 essentially "quit" and is now chasing his chimera of "perfect love" across the conquered habitats, Loc finds his all-out efforts "for victory" - or maybe for Loc's advancement though of course for him the two may be identical- that included murder, blackmail and more, not quite appreciated by general Arvam Peixoto and Sri's obsession with Avernus and her desperate tries to catch the elusive genius are cut short by the same winning general who needs her in order to "win" the peace...

Gardens of the Sun continues the saga started in The Quiet War in the same way, combining hard-sf descriptions of life in the Outer colonies, with personal dramas of varied scope and power. And as we have several shocking moments in The Quiet War, so we do here with the fate of Avernus' "daughter" Yuli being one of the most poignant early on.

Beside the epic qualities of the series and the successful integration of serious hard-sf in the storyline, the other main strength keeps being its unpredictability - we have an inkling where things go, but there are lots of intervening surprises, alliances kept shifting and even the seeming villains of before like Loc or Arvam may get their redemption. The actual ending of the novel's main threads is excellent, though in a very nice touch, there are several pages that extend the action for several decades and detail what happens to the main surviving characters later on, pages that are both moving and exhilarating, bringing full circle some of the personal stuff started in The Quiet War, when the younger son of a very successful mother tried to make his own way.

Since the style and structure are similar to the ones of The Quiet War I would not comment more on those aspects, but the one "structural weakness" I found in this novel was that despite the "local twists and turns" mentioned above, there is not much essentially new as the big picture goes, so the element of novelty that helped make The Quiet War a top 5 sf novel of 2008 for me is somewhat lacking here.

Even so and The Gardens of the Sun (A+) was my number four sf novel of 2009 but against a much weaker top-level competition than for The Quiet War (A++) in 2008. Overall the duology formed by these two novels is the best hard-sf I've read in a long time and a true achievement of the author that is well deserving of the acclaim it got.



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