BOOK REVIEW: Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • A standalone novella
  • Published by Tor.com in 2021
  • Science Fantasy
  • 198 pages

When a demonic force ravages a nearby realm, Lynesse knows there is only one man who can save her world. But Nyr is not the sorcerer she thinks him to be, and his people’s highest principle is one of non-interference . . .

There are, broadly speaking, two types of science fantasy. The first is the literal combination of science fiction and fantasy. If your characters are running around a spaceship throwing fireballs at each other, you’re probably in this category. This is the side of science fantasy that most people think of, and it’s the one I have very little time for. But there is an alternative. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, and that thesis is a genre unto itself. It makes sense. I mean, these days most of carry incredibly sophisticated computers in our pockets at all times. But do we really understand how they work? Are not radio waves and televisions and the internet essentially sorcery? And if you showed these wonders to someone from a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years ago, they would have very little chance of comprehending what they saw. Not because people in the past were morons, but because technology such as this sits far outside their realm of understanding. Indistinguishable from magic indeed.

This is a lesson that Adrian Tchaikovsky takes to heart in Elder Race. At first glance, it reads as a classical fantasy, maybe even a fairy tale. There is a princess, a kingdom in danger, and a crotchety old wizard living in his tower. But as soon as we switch to the perspective of that wizard, everything changes. Because Nyr is not a wizard at all. He’s a scientist, an anthropologist who knows that Lynesse’s world is just one of hundreds seeded with colonists by humanity in centuries past. The book splits evenly between these two perspectives in an alternating fashion, so one half of the chapters reads as science fiction, while Lynesse’s perspective remains firmly entrenched in the expectations of fantasy. It’s a clever idea, and delivered with Tchaikovsky’s usual excellent prose. The difference in tone between the two perspectives is particularly wonderful. Lynesse is every inch the wide-eyed, trusting – at times even naïve – protagonist you’d find in any coming of age fantasy. Contrast that with Nyr’s jaded, at times self-loathing dry wit. She has the world open before her, whereas he’s seen it all and isn’t overly happy with the outcome. It speaks marvels of Tchaikovsky’s characterisation that both characters feel fully fleshed out in a novella that doesn’t hit two hundred pages.

Novellas are a medium uniquely suited for science fiction, because they allow an author to explore an idea without having to drag it across an extended narrative. Elder Race commits most of its length to exploring how different cultures view the same events. One man’s drone is another woman’s demon after all. There’s the shift in language over time, and a subtle take on a firmly Star Trek-esque Prime Directive. Just because you have the power to interfere, does it mean you should? And when you’re the last of an organisation, do you still have a duty to old oaths? There are a lot of questions at play here, and the answers are left open to interpretation. The hints of a larger universe are tantalising, and if Tchaikovsky were to return to it, I would be an eager reader.

Elder Race is a fine example of how to do science fantasy right. Not by smashing the two genres together, but by examining the similarities between them. After all, genre is largely a matter of perspective

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also like:
The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
The Expert System’s Brother, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Cage of Souls, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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