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Story Behind Quiet War by Paul McAuley - How I wrote the Quiet War novels and stories

Evenings Empires is the end point of a sequence of stories and novels that spans – good grief – sixteen years. ‘Second Skin’, the short story that began it all, published way back in 1997, contains most of the sequence’s signature tropes: it’s set on an obscure little moon in the aftermath of a war between Earth and colonists of the outer solar system; there are vacuum organisms, weaponised biotech, huge construction projects built by robots, and so on. As soon as I had finished it, I knew that there was much more to this future than one little story. Others followed at irregular intervals, but because my career had taken a left turn into near-future thrillers, it was a decade before I was able to write a Quiet War novel. Then, in 2006, at the World Science Fiction convention in Glasgow, I had a chance encounter with Malcolm Edwards, who had bought and published my first novel when he’d been editor at the venerable British publisher Gollancz. He was now a senior executive in Orion, and Gollancz was now one of its imprints. I ended up writing outlines for two Quiet War novels; Malcolm bought them.

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I love research, but I’m hopeless at outlining. I produce sheaves of notes and then ignore most of them because the actual writing reveals new landscapes and characters and suggests more interesting roads to take. The Quiet War stories were a series of expeditions that mapped the territory piecemeal, written with no particular plan or overarching narrative structure in mind. When I began the first two novels, a decade after ‘Second Skin’, I decided that I needed to rework the background history to fit the kind of story I wanted to tell. So while the short stories are set in the aftermath of a failed attempt by colonists to free themselves from the control of powerful interests on Earth, in the novels the inhabitants of the outer system are descendants of refugees whose ambitions to spread out across the Solar System and tinkering with human evolution are viewed as a threat by political powers on Earth.

But although the stories and novels have different backgrounds, both are grounded in my interest in how the large movements of history affect the lives of those caught up in them, and my fascination with the fantastically varied landscapes of the moons of the outer planets. That fascination was first sparked by the images captured by Pioneer 11 and the two Viking spacecraft as they sped through the systems of the outer planets, revealing that the kind of exoticism science-fiction writers had traditionally mapped on to planets of far stars was actually in our back yard: sulphur volcanoes, icy, hugely cratered landscapes, a moon with bright and dark hemispheres, a moon whose jigsaw surface might hide a vast ocean of liquid water, shepherd moons embedded within a vast ring system, and so on. The Galileo and Cassini-Huygens spacecraft sharpened those images and revealed fresh wonders – the geysers of tiny Enceladus, the rivers and lakes of Titan. Here were real places, named, mapped in detail. All I had to do was insert figures into those landscapes, and tell stories about the ways in which living there affected their dreams and ambitions, their hopes and fears.

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The first two novels were conceived as a diptych. The Quiet War is about the causes of (and excuses for) the war, and the long build-up to the final act of violence; Gardens of the Sun is about the consequences of the war for both victors and vanquished. Both share the same five protagonists, all of them from Earth and at first hostile to the peoples of the outer system: a deliberate inversion of conventional genre narratives in which colonial wars are seen from the point of view of the plucky colonists. I wanted instead to tell the story through characters who at first see the colonists – the outers – as the enemy, as Other. Who are changed by their experiences in the outer system, and embody at a personal level the reconciliation between Earth and the outers.

The second pair of novels, In the Mouth of the Whale and Evening’s Empires, jump across 1500 years of the Quiet War sequence’s future history, skipping past a golden age of exploration and colonisation, the rise and fall of the True Empire which ended it, and much more. Although they share the same themes – the interactions between memory, identity and history; the ways in which the past inhabits influences the present – they are stand alones, self-contained narratives.

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In the Mouth of the Whale is set at the edge of the dust ring around the star Fomalhaut, where one of the characters from the first two novels arrives in the middle of a war over control of the star’s single gas giant planet (one of the reasons for that jump across a millennium and a half worth’s of history is that it took her that long to get there: yet another example of how, in science fiction, the scale of the universe influences and distorts human stories). Evening’s Empires, set in the ruins of history that clutter the Solar System, tells the story of a young man who escapes the hijacking of his family’s ship, vows to take it back, and in the process learns that the hijack and his family’s history aren’t quite what he thought they were. A classic science-fiction picaresque that closes out the sequence and hints at a new beginning.

And so, after some sixteen years, I have moved on to other histories, other stories. But I can’t help wondering if there isn’t at least one more novel, about the True Empire’s rise and fall, say . . .


Paul McAuley
Official Website
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