Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publication year: 2015
Genres: science fiction, space opera
My rating: 4 out of 5
Owner: Frome Library
Humanity has survived the threats it brings against itself today, to prosper and colonize throughout the galaxy. The Brin project exists to accelerate and observe the evolution of apes on a world without human interference, in the hope that humans will one day have others to interact with in space. Then… the end of humanity comes, and its survivors search for survival, and the subjects of the Brin project grow and expand their own budding civilization.
First off, I really enjoyed this book. It lacks the urgency and life that I’m finding myself more and more drawn to, but in many ways it narrates itself as a fable or fairy tale—detached and observing. It sometimes comments on its own action. Definitely takes a Brechtian position in relation to its business.
I do have to say that Holsten is just… meh. Lukewarm. Beige. Whitebread. Entirely undeserving of being the focal point of half the novel. I get that he serves to underscore and counterpoint a lot of the real meat of the action and narrative, and I definitely asked myself the questions I think I should have, in no small part because he’s such a mealy wanker, so I guess the Brechtian stance works… but also he’s a just meh. Not even a a PoS (though there are moments where he is), he’s mostly just… meh. Basically, he’s every weak-willed wannagood privileged and therefore untested person you grew up with in a middleclass neighborhood. The guy who had everything just… there, so never grew a spine, or formed opinions or drives. Driftwood.
OK now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, we can talk about the rest of the book. Spoilers from here on out.
I think my favorite thing is the reuse of names for the spiders. It’s a lovely way of creating continuities and then breaking our expectations with the repeated characters not repeating.
I also really appreciated the care with which Tchaikovsky handles describing a spider’s world and frames of reference. He doesn’t just say that the Messenger and spiders don’t comprehend each other because of frames of reference, but spends time building the unfamiliar frame, with material ties to their morphology and habits and environment.
There is maybe a conversation to have about whether Tchaikovsky is backing biological determinism, especially in regards to sex and gender roles, but I think he’s careful enough to pay close attention to the more extreme case of sexual dimorphism in the spiders (which is very unlike humans’ mild dimorphism), and also draws out the lie that sex must prescribe capability. He doesn’t really get into gender… and I wonder if a later formation of a Fabian or Bianca story where their gender wasn’t binary conforming might have strengthened the argument. But anyways.
It’s odd to examine this in a case where the males of the species are on the down of the power dynamic, but not unwelcome.
I think in short the gender and sex elements of the book are… fine. Not brilliant, but not actively terrible.
The moment when Kern finally stopped dictating the terms of her relationship to the spiders, and said “I’m listening”, was a moment of genuinely unexpected joy and catharsis for me. She had been demonstrating huge hubris throughout the novel, from her miscalculation of her crew at the beginning, to her refusal to listen to the humans on the Ark… but Tchaikovsky had done enough work, enough build of her noticing discrepancies between reality and her own perceptions/demands of reality, that that moment really worked for me. It was wonderful. I also like that she just… kinda disappears into spider society after that. I appreciate the spiders’ continuing investment in symbiosis with their world.
Overall, really lovely read. I think there’s more to talk about, especially the parallels between Lain’s ‘tribe’s’ attitude toward their society and the spiders’, and their appreciation of the obligations coexistence brings (and the ways in which their lives are very different—the tribe being born to service, and the spiders having a much broader choice in their lives at the moments where they exist at the same time). I think the tribe’s attitude is a nice bridge to the humans’ entrance into symbiosis with the spiders. It would have felt like deus ex machina that the spiders managed to evoke that much empathy if all we had seen were the Key Crew and mutineers’ utilitarianism and selfishness (not necessarily a judgement either way).