In the very far future, a Dyson sphere has been built around the dead husk of our Sun. On it live people who seem human, but they are not because they were engineered long ago by people so technologically advanced that they might be gods, and indeed pretended to be so. The gods have long since departed, but some of their servants may remain.
This is the setting for Paul McAuley’s latest novel, War of the Maps. It is in that sub-genre of SF in which people live in the ruins of a long-dead high-tech culture. Fans of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun will find much to enjoy here. This book, however, is not a hero’s journey, no matter how much it might seem like one at times.
A map, of course, is not the territory, but it is a useful metaphor and the people of the world of the book deploy it enthusiastically. A “map”, therefore, is a continent. Or rather, a set of land masses in close contact with each other. In the vastness of a Dyson sphere, areas of land can be separated by oceans so great that only the bravest try to cross them. Different “maps” therefore mostly keep themselves to themselves. But a “life map” is DNA. The inhabitants of one area of land might be very different from those of another area. Think, for example, if our world might be sufficiently vast that somewhere over the sea there is a whole separate world inhabited by creatures descended from the species whose fossils are found in the Burgess Shales. If an environment built on one life map were to come into contact with an environment built on an entirely different life map, they might find themselves at war, so to speak.
Our hero, Thorn, is mostly known by his job title. He is a Lucidor, one whose job is to shed light on murky matters. That is, he is a detective. He comes from a country established by former slaves that runs on a collectivist political system we might recognise as inspired by China. However, he is now far from home chasing a master criminal whom he had once captured, but whom corrupt officials have traded to a foreign country that wishes to make use of his skills.
Remember, these people are not human. Some of them have what we might describe as superpowers. The criminal, Remfrey He, is a silvertongue, he can persuade others to do what he wants. Along the way we meet Orjen Starbreaker, a scientist whose power helps her to see the life maps of other beings, and Angustyn, who can sense the presence and thoughts of people at a distance. The Lucidor has the ability to supress the powers of others, which is a very useful talent for a policeman.
So the Lucidor has resigned his commission and has chased Remfrey He into the Kingdom of Patua. That country, however, is at war. It is being invaded by creatures from another map, and it is losing, badly.
McAuley has a bit of fun with science fiction references in the book. For example, one of the manifestations of the alien ecosystem is a red weed, which brings to mind other tale of warring biospheres. Also, although the book is set in the unimaginably far future, there are some cultural references so strong that they have survived the test of time.
“You do know,” Mirim ap Mirim said, “that the world is a shell. Or have things so degenerated in your sandy scourhole of a country that you live on a flat plate riding on the back of a turtle, or some such nonsense?”
There is also quite a bit of political chat between characters. Orjen thinks that the Lucidor’s country is a tyranny that prevents free scientific exploration. He counters that hers is so free that it allows madmen like Remfrey He to practice their abominable arts unfettered provided that someone is profiting from his work. It doesn’t help that the Patuans are the people who once held the Lucidor’s people in slavery.
Along the way, McAuley has a lot of fun with biology, creating fascinating creatures such as the Hive Women—small humanoids with a bee-like society. He’s also quite keen on mind control fungus.
The main plot, however, is two quests. The Lucidor seeks to re-capture Remfrey He, while Orjen seeks the source of the alien invasion of her world. Remfrey, being Remfrey, seeks to turn the invasion to his advantage. And thus the two quests must meet.
However, there is a Macguffin, a creature known in the book as a Shatterling, but recognisable to us as an AI, that has fallen from the heavens and has its own, entirely different agenda.
Hopefully I have given you a sense of just how much there is in this book. If science fiction is the “literature of ideas”, then this is SF par excellence. It is also a book with some great characters. The Lucidor might be smart, and a decent fighter, but he’s also a stubborn old man with little feel for politics. Orjen is a young woman who has given up much to be a scientist, but tends to forget how much privilege she has. Remfrey He, though he is offstage for most of the book, could out-cunning Moriarty for breakfast. Or at least he says he could, and you will end up believing him.
There’s not a lot of truly great science fiction being written at the moment, and much of what we do get is unashamedly escapist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but with War of the Maps McAuley has shown that he can write intelligent, imaginative SF with great characters that we will end up thinking about for a long time.
Title: War of the Maps
By: Paul McAuley