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October 16, 2012

In The Mouth Of The Whale - Paul McAuley

In The Mouth Of The Whale by Paul McAuley is another of my summer reads that I've only just got around to writing about, here's the notebook quick review:

State of the art SF. Intelligent, exciting, full of references to SF. Building on past SF. Complex. Clever and fun.

The first two novels in this sequence, The Quiet War and Gardens Of The Sun, followed on from each other directly, however this one is set many years in the future, thousands of years and not in our solar system but a distant one. The core idea is to take the first to novels as a set-up and extrapolate way out in the future to see where it would end up.

I found the style of this novel more comfortable than the other two, especially The Quiet War, which seemed to jump and flit all over the place. Instead we have three plots intertwined. Is this a more conservative choice? For SF readers perhaps (I know non-SF readers who would refuse to read multi-stranded novels due to complexity), but I like that structure, having three stories evolve at the same time 

The three plots involve: a child being raised on Earth, in Brazil, before the time of The Quiet War; a Quick slave who lives aboard a station orbiting a distant gas giant; a Librarian whose job is to destroy demons in the library and negate hells.

The child's story is atmospheric, painting a picture of an Earth struggling to rebalance itself after the ravages of climate change. It's told by an unnamed third person, who very quickly lets us know that the child is destined for greatness, that somehow forces are guiding her towards something. It's a story, initially of a girl trying to be herself, one of those child rebelling stories, but not so simple, as her father is dead and her mother struggles to find them protection. The story slowly transforms into more than a picture of the child's upbringing, a Jaguar headed boy appears, conflict engulfs her home and everything becomes uncertain.

The Quick slave, Ori, has an initially depressing story. The post-human Quicks left the solar system, adapted themselves to a new environment and set about creating something new, but then the True humans caught up with them and subjugated them, showing complete distaste for anything post-human. All of this was far in the past, the Quicks know nothing but slavery and spend their time working on an orbital station known as the Whale above a distant gas giant. The True are searching for an intelligence buried deep inside the planet, with religious zeal, driven by fear of their enemies the Ghosts which attack the Whale intermittently. The Ghosts (whose founding story is told in part in the first two novels in the sequence) are posthumans and are seen initially as pure aggressors  aiming for manipulation of time to fulfil their destiny. Ori pilots a remote drone in the planets atmosphere and experiences some spark of intelligence interacting with her, which the Trues then pursue.

The Librarian Isak is a True, carrying out a penance for a past misdemeanour by making safe portions of the Library know as hells. The Library is a huge virtual reality world, constructed in the past now not really understood, it's an ancient artefact that the Trues struggle to manage, erecting religious style social clans around it, with disciples and rules and leaders. The hells appear to be traps or viruses left inside the Library, manifesting as demons or horrors which can drive people mad. Isak has a Quick slave assistant known as the Horse, although their relationship contains more friendship than is socially acceptable between Quick and True. They get drawn into an investigation, like a far future detective novel but with space and alternative reality constructs and worldlets in a distant planetary system.

Each story has enough depth and substance for an entire lesser novel. The ideas are numerous and ambitious. How could far future humans end up living? Will we descend to war and slavery, with nothing learned from the past? Will we evolve past caring and exploring, turning inwards into pure mental explorations and letting our physical entities devolve? Is there any hope that we can be something better? It's an exemplar of modern Science Fiction, big intelligent ideas wrapped around an exciting trio of stories with pace and action.

I thoroughly enjoyed In The Mouth Of The Whale. Highly recommended.