by Kathy Oltion
Every once in a while, we’re given a wonderful opportunity. A few months back, I received an email from our dear editor, Trevor Quachri, asking if I would be interested in writing a guest book review column for Analog. This request came unexpectedly since I haven’t been actively writing or submitting stories for some years. Life and circumstances, as most of you know, can get in the way of a good time. I am flattered that he thought of me, and the idea of getting to read new books with a purpose spoke to my inner fangirl. After ironing out details, I settled in and devoured a few good books. Some are new, some have been around for a couple of years. All of them I found enjoyable. So please bear with me as I find my footing in this nonfiction world of writing about fiction.
I read a lot of different genres, but science fiction is one of my favorites. I’m fascinated by the discipline and rigor of science and experimentation. My profession centers around biology and biochemistry (I work in a clinical laboratory, running all those blood tests your doctor orders), but physics and astronomy are some of my favorite subjects. While science fiction would just be fiction without the science, there’s more that makes these stories satisfying. SF stories tend to look at our world and see how it has been, and how it could be, for better or worse. It is the literature of ideas, the stories of “what if” or “if only” and particularly of “if this goes on . . .” all leading to possible futures.
Science and technology go hand in hand, innovation pushed by knowledge and need. Technology has wriggled its way into every aspect of our lives. Everything is getting smart from phones and watches to thermostats and TVs. Millions of people wear devices that monitor their health. Some companies encourage their employees to get microchipped (yes, just like we do with our pets) in place of carrying a badge. This allows the employee to enter secure buildings, log onto their computers, and even pay for lunch in the cafeteria simply by presenting their hand. We can communicate with people on the other side of the planet, and if we don’t share a common language, well, there’s an app for that. Our cars drive themselves, they just don’t fly . . . yet.
We really do live in the future. My grandparents would not recognize the world today. (Though I think Grandpa would be tickled with smart watches because they are so much like the Dick Tracy 2-Way Wrist TV.) It certainly makes me wonder what’s next. Well, there are possible answers to that question right here in these novels.
I found it amusing that the three novels had a couple of common threads that are central to all, even though the future depicted ranges from now all the way to the far future. The first thread is body modifications. I mean technological mods, not just your run-of-the-mill tattoos and piercings, or even subdermal implants (yes, that’s a thing, and if you have a weak stomach, you may not want to know).
The other similarity through these novels is the antagonist. It probably won’t surprise you to discover that the faceless corporation has become the common boogie man in many of today’s stories. Daily we see the local Mom and Pop stores forced out of business by the mega-chain superstore. It happens regardless of the business. So, in many ways, these novels are simply holding a mirror up to our world and saying, “Hey, you recognize these people?”
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We Are Satellites
by Sarah Pinsker
Berkley, May 2021
Trade Paperback, $16.00 U.S./ $22.00 Can.
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Sarah Pinsker has become one of my favorite authors. She won me over with her 2014 Nebula-nominated story “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.” I feel like I’m in excellent hands when I see her byline, so I was excited to find her novel, We Are Satellites.
Her world is not that different from ours, albeit, a pre-COVID one. It’s so familiar, with the same joys and worries we have today. The big difference? Technology has advanced to brain enhancements contained in a device that is surgically installed in an outpatient clinic. As a bonus status symbol, with every device, called a Pilot, the recipient gets a blue light installed in their right temple. The marketing ploy is that it helps students with their studies. It enhances the subject’s ability to focus. Yet, it also allows the person to be aware of everything going on in the room, to multitask, to work and play at the same time. Sounds great, right?
Julie and her wife, Val, are raising their two children the best they can. They have healthy meals together, and spend time with each other every day in an effort to strengthen those wonderful family ties. David, the older brother is protective of Sophie, his little sister who suffers with seizures. They are the picture of a happy modern family.
So when Val, a high school teacher and track coach, starts noticing students with little blue lights shining from their temple, she first thinks it’s a new jewelry craze. When she asks another teacher about them, she’s informed that they are a new kind of study aid.
It’s no surprise that Pilots become the new “must have” devices of the year. With the conspicuously obvious blue temple light, it quickly divides the population into the haves and the have-nots.
David feels the pressure of being the last student in his class without a Pilot; feels himself being left behind academically as well, and he pleads with his mothers to let him get one. Julie is not only leaning toward allowing it, but is also contemplating getting one for herself. Her job at a congressman’s district office would be so much easier with the device. Plus, the congressman himself has one and seems to love it. Val isn’t having it. It’s an invasive surgical procedure on the brain! After all the trouble they’re having getting Sophie on a medical regime that curbs her seizures, any messing around with the gray matter seems incomprehensible to her. Eventually, David gets his Pilot, and a bit later, so does Julie. It’s obvious that Sophie can’t get one, and Val simply won’t. New tensions grow as the division of the Piloted and non-Piloted enter their family dynamics.
Pinsker plays fair and gives both sides good reasons for their stance on this technology. As with all new tech, there are some unexpected outcomes. Plans and goals change, and career pathways diverge. Children grow up. Complications emerge, especially when a small but vocal and highly motivated movement starts demonstrating against the corporation behind the Pilots. And did I mention that the corporation is headquartered in and hires workers from the same district that Julie’s boss represents?
The characters came off as real to me. Val and Julie could be my neighbors, and I just watched their kids grow up. As people, they’re not perfect, but as characters, they are genuine.
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The Body Scout
by Lincoln Michel
Orbit, September 2021
Hardcover, $27.00 U.S. / $34.00 Can.
There is a long history of science fiction and fantasy stories featuring that All American sport, baseball. The one that probably stands out for most is Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella, which was adapted for the big screen as Field of Dreams in 1989. Gardner Dozois and Rick Wilber come quickly to mind as other aficionados of the diamond.
Well, make room for Lincoln Michel’s debut novel, The Body Scout (he also has a collection of short stories published in Upright Beasts from Coffee House Press). We’ve now moved several decades into the future, and well, the more outrageously things change the more they stay the same, right? The United States are united no more, the sea level has risen enough that parts of New York City are either swept away, underwater, or survive only because they’ve been walled off from the ocean. Prosthetics are computerized and upgradeable, and for enough money, they can look like anything you want. The rich can afford petri-dish-grown ears and lips. Mega-corporations, especially the pharmaceutical companies, own everything including baseball. It’s not the New York Mets anymore, it’s the Monsanto Mets. If you thought steroid-doping was scandalous, wait until you see what the companies do to their star athletes.
As in We Are Satellites, there is a small but defiant faction of people who are not interested in artificially enhancing their bodies. They are the Edenists, and they maintain themselves in the manner to which nature meant. They take the non-GMO stance very seriously.
Kobo and JJ Zunz are like brothers. They grew up together, and after Kobo’s parents are killed in a subterranean apartment collapse, the same accident in which he loses the use of his arm, Zunz’s mother takes Kobo in. The boys love baseball, and they set their sights on becoming professionals.
One would think this is nearly impossible for Kobo with only one good arm, but there’s an answer to his dream. It’s the new Cyber League, set up by tycoons and venture capitalists. He’s drafted by the Boston Red Sox, and his signing bonus is a new cybernetic arm. The league does well for a time, but eventually can’t compete with the Future League, sponsored by the various pharmaceutical companies. Kobo plays ball just long enough to get hooked on implants and upgrades, all of which are encouraged by his managers. Once the league is dissolved, he’s left unemployed and owing Sunny Day Healthcare Loans big time. He can’t transition to the other league because of his bionic arm. “Oilers” aren’t allowed to play there. That’s when he becomes a Body Scout for the Yankees, sent out to entice promising young scientists. That’s right, he scouts out scientists, not the athletes, to join the team.
Zunz, however, is a natural. Heck, he even has a tiny catcher’s mitt birthmark on his cheek! He’s born to play the game. He soon finds himself the star of his beloved Mets, and now they’re headed to the World Series.
Disaster soon strikes, and Kobo finds himself desperately trying to solve a murder while dodging bionically-enhanced collections henchwomen, Neanderthals, and the police. Adding to the chaos, there’s the spunky little Edenist girl whose path keeps crossing Kobo’s.
The world Michel has envisioned is gritty, outlandish, and sometimes just a little too familiar. As if all the body mods, robots and cybernetics in the book aren’t enough, even the cover art gets in on the fun. If you have Google Lens installed on your phone, you can aim it at the cover art and it will “bring [it] to life.” Ah, technology.
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by Martha Wells
Tor.com, May 2020
Trade Paperback, March 2021
$17.99 U.S. / $24.50 Can.
This next novel takes us much further into the future and away from Earth. Space travel is common and technology has advanced to the point where we can use wormholes to reach distant star systems. Corporations (there we are with the corporations again) vie with each other to claim as much new territory, and thus, resources, as possible. The only entities out there that aren’t pilfering planets seem to be the universities and research teams.
Many of you out there have already discovered Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries about everyone’s favorite rogue robot, Murderbot. This is her first full-length novel set in this universe. I admit that I came to this novel without having read the preceding four novellas, so there are some gaps in my understanding of the world. I gather that “the company” is an overreaching entity that rents out or sells Security Units, or SecUnits (robotic/human hybrids) to spacefaring expeditions. Space, after all, isn’t all that safe. There are pirates and other unethical folk out there.
SecUnit, or Murderbot, as it calls itself privately, is an emerging AI. Originally a tool rented out from “the company” to various corporations and entities, an event in its past precipitates this security unit’s action to hack its governor. That’s the software that keeps SecUnits from saying “screw this” and leaving their very dangerous jobs. Thus, it’s theoretically able to make its own decisions. Does that mean it has free will? Perhaps, but it also has a sense of duty. Especially to the people who own it now.
Murderbot is on assignment with Preservation Station personnel, keeping them safe from marauding pirates and other nasty characters. At the end of a survey, the crew is returning to base via wormhole when they’re ambushed as they arrive. To make matters worse, an old friend of Murderbot is in serious need of help.
Wells has created one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in a long time. Its internal dialog is a hoot, snarking about the way its humans make its job so much more difficult. (You know, like not listening to it in the first place.) (And then there’s the parenthetical phrases sprinkled throughout.) I cracked up when I realized that Murderbot is addicted to binge-watching all the videos it can get access to. But the best part of Murderbot’s character is how much it tries to hide its humanity and put up a show of not caring for its crewmembers. Plot-wise, Network Effect is enjoyable even if the pacing is a bit uneven, but I’m here for the character.
If you haven’t read any of these stories, then I’m happy to point them out to you and encourage you to give them a go. Network Effect is the fifth installment of the Murderbot Diaries and has been heaped with award nominations. It won the 2021 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and it is up for the 2021 Hugo as well. More than likely, you are way ahead of me here, but if not, definitely look this one up.
* * *
by Ted Chiang
Trade Paperback, June 2020
$17.00 U.S./ $23.00 Can.
There are writers, and there are storytellers, and then there is Ted Chiang. What always delights and amazes me about his writing is the beauty of how each word is exactly the right one, hand-picked and polished, much like those beautifully wrapped pears in those holiday fruit boxes. Every story is an exquisite Faberge egg. There’s not a misstep anywhere to be seen. As such, his tales all feel like velvet and satin to the eyes and brain.
This collection, like Network Effect, is not brand new, (the hardcover edition from Knopf was published in 2019) but I finally got the chance to sit down and read it. It’s easy to gulp these stories down quickly, but it’s more satisfying to read them in the manner in which they were written. Chiang is not a prolific writer, but he is a perfectionist, and that kind of writing takes time. So taking the time to savor each story is highly satisfying.
My favorite story of the collection is probably “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which reads more like a fantasy story, but was in fact inspired by something Kip Thorne, the Nobel-winning physicist, said in a talk Chiang attended. He offered the possibility of a time travel machine that wouldn’t violate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Chiang ran with the idea. The story takes place in the Middle East in a time when travel in the area was possible only by camel and caravan. The details of the locations of Baghdad and Cairo are sumptuous, and the cleverness of each story within the story is delightful.
In keeping with the theme of technology, “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” takes a look at what happens when tradition clashes with technology. Chiang explores the idea of how a new technology can cause conflict with the way history and memory form the human experience. Who hasn’t experienced the rosy warmth of a memory and found evidence that the remembered event didn’t happen exactly that way. Chiang weaves two parallel storylines that pit memory against recording. In one, a missionary takes residence in a primitive African village and teaches a teenaged boy how to write. The boy decides to write down, word for word, one of the oral histories related by an elder. Some time later, the same elder recounts the same history, but as the boy reads along, he’s disturbed to find the story is subtly different. In the second, a journalist’s daughter has been recording her life—all of it, while he only records interviews for his stories. He has a memory of an event he considers a turning point in their relationship, but when she allows him to view her recording of it, it’s not what he thinks. The question becomes, how would we handle having absolutely accurate memories.
Lastly, I want to give a shout-out to the story “The Great Silence,” first published in 2015. Our narrator is a parrot native to Puerto Rico, and a member of an endangered species. Through this bird’s eyes, we see how blind we humans can be to the world around us. We’ve built the massive Arecibo radiotelescope, in part, to search out intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Yet we all but ignore a species that can actually communicate with us; a species that may not be around long enough for us to recognize. Ironically, in real life, the parrots have outlived the telescope. Arecibo collapsed after a series of cables snapped in 2020. Reading “The Great Silence” now is bittersweet, yet oddly satisfying, even to an astronomy enthusiast as myself.
* * *
Revelation & Other Tales of Fantascience
by Albert E. Cowdrey
PS Publishing LTD, (UK)
Hardcover June 2021, £25
And now, for something completely different! If you’ve read many stories by Albert E. Cowdrey, you’ll know what I mean. There’s hardly a type of fantastical-style story that he hasn’t put his pen to, so you’re never sure what you’ll get. You can be sure, though, that whatever he turns his attention to, it’ll be a blast. Don’t believe me? Check out this collection of stories. Published by PS Publishing in the U.K., this book has the kind of production values any writer could ask for, and Cowdrey certainly deserves it. He has been selling his short fiction to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for decades. If you haven’t been reading F&SF, then you may not be familiar with his work. This is your chance to rectify this oversight.
Cowdrey is adept at a variety of genres. He is equally entertaining whether he is writing science fiction, light urban fantasy, or paranormal detective stories that take us to places we weren’t expecting to go. He often uses his home city of New Orleans as settings, and why not? The city already has a rich and colorful history; it would be sad not to employ its charms for his stories. Speaking of history, Cowdrey worked as a military historian. This clearly influences some of his stories as they are set during and around wartimes.
For example, his novelette, “Poison Victory” is set in an alternate history shortly after the Nazis win World War II. Our narrator, now a landed lord (a reward for inadvertently helping to win the war) tells his tale through journal entries. I’m a sucker for epistolary stories, and I found this one to be highly satisfying.
For a more traditional space story, may I suggest “The Tribes of Bela.” Colonel Robert Kohn arrives on the planet Bela where humans have been mining for much needed minerals. Once thought an extinct world, Bela turns out to be very much alive. That’s what happens when a planet is discovered at the end of its forty-year winter. With the spring, life starts to emerge from the long hibernation. By that time, people have already befouled the planet, and the natives are not happy.
The reason Col. Kohn comes to Bela isn’t the mining operation or necessarily the local fauna, it’s the nineteen people who have been murdered. Out of a population of just over a thousand, that’s a startlingly high percentage. The authorities on-planet have been unsuccessful in finding the killer, so Kohn’s job is to solve the murders.
Cowdrey builds a fascinating and hostile world, and populates it with complex characters. No wonder “The Tribes of Bela” was a finalist for the 2005 Novella Nebula Award.
Another favorite, “Mr. Sweetpants and the Living Dead” has the feel of a 1940s detective story. Manny, the head of a security firm has his hands full with an upcoming charity event, when Ted, an old school chum, calls. Somebody wants Ted dead, and his current body guards aren’t up to the task of keeping him safe. It seems, the would-be killer is dead himself. Well, that complicates things!
Many of the stories included in this collection are award nominees and winners. There’s something here for everyone, and I can’t recommend this one too highly.
Copyright © 2022 Kathy Oltion
GUEST REFERENCE LIBRARY
by Charles Q. Choi
A Psalm for the Wild-Built
Hardcover July 2021, $20.99
In Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the robots of the verdant moon Panga gained consciousness, left the factories in which they labored, and entered the wilderness, where they remained unseen for centuries, until the story begins. The mysterious departure and return of these robots serves as the foundation of this book, but the heart of this novel is devoted to the grander themes of what it means to be alive, either for robots or humans.
The opening of the tale deftly sketches out this world from the conflicting perspectives of six religious orders, each with their own views as to which divinity holds sway over robotic consciousness—say, the god of machines, or of the wilderness. In this way, Chambers sets up the groundwork for the main character of her novel, the monk Sibling Dex.
Dex seeks to vanish into the wilderness much as the robots have. There is no hardship driving this mission. The city in which Dex lives is described as an architectural marvel perfumed with spices and nectar. The order to which Dex belongs is less of an ascetic sect than it is a fellowship devoted to scholarship and to service, a found family of Brothers, Sisters and Siblings, the latter term denoting monks that prefer they and them as pronouns as Dex does. But for no reason Dex initially understands, they want to hear the sound of crickets, an obsession that ultimately becomes a quest.
Although Dex faces a number of detours on their way to the wild, they ultimately end up where they wish—alone in a firefly-lit campsite in the forest with a medley of veggies simmering in butter and folk music playing on their pocket computer, And just as they step out naked and dripping wet from a shower, a seven-foot-tall robot unexpectedly strides out of the woods announcing the return of the machines.
The robot, Mosscap, explains the machines now want to discover what humans want, and sees Dex as potentially a perfect way to accomplish this mission. In exchange, Mosscap suggests it can help get Dex safely to their destination in the wilderness.
The resulting talks between the monk and robot are intriguing, delving into the nature of robot society and machine viewpoints on life, death, ecology and the nature of intelligence. At the same time, Chambers’ gift for dialogue means these chats are far from pedantically philosophical, and she milks a great deal of humor from the way the robot seeks companionship while the monk just wants to be left alone.
On the surface, the story is about recontact between robots and humanity. However, fundamentally, it’s about one person’s challenging journey into the wild to understand why they should be alive. The monk comes to question everything about the expedition and themselves, and the answers they reach yield insights on how to find purpose in life, potentially shedding light on why the robots may have done what they did.
The focus of the novel is not on action or thrills, but on charm and insight. The world is detailed so lovingly, it’s little wonder that Dex wants to explore it:
Vast civilizations lay within the mosaic of dirt: hymenopteran labyrinths, rodential panic rooms, life-giving airways sculpted by the traffic of worms, hopeful spiders’ hunting cabins, crash pads for nomadic beetles, trees shyly locking toes with one another.
And Chambers adorns her tale with little unexpected treasures every now and then, such as villages suspended from trees that “looked akin to shells, cut open to reveal soft geometry. Everything there curved—the rain-shielding roofs, the light-giving windows, the bridges running between like jewelry.”
Between Dex’s pursuit of and entry into the wild, they become a tea monk—they listen to a person’s woes and serve them a cup of tea. It’s a profession depicted so delightfully that one might wish it existed in real life. The book acts much like a tea monk itself—readers listen to problems one might easily imagine themselves, and left with a soothing experience and potentially a fresh perspective on their lives.
* * *
Caezik Science Fiction & Fantasy
Trade Paperback May 2021, $14.99
In the starkly beautiful airless landscape of the far side of the moon, a prospector telerobotically guides a rover to hunt for the iridium ore that he hopes will make him rich. He finds more than he bargains for—the mummy of an alien. It’s a discovery in Ed Lerner’s Déjà Doomed that will spur covert operations, global intrigue and, ultimately, a race to save humanity.
The story begins with multiple lunar bases seeking to exploit the moon’s unique resources. The United States is constructing a radio observatory on the lunar far side, an array of telescopes protected from the din of radio signals from Earth to better analyze the universe, one built mostly from moon rock instead of components hauled at prohibitive cost from Earth. Russia has a base on the far side as well, strip-mining lunar dust for helium-3 to help drive fusion reactors.
The novel does a fine job establishing the general workaday nature of life on the moon, one usually focused on budgets, timetables and other mundanities, one where taking part on pioneering missions is likely of less significance to most people there than personal matters such as parenting and pregnant spouses. By showing what it might really be like to strive to live an ordinary life on the moon, the book underscores the extraordinary nature of the events that end up driving the story.
The alien discovery leads the CIA to draft the engineer managing the far-side observatory project to covertly investigate the find. He assembles a small ragtag team for the clandestine mission, with the United States seeking to keep any extraterrestrial treasures they find to themselves.
Secrets don’t remain secret for long in the story due to smart, determined opposition. Most of the novel is devoted to the struggle between the U.S. and Russian teams over the alien finding. The book does a good job depicting the Russians as thoughtful antagonists, making clever deductions as to what the Americans want and will likely do based off the scant intelligence the Russians can glean.
The moon’s far side, which permanently faces away from Earth, is an intriguing setting for a story. Whereas the moon’s near side boasts huge smooth plains, the far side, long unfamiliar to human eyes, is deeply scarred with craters upon craters upon craters, making its exploration challenging.
Déjà Doomed shines when depicting the difficulties of working on the moon. For instance, the monotonous lunar landscape can make it easy to lose one’s bearings, and hide perils such as crevasses. Anyone who has had to deal with similar fissures on Earth while crossing glaciers knows that while deep cracks in the surface might not sound very dangerous, these hidden chasms can easily prove fatal.
The novel depicts the Americans investigating the alien discovery as believably flawed, usually confident and correct within their areas of expertise but overconfident and wrong outside matters they know best. For instance, the CIA agent managing the mission from Earth has no ground experience on the moon, and so blithely and idiotically assumes the 1,800-mile drive there will be an easy road trip just a few days long like a spring break vacation. Instead, the pockmarked nature of the lunar far side easily doubles the distance for the voyage in order to drive around the many obstacles there. At the same time, the spy is rightfully paranoid that others are watching, whereas the head of the U.S. team is a bit naive in this regard.
The book also showcases the challenges of carrying out the tradecraft expected of spies, especially if one is a drafted amateur instead of a trained intelligence agent. Operations security measures designed to foil surveillance, such as radio silence and performing the charades of cover missions for anyone who might be watching, can prove aggravating if one is uncertain they are actually necessary or working, but one slip can lead to ruin.
Much of the drama of Déjà Doomed focuses on the shenanigans between the Russians and American teams, neither side trusting the other, only working together at times because they cannot simply dislodge the other from the site without major incident. The paranoia and cloak-and-dagger read heavily like a drama from the Cold War.
The most interesting part of Déjà Doomed” for many readers will likely be the aliens, whose drama is suitably cosmic in scope. Mysteries abound when it comes to the extraterrestrials, such as why they are found on the far side of the moon as opposed to on Earth. The answers, when they come, ultimately pose an existential threat to humanity.
As befitting a book written by an engineer, a great deal of loving detail is spent describing both futuristic human technology as well as alien devices. A number of life-and-death struggles are also satisfyingly bested with the judicious application of improvised feats of engineering ingenuity.
All in all, Déjà Doomed is a straightforward tale whose clear descriptions are helpful at making readers feel as if they are really there.
* * *
Trade Paperback Nov 2021, $13.59
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race begins with the youngest princess of a faraway realm scaling a mountain to venture to the Tower of the Elder Sorcerer. A demon stalks the land, and she goes to invoke the royal pact between her family and the last of the ancients in the hopes of using magic to fight magic.
But nothing is as it seems. The sorcerer in question is a starfaring scientist, alive for centuries through the judicious use of suspended animation. The lowly anthropologist second-class is forbidden to interfere on the distant planet, but he has broken these rules before for the princess’s ancestor and is drawn to do so again for this latest quest.
Arthur C. Clarke noted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Elder Race follows in the acclaimed tradition of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in blending science fiction with epic fantasy. It’s a kind of tale told many times before, but Elder Race nevertheless succeeds in crafting a worthy new entry in this style of story, one seasoned with humor and humanity.
Tchaikovsky specifically pays homage to Gene Wolfe’s “Trip, Trap,” a short story made up of two interweaving narratives often telling the same events from two different points of view, a war chieftain and a field xenoarchaeologist. Elder Race alternates between the perspectives of the princess and the anthropologist, although in one notable chapter, both viewpoints are displayed side by side to highlight just how poorly they understand one another. What the princess views as a legendary battle with a monster, the anthropologist sees as dealing with a malfunctioning appliance.
The charm of the novel stems mainly from defective translations and the wide cultural gulf between the princess and the anthropologist. For example, the princess wanted to know why the anthropologist looked sad, and when he tried to explain he was suffering from clinical depression, that isn’t what she ends up hearing:
“There is a beast that has hounded me down the centuries,” Nyrgoth told her. His hand lifted, and she shivered and leant back in case he should touch her again. His words filled her with a sense of creeping dread.
“It is always at my back,” he continued, “and sometimes it grows bold and its teeth are at my throat. It drags me down, and if I did not carry a shield against it, I could not get up from beneath its weight. But perhaps it is the same with you, or some of your people, though maybe they have never told you. Such beasts hunt in secrecy; even their prey are loath to speak of them for fear of showing weakness.”
“My uncle was killed by a cerkitt, a wild one,” she said uncertainly, but she knew it wasn’t the same thing. A beast that hunted sorcerers would doubtless savage a thousand men like her uncle and barely pause. She shuddered and returned to the fire and slept very poorly.
Although Tchaikovsky knows how to mine humor from his premise, the story is not simply a comedy and his characters are not clowns. The princess and the anthropologist are sympathetically drawn as overcoming their own personal doubts and limitations to do their best to do good in the world.
The princess is drawn as appealingly headstrong and vulnerable. As a child, she escaped her retainers to see the Elder Tower and, despite getting embarrassed in front of the court of her mother the queen as a punishment, deciding that being the first person to lay eyes on it for a very long time made it all worthwhile. This same bravery drives her as an adult to confront demons, but her willfulness takes a toll on her as well, robbing her of respect from her family she hopes to buy with heroic deeds.
The princess sees the anthropologist as a seven-foot-tall horned figure from legend capable of commanding mechanical demons. The anthropologist mostly sees himself as an embarrassing failure due to his many lapses of professional judgment when it comes to interfering with the natural cultural development of a lost colony.
An intriguing piece of neurotechnology that play a central role in the anthropologist’s life is a brain implant that allows him to compartmentalize his feelings for maximum scientific objectivity and mission effectiveness. However, it cannot suppress his emotions indefinitely, and when he has to turn it off every now and again, his despair at living alone for centuries in a potentially meaningless way catches up to him. It cuts him off from fear and doubt, but also much-needed sadness and happiness—an intriguing exploration of the costs and benefits of the device.
The ending of the novel unexpectedly veers into Lovecraftian horror, which readers might have mixed feelings about. Still, the story ultimately ends in a satisfying way true to its spirit and to its characters.
Copyright © 2022 Charles Q. Choi