Friday, 23 October 2009

McAuley's Gardens (2009)

I finished this in short order, for it is immensely absorbing stuff. Here, then, is not so much a review as some ejecta from the impact of McAuley’s new novel on my imagination.

First thing to note: it is evident now that Gardens of the Sun is the second half of a coherent unity—that it would be better, in many ways, for both it and The Quiet War to be published together as a single Dickens-sized volume. The second volume is carefully, and intimately, threaded into the first.

Reading Gardens of the Sun addresses some of the hesitations I had about The Quiet Warsuperb though I found that novel to be. So, after finishing Quiet War I wondered if Avernus, elderly genius gene wizard, interplanetary celebrity and hunted prize, was under-drawn; but reading Gardens of the Sun, and the characters who work through her various myriad specialized gardens, my whelm was raised. I take it the point is that Avernus is characterized, as it were—or known—through her work, not her person.

I also found the infodumping here less intrusive—although it seems to me still problematic, it is better integrated into the whole, in part because the narrative arc of this novel (baldly: picking up the pieces after a brief but very destructive war) necessitates a lot of detailed sifting the ruins and laborious rebuilding. This the up portion of McAuley’s down-up narrative arc: after the swift crashing down (singleships descending break the vacuum/with flames of incandescent doom) the slow and painstaking building up again. This in turn is compellingly realised precisely via a carefully sedimented density of detail: the immersive, exhaustive strategy nineteenth-century naturalists called ‘realism’, a textual strategy often employed by writers of hard-sf to balance the intrinsically fantastical topic they have chosen to write. McAuley does this very well indeed; at no point (well: at very very few points) do you doubt the possibility of the world he is describing. You believe it, and that’s the sine qua non for the half dozen human-centred storylines he spins here.

Nevertheless the infodumping is sometimes distracting; and I thought the passages of Goldingesque descriptive beauty or insight, of which McAuley has over and again proved himself capable, seemed fewer and further between here. I’m not convinced it can ever be a good idea, aesthetically speaking, to end a paragraph with phrases like ‘…making a significant contribution to the partial pressure of the red planet’s atmosphere, currently thirty-two millibars at datum’ [429]. Stylistically speaking that’s you, gee, ell, eye, it aint got no alibi, and so on, and so forth.

Or again ... I don’t care how interested one is in cell biology, it’s hard to swallow chunks of dialogue like:
‘The reaction you saw was a simple AND a sequence: lectin plus binding polymer equals activation of another polymer which produces the luminescence. The polychines are Boolean networks capable of generating orderly dynamics—fixed state cycles. One polychine constructed from just a hundred polymer components, each possessing just two possible states, either on or off, would generate ten to the power of thirty possible arrays. If every component receives an input from every other component, the system will become chaotic, cycling though a vast number of states at random; it would take a very long time before it returned to its original state. But if each component receives just two inputs, the system will spontaneously generate order—it will cycle between just four of its ten to the power of thirty possible states. Thus, constrained by spontaneous self-organising dynamical order, the polychines …’ [165]
Stop there. Now: I would say, as a general rule of writing, if you have characters using ‘thus’ as a way of linking sentences in their casual conversations, you’ve strayed from the path. Actually this isn’t quite fair: McAuley makes clear that the speaker here, Sri Hong-Owen, is a particularly over-cerebral, frozen personality. Nevertheless, stuff like this gets in the way of the more effective functioning of novel. It stands out here because what Sri is talking about here, one of Avernus’s gardens, of which there are a great many, all different, scattered all over the solar system, is really important to the overall project of the novel (look again at the title of the novel). Each of these myriad gardens is an expression of Avernus's genius at making strange new ecosystems. On a semiological or metaphorical level what these gardens are is science fiction itself: self-contained little bubbles of the creative-scientific imagination, extrapolations from the known world, generating beautiful strangenesses. It is a great strength of this novel that in telling its broadly compelling over-arching narrative it also reflects eloquently back upon itself as commentary on its own mode. It is, as the best stories are, about storytelling as well as about its own characters and their actions: canny on the level of form as well as content—there are some lovely, fascinating digressions on ‘character’ (I particularly loved the material on ‘amae’, McAuley's ruminations on what he considers a core human need for ‘approval, belonging, being valued’ [202]), and on storytelling itself (for example, the bi-novel’s central character, Macy, discussing the different sorts of story with her partner on pp.218f).

Of course I realize that what I admire so very greatly about McAuley, what I go to him for as a writer, is not what many of his fans (his many Hard SF in particular) value. I suppose they want the precision, the exactitude, the material detail as well as the grandeur, scope and sweep. I want the affect, the unique style and mood that only he generates. At its best this is chilly, slightly reified and slightly alienated, but alive to beauty, a uniquely oblique sublimity, in a way that no other writers, of any genre, are—I don’t just mean beauty in the physical world; I mean a brilliant, almost Ballardian off-centre comprehension of the essential strangeness of human beings.

And for the first two thirds of this novel I read in a state of mounting delight, thinking this one of the best things McAuley has written. Little happens—which I thought a superb play by the author—but the scale and the brute inhospitality of the solar system are brilliantly evoked.

The ending convinced me less. There’s nothing incompetent about it; and indeed I daresay many McAuley fans will find it thoroughly satisfying, tying up loose ends, gesturing at greater adventures and so on. If I say the flurry of bang-bang spaceship duels, hand-to-hand combat by genetically tweaked superwarriors and so on makes the last hundred pages too busy, when set against the lovely colour-field plainness of the rest of the novel, I appreciate that many people may just think I've missed the point: for bang-bang spaceship duels and hand-to-hand combat are very popular things. Plus it's all very well written.

So, yes, this is to take, I know, a minority position: McAuley’s genius is not in providing satisfactions; it is for evoking the strange and dislocating. I don’t exactly mean that Gardens of the Sun’s ending is too happy—although, and without spilling spoilers, it kind of is, both in the way it delivers a dividend to key characters, but in the way it embodies a weirdly symmetrical didacticism, by which the two books’ agents of aggression and reaction are killed off, and the agents of peace and reform are rewarded (and agents of the former who reformed and became the latter are doled a mix of punishment and reward). But I mean that it is too neat.

I realize (to repeat myself) that this is probably not an objection many people will make.

To be clear: my sense is that The Quiet War/Gardens of the Sun, taken together, is a very major work of contemporary science fiction, amongst the great genre achievements of the noughties, a long novel that will still be being read and remembered fifty years from now. (What would McAuley, or his publishers, call an omnibus edition of the two together? War and Gardens? The Quiet War and After?) If you have any interest in SF today you’ll need to read both books. Meanwhile, I’m going to think some more about the edge of dissatisfaction I felt after closing the back cover on the final page. Hmm.


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The Krab said...

Great review! As a translator of both novels into czech, I agree with you, especially concerning the overcomplicated cellular biology articles and I would even add a rant regarding the Tolkienesque (overly thorough) setting description, only the setting is fucked up and you and your readers have never seen anything like it.
Perhaps with the exception of the "canniness" of the characters as I can't seem to believe Sri's motivations for one and Loc's for another, they're just a bit flat for me, however entertaining their interactions are. But yeah... great review!

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