It’s always a shock, when I look on them the first time after waking. I forget how their stock and mine have diverged since the first colony ships left Earth. She is closer to baseline than I, but then the second great rise of Earth culture was one of grandiose ambitions and a refusal to accept limits, even the limits of human form. I am much altered from my ancestors, within and without, and these post-colonial natives have changed little.
Nyrgoth Elder was seven feet tall, gaunt, clad in slate robes that glittered with golden sigils, intricate beyond the dreams of tailors. Lyn imagined a legion of tiny imps sewing that rich quilted fabric with precious metal, every tiny convolution fierce with occult meaning.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race belongs to a long tradition of Science Fiction that doubles as speculative anthropology, and this book would be right at home among the Hainish novels by this sub-genre’s master, Ursula Le Guin.
The book opens with a chapter told from the point of view of Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the younger daughter from the ruling house of the small kingdom of Lannesite who has taken it upon herself to seek out the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder in his isolated tower in order to invoke an ancient compact that he would help in a moment of need. Her mother might not be moved to act, but a threat is indeed upon the world.
The second chapter introduces the central conceit of the novel.
The ancient being Lynesse calls Nyrgoth Elder is a man named Nyr Illim Tevitch, an anthropologist and the last remaining member of Earth’s Explorer Corps on Sophos 4, part of a mission to study how the first wave of human colonists had evolved in the thousands of years since their departure from earth. As a good* anthropologist, Nyr commits himself to non-intervention, but that line becomes harder and harder to hold to through the lonely centuries, even with his Dissociative Cognition System—a technological device that allows him to set his feelings aside to deal with later—activited.
Both characters undergo the same set of developments, but their experience diverges quite dramatically, since, as Arthur C. Clarke’s third law goes, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Nyr cannot explain his scientific understanding of the universe without Lynesse interpreting it as magic. Tchaikovsky’s achievement in the novel is to represent both the wonder and bafflement coming from both sides, especially in the chapter in the middle of the novel where both narrators relate the epic tale of the last time Nyr ventured from the tower, riding to war with Lynesse’s ancestor, at least in the version the Lynesse tells.
But where Lynesse is driven by her quest reminiscent of traditional fantasy stories with a young, naive protagonist, Nyr’s struggle is an interior one, against both the feelings of being an inadequate anthropologist since he is now intervening in the evolution of the subject population and the crushing loneliness of centuries isolated from every other human being.
“Forgive me, Elder. If not the monster, then there is some other foe in the world that causes you concern?” The thought was dire, and yet there was something weighing on him, and surely one did not become a great sorcerer without making great enemies.
And so she wanted to know why I looked sad, and I explained that it was basically a long-term mental state and that it was all under control, but that didn’t seem to be what she heard. And of course they don’t have a precise word for “clinical depression” or anything like that.
In contrast to these themes, the plot of Elder Race is quite simple. A quest pulls Nyr from his castle to investigate the rumors of an insidious plague that threatens life on the planet. He isn’t really supposed to intervene, but nevertheless agrees to help Lynesse. But the origin and nature of that threat, let alone any question of whether they are going to triumph, are not the focus of the book. It it is a perfectly competent plot, but one that does not go much for subtlety or misdirection. Instead, Tchaikovsky layers these two dissonant perspectives atop this simple narrative in order to explore more fundamental themes of human experience.
Elder Race is a short read (about 200 pages), and I loved every bit of it, enough so that I suspect that I will be seeking out his other work in the not-so-distant future.
My reading remains ahead of my writing about books. Since my last review post, I finished three books other than this one: Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction, a manifesto about the importance of biological diversity, Lee Child’s Tripwire, which is a perfectly competent thriller that shows every sign of Child’s formulaic process, and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, which was thoroughgoing Nobel fare: a family story that traces the consequences of colonialism in Tanzania before and after World War 1. Inspired by a run of recommendation requests (four in the past two weeks), I also just re-read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members.