Earth was dying long ago in war and pollution. A scientific mission terraformed a couple of planets, one of them with the target to uprise monkeys in a closed environment using nanocytes. The experiment went wrong and right at the same time: The monkeys never landed, but the nanocytes formed other lifeforms on the planet – spiders, ants, and beetles. The novel follows the accelerated rise of their cultures through exemplary vignettes.
In a concurrent plot, one human starship – the slowly decaying “Gilgamesh” – with a key crew and a euphemistically called “cargo” of hibernated humans tries desperately to find a friendly planet. When those last human remnants reach the planet’s orbit, they are met with deadly force by the fierce protector of the world, the last remaining scientist, turned into a nearly mad cybernetic mixup. The crew has to turn away, find a different terraformed planet – a millenia long journey starts.
All those civilizations collide sooner or later, employing different strategies to survive.
The British author is praised for his fantasy series Shadows of the Apt. One might wonder, if he can write SF or standalones. And boy, he can – he mastered both with this book. It is a standout novel of this year 2015.
The ideas are typical for space operas and current SF: epic timelines, long-term hibernation, post-humanity, terraforming, nano- and biotechnology, and we’ve certainly seen spiders vs humans in a quite similar opposition in Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. What makes this work outstanding and different, even better than Vinge’s work is the different way that the author achieves his goals. Where Vinge’s spiders are all too-human, this novel’s cultures stay different – without metal, concentrating on chemistry and biotechnology. This world-building is excellent and shows Tchaikovsky’s background in Zoology and Psychology.
It might sound dry following vignettes through millenia of evolution, maybe like a history textbook. On the contrary, I found it accessible, sometimes even mesmerizing, and always optimistic.
All characters are engaging and memorable, and I found the development of characters a big strength of the novel. Tchaikovsky reaches this goal by using avatars for the same spider archetypes, which makes it easy to stay close to them, fear for them, sympathize them, get fascinated by them.
The second thread of culture – the human generation-ship – is handled completely different: The same characters – a historian, an engineer, the captain, a scientist, and a security officer – build their relationships while constantly re-hibernating. It is always interesting and surprising, how the crew and circumstances change when they wake up again – be it mutiny or appeasement.
The third and ever framing thread is the mad scientist’s Avrana Kern’s point-of-view. Despair, madness, godship, irritation – always near in the planet’s orbit but too far away to really know what’s going on.
The ending was a bit predictible, but satisfactorily none the less. It could cost the novel one star, but the rest was too good.
I found it hard to put this page turner down, the characters will stay with me for some time. It is a top novel in 2015 and I highly recommend it to SF space opera lovers.