Monday, June 06, 2016

Currently Reading (9)

Best known for his ten-volume Shadow of the Apt fantasy series, Adrian Tchaikovsky deploys old-school tropes -- terraforming, uplifting intelligence, a decaying starship -- to good effect in his first science-fiction novel. Its narrative, spanning some seventy centuries, is split between a rising civilisation of a species of spider accidentally gifted with intelligence during a terraforming experiment botched by sabotage, and a deterioriating human society aboard a starship, Gilgamesh, that centuries after the terraforming experiment has fled a dying Earth in search of a new home.

Continuity in the human strand of the narrative is given by the viewpoints of the formidable architect of the terraforming project, whose consciousness has been uploaded into an AI orbiting the planet, and Gilgamesh's chief engineer and a historian with special knowledge of Earth's collapsed civilisation. The lives of the latter are lengthened by long episodes of hibernation when Gilgamesh embarks on a futile round trip to another star after a near-fatal encounter with the formidable AI and an expedition to the planet's surface and first contact with the spiders go horribly wrong.

As for the spiders, the story of the rise of their civilisation and their struggle to understand their relationship with their AI guardian is told through a series of vignettes, an episodic history whose backbone is provided by lineages which perpetuate the names, characters and skills of their founders. Three are female, led by Portia, who is determined to save her species by any means necessary; one is male, striving to assert the value of his sex in a matriarchal society.

Tchaikovsky skilfully orchestrates the evolution of his complicated history, but doesn't quite overcome the obvious problem of splitting the narrative between one civilisation that's dynamic and rising, and another that's failing and splintering. While the spiders' half of the story is packed with ingenious ideas and unexpected twists, the fate of the humans aboard the starship follows a more familiar path, and the final resolution is likewise a little cliched. But the whole, with its nice inversion of the usual narrative of exploration and conquest and its thoughtful, strongly wrought depictions of two civilisations alien to each other yet linked by a common history, and of their attempts to understand each other, is an exemplar of classic widescreen science fiction, and the kind of stories that the genre has made its own.

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