Elder Race

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Cover image

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

Buy at Powell's Books

(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 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

Last modified and spun 2022-02-23