This one is a friend recommendation, and one I decided to go with because I really don’t read enough actual science fiction. I figured if it came from someone I knew, maybe I wouldn’t get grumpy at it. This was a correct decision. Whilst I didn’t adore it the way I did the Ancillary series, it is one of the most enjoyable actual SF books I’ve read in a long time. And not, I hasten to add, because it was trash. I’m honestly not certain where I’d put it on the hardness of SF scale… and people more scientific than I would probably put it solidly in the the “soft” section… but it is definitely non-trash and definitely actual SF, so I’m going to revel for a moment in the fact I enjoyed it at all.
And now that that moment has passed, I can observe that it may be because there’s very little science obsession going over my head that I liked it so much. But it’s not just that. One of the things I found really great about the whole thing, and which I don’t think I really realised until after I put it down, is how much I enjoy that the main character, Holsten – who is the ship’s Classicist I mean come on – is very much there simply as an observer. We really really get inside his head, his doubts and worries and growing disaffection with his subject, but that’s almost all we do. He watches other people strive and act and fail or succeed, but he never really partakes. He translates. He facilitates understanding between different parties (and very much between the story and the reader) but he’s not a part of it, much like he’s not really a part of the ship’s crew in the way everyone else is. He’s set apart, both in-story and in a more metaphorical sense, and it works really well. I’m sure I’ve read other things that use the same conceit, though I cannot immediately think of any of them, and can’t imagine they’ve done it this well. Because what it does is it creates that sense of detachment you get in a lot of actual SF, that feeling of not being totally immersed, of watching at a distance (very much the feeling I thought Seveneves wanted to create), without detaching you from something human and relatable. It creates that thread of accessibility to keep you holding on to the story emotionally as well as intellectually, and that’s something I find I really need to enjoy things. It’s very well done, and I think the standout feature of the book, from my perspective.
And that’s a fairly high bar, because a lot of what it does, it does really well. Without getting too into details and risking spoilers, the book explores a post-apocalyptic human future where we’ve rendered Earth uninhabitable, and the human protagonists are out seeking another planet to live on, cryogenically frozen to last the distance and time to reach where they might go. But they also have to cope with the remnant technology that their more advanced predecessors have left out there. Which is where the interesting stuff comes up. And by “interesting stuff” I mean “giant, sentient, sapient space spiders”.
What? It’s definitely interesting. Though yes, I agree, also mildly terrifying.
But the spiders are really brilliant. Tchaikovsky has laboured the point of their completely alien point of view, without going silly. He creates a fascinating spider civilisation to marvel at, and has a fairly sensible conceit for looking at different characters over the enormous timespan the book occupies. It reminded me a lot of Evolution, by Stephen Baxter (which I very much enjoyed), but a little lighter and interspersed with chapters about space travel.
Which was also done well. I generally find in multiple viewpoint books that I prefer one of the viewpoints, or particularly dislike one, so I’m always rushing through some chapters and dawdling over others. Not so much here. I enjoyed both viewpoints so much that I regretted each time we switched because I’d become so engrossed in the current story that I couldn’t bear to flip to something else right now. Tchaikovsky has kept the chapters for each viewpoint to a good length, so there is a sense of being cheated out of story every time you swap, but not so much that you get actually annoyed. Just a vague “awwww but it was getting really good; do I have to?”. Which I quite like. I think mild dissatisfaction is actually a really important tool for getting a good story… though maybe that’s just me.
Given both the fact that the characters are half of them sentient space spiders, and the detachment I mentioned earlier, you’d think I might have holes to pick in that area (plus, it seems to be what I do). But no. Even through the lens of detachment, Tchaikovsky manages to make his supporting cast engaging and varied. Yes, they’re distant. Yes, we only see them through the lens of Holsten’s viewpoint. But frankly that happens in a lot of other stories and just isn’t signposted quite as well, so I’ll take it. Lain, the ship’s chief engineer, is particularly engaging. She’s a good foil for Holsten’s passivity, and manages to be crabby and sarcastic and arrogant, while still seeming pleasant as a human. I would say she’s also by far the most competent, well-rounded character in the book, which pleases the feminist-hat-wearing me. The antagonists are also pretty nicely dealt with, though I won’t go into who they are because spoilers. They’re very realistically motivated, which I like, and we do get some time of Holsten considering that maybe they do have valid points after all. And then the sentient space spiders – we get a good grounding right from the start in how the spiders see the world and themselves, so by a very early point in the book it’s perfectly natural to be empathising with their viewpoints and enjoying their characters every bit as much as the human ones. Also there’s spider gender-politics, and what’s not to love about that?
That’s the other thing, I guess – there’s been a fair bit of effort put into the sociology of spider civilisation. It’s gone to interesting places and clearly been thought over an awful lot. And I appreciate that. It’s not as common as it should be, and it’s been done well, with very little I feel I can go “that… why? Why could you possibly have thought this a good idea?”.
That’s my major impression overall, I think. Tchaikovsky has so evidently thought hard about everything that it’s hard to find anything wrong. It’s a really well-rounded book that I solidly enjoyed, and I’ll happily recommend it to anyone (other than arachnophobes). I have no criticism.