Review: Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Russ Allbery eagle at
Tue Feb 22 20:36:24 PST 2022

Elder Race
by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: November 2021
ISBN:      1-250-76871-3
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     199

(It's a shame that a lot of people will be reading this novella on a
black-and-white ebook reader, since the Emmanuel Shiu cover [1] is
absolutely spectacular. There's a larger image without the words at the
bottom of that article.)

When reports arrive at the court about demons deep in the forest that
are taking over animals and humans and bending them to their will, the
queen doesn't care. It's probably some unknown animal, and regardless,
the forest kingdom is a rival anyway. Lynesse Fourth Daughter disagrees
vehemently, but she has no power at court. Even apart from her lack of
seniority, her love of stories and daring and adventures is a source of
endless frustration to her mother. That is why this novella opens with
her climbing the mountain path to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the last
of the ancient wizards, to seek his help.

Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist second class of Earth's Explorer
Corps, part of the second wave of Earth's outward expansion through the
galaxy. In the first wave, colonies were seeded on habitable planets,
only to be left stranded when Earth's civilization collapsed in an
ecological crisis. Nyr was a member of a team of four, sent to make
careful and limited contact with one of those lost colonies as part of
Earth's second flourishing with more advanced technology. When the team
lost contact with Earth, the other three went back while Nyr stayed to
keep their field observations going. It's now 291 years of intermittent
suspended animation later. Nyr's colleagues never came back, and there
have been no messages from Earth.

Elder Race is a Prime Directive anthropology story, a subgenre so
long-standing that it has its own conventions and variations.
Variations of the theme have been written by everyone from Eleanor
Arnason to Iain M. Banks (linking to the book I have in mind is
arguably a spoiler). Per the dedication, Tchaikovsky's take is based on
Gene Wolfe's story "Trip, Trap," which I have not read but whose plot
looks very similar.

To that story structure, Tchaikovsky brings two major twists. First,
Nyr is cut off from his advanced civilization, and has considerable
reason to believe that civilization no longer exists. Do
noninterference rules still have any meaning if Nyr is stranded and the
civilization that made the rules is gone? Second, Nyr has already
broken those rules rather spectacularly. More than a hundred years
previously, he had ridden with Astresse Regent, a warrior queen and
Lynesse's ancestor, to defeat a local warlord who had found control
codes for abandoned advanced machinery and was using it as weaponry. In
the process, he fell in love and made a rash promise to come to the aid
of any of her descendants if he were needed. Lynesse has come to
collect on the promise.

Elder Race is told in alternating chapters between Nyr and Lynesse's
viewpoints: first person for Nyr and tight third person for Lynesse.
The core of the story is this doubled perspective, one from a young
woman who wants to live in a fantasy novel and one from a deeply
depressed anthropologist torn between wanting human contact, wanting to
follow the rules of his profession, and wanting to explain to Lynesse
that he is not a wizard. Nyr talks himself into helping with another
misuse of advanced technology using the same logic he used a hundred
years earlier: he's protecting Lynesse's pre-industrial society from
interference rather than causing it. But the demons Lynesse wants him
to fight are something entirely unexpected.

This parallel understanding is a great story structure. What worked
less for me was Tchaikovsky's reliance on linguistic barriers to
prevent shared understanding. Whenever Nyr tries to explain something,
Lynesse hears it in terms of magic and high fantasy, and often exactly
backwards from how Nyr intended it. This is where my suspension of
disbelief failed me, even though I normally don't have suspension of
disbelief problems in SF stories. I was unable to map Lynesse's
misunderstandings to any realistic linguistic model.

Lynesse's language is highly complex (a realistic development within an
isolated population), and Nyr complains about his inability to speak it
properly given it's blizzard of complex modifiers. This is entirely
believable. What is far less believable is that Lynesse perceives him
as fluent in her language, but often saying the precise opposite of
what he's trying to say. One chapter in the middle of the book gives
Nyr's intended story side-by-side with Lynesse's understanding. This is
a brilliant way to show the divide, but I found the translation errors
unbelievable. If Nyr is failing that profoundly to communicate his
meaning, he should be making more egregious sentence-level errors,
occasionally saying something bizarre or entirely nonsensical,
referring to a person as an animal or a baby, or otherwise not fluently
telling a coherent story that's fundamentally different than the one he
thinks he's telling.

If you can put that aside, though, this is a fun story. Nyr has serious
anxiety and depression made worse by his isolation, and copes by using
an implanted device called a Dissociative Cognition System that lets
him temporarily turn off his emotions at the cost of letting them
snowball. He has a wealth of other augments and implants, including
horns, which Lynesse sees as evidence that he's a different species of
magical being and which he sees as occasionally irritating field
equipment with annoying visual menus. The key to writing a story like
this is for both perspectives to be correct given their own
assumptions, and to offer insight that the other perspective is
missing. I thought the linguistic part of that was unsuccessful, but
the rest of it works.

One of the best parts of novellas is that they don't wear out their
welcome. This is a fun spin on well-trodden ground that tells a
complete story in under 200 pages. I wish the ending had been a bit
more satisfying and the linguistics had been more believable, but I
enjoyed the time I spent in this world.

Content warning for some body horror.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-02-22



Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

More information about the book-reviews mailing list