Friday, October 20, 2023

Review: War of the Maps by Paul McAuley

The story of an investigator who lives on an artificial world, whose Javert-like pursuit of his quarry leads him on a picaresque adventure.

Remfrey He has a problem. Although to be fair, he doesn't really think of it as a problem. The problem with being a criminal genius, perhaps. Remfrey He, who has ambitions and ideas to deal with an incoming plague, an invasion, is being doggedly pursued by an agent of his original home country. No matter what or where Remfrey He goes, no matter the obstacles and challenges The Lucidor faces, the Lucidor is determined to bring Remfrey He to justice. He has thrown away his friends, his job and career to bring his quarry to justice. He doesn't have a plan, has no backup and resources, but he will simply not stop.

The Lucidor's story, and his journey to find and capture Remfrey He, is the focus of Paul McAuley's novel War of the Maps.

Longtime readers of McAuley's work may wonder, as I did, if this novel is set on the giant far future artificial world of Confluence, setting for a number of his novels and stories. It's made quickly apparent that this is a different "big dumb object" long ago constructed by humans long ago and filled with a panoply of different kinds of descendant cultures.  There are similarities between this world and Confluence, besides its staggering artificiality of size. Both are very old structures, with very ancient history to the peoples that now make their way on their surfaces. Both have memories, and legacies left over by the deified creators. And both places are slowly showing the signs of the aforementioned age, both are in decline, things on a downhill trajectory. 

There are, however, significant differences as well. Given that we discover in the course of the novel that this is a honest to goodness Dyson sphere around a red dwarf sun, the amount of potential area is huge. Much of the land area is, in fact, covered by oceans, with "maps" of continents separated by wide distances. (These Maps are in fact one of the two kinds of Maps in the title. The other we will discuss anon). It's never mentioned where the creators got the ideas for the maps that make up the land areas of the sphere. This idea of a large BDO with maps of the continents of worlds is something seen in things like Larry Niven's Ringworld, or Charles Stross' Missile Gap. Both of those specify the maps are of different planets, and perhaps the maps in McAuley's world are taken from those. 

We can't tell because even getting a sense of one map, the map that most of the book takes place on, and the fallen level of technology means that we can't really get a sense of even that map's shape, much less any of the others. It's difficult to tell a story on such a large canvas, especially in a world where the travel of speed is relatively slow. There are lots of leftover pieces of technology, some of it working better than others. But there are no flying machines on this map, and engines such as they exist are either primitive steam engines, or somewhat more advanced diesel type affairs. But it's not common.

So, on such a world where the main character is walking a lot of places, the form of the story takes the picaresque. The Lucidor, who does have a number of names, revealing them and using them only when necessary, is a Javert like character who, despite all odds and obstacles, continues his pursuit of Remfrey He. In the process of doing that, we get to know him, his home culture, and the many adventures, lands, and things he encounters on his very long journey. 

For instance, my use of the word Javert to describe the Lucidor is deliberate, and I am pretty sure McAuley was thinking of Victor Hugo's character in creating his protagonist, because the Lucidor's obsessive desire to get a hold of his quarry is boundless. There are a number of times where he might have turned aside, given up, and even settled down in one of the places he travels through, but he ultimately turns them all down, his pursuit of Remfrey He is so all-consuming that he himself winds up getting people from his home country in pursuit of him. He is, after all, a renegade himself.

So our Lucidor, our light bringer, our investigator, does have a special ability, one that is awfully useful in this world. In this otherwise hard SF world, there are people with some minor to moderate magical talents. Why they work, in what way they work  is never rigorously explained. There are just people who have these Gifts. Remfrey He, our antagonist, has a Gift for being able to convince people of just about anything. His golden tongue can get him in and out of all sorts of situations and get people to do their bidding. The Lucidor, though, has a Gift that can negate all Gifts around him. This means of course, and it is pointed out, that Remfrey He can't simply just tell the Lucidor to give up his quest and turn around and go to Cleveland.1 The Lucidor's negation gift proves in hand throughout his adventures, and more than perhaps he himself expected. The variety of gifts and their nature made me think of the world of Monte Cook's science fantasy world Numenera. Perhaps, like that world, there are nanobots of some kinds that certain people can respond to, and subconsciously bring effects into being. (There is mention of Auras and certain people having the Gift to see what other Gifts people have, for instance).

There are also leftover pieces of the creator's technology, that may or may not be sentient or aware, but certainly powerful, called Shatterlings. The acquisition and use of these Shatterlings or communication with them is a going concern and a quest for many. But it turns out that the Lucidor can possibly affect their use and power as well. 

So, our Lucidor, with this rare and precious Gift, his implacable determination winds up ranging across the map, and beyond, in search of Remfrey He. We get a first person, ground level view of various people, cultures, societies and curious things along the way. The Lucidor, despite himself, despite his desire and overriding mission, time and again, gets *involved* with local doings, local problems. While he is always fixed on his prize, and a journey that will eventually take him off his map altogether, we get an entertaining and diverse group of stories and incidents along the way. Bit by bit, we learn more about the Lucidor's home country (which we don't visit, we meet him in medias res on the road), himself, and much more. This is a novel I think would work really well in audio as a road trip book. Visit the Green Giant Statue, the House on the Rock, Mt Rushmore and more as , within the audiobook, the Lucidor wanders across his own map and landscape, dealing with invasions, joining caravans, getting up with intrigues, and facing a strange zombie plague. 

For you see, the zombie plague and its issues are the other Map that the book is concerned with, and that is genetic maps and lineages and heritages. What the zombie plague is, and what it does to people, and why, become the major matter of the last portion of the book. So the book is not only a war of physical maps, but biological ones as well. These fallen people have, for all of their technological issues, do understand genetics and similar sciences to a degree significantly beyond what their otherwise regressed technological state might suggest. And Remfrey He, as the Lucidor is well aware, understands far more himself than the average person. And is willing to use it.

But for all of the plotting the diverse characters, the Lucidor himself, it is the rich worlds that McAuley creates in his novel, in the end, are where I land on as far as my opinion of the novel. The resolution isn't quite as sharp as I'd like, but the journey, the journey to find Remfrey He, and find out much more about his world was entertaining. 


The Math

Highlights: Big Dumb Object setting, lots of diverse and interesting locations, cultures and worldbuilding ideas

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: McAuley, Paul, The War of the Maps [Gollancz, 2021]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.