Book Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Elder Race
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: November 16, 2021
Length: 201 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon… 

This stunning, inventive, beautifully crafted novella is a living, breathing embodiment of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

In Elder Race, Lynesse Fourth Daughter, daughter of the queen of Lannesite, takes the forbidden trail up the mountain to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the revered sorcerer who has not been seen for generations. Lynesse is not taken seriously by her mother or older sisters, all of whom prefer to focus on trade and diplomacy rather than indulge Lynesse’s flights of fancy. But Lynesse has heard refugees from outlying lands plea for help after their towns and forests were overrun by a demon, and she’s determined to take action, even if her mother won’t.

That’s the opening set-up of Elder Race. It feels like the start of an epic quest, and hurray for girl power too!

Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers completely, because there’s a doozy coming…

Ready?

The next chapter is told from the perspective of Nyrgoth Elder… and it turns everything upside down. It turns out that his name is really Nyr Illim Tevitch, and he’s not a sorcerer. Nyr is an anthropologist with Earth’s Explorer Corps, and he’s there in his remote outpost to study and observe the local populations.

Thousands of years earlier, Earth sent out generation ships to colonize planets throughout the universe. And some thousands of years after that, groups of scientists followed to check on how the colonies turned out. Nyr was a part of one of these expeditions, and after his fellow scientists were recalled to Earth, he was left behind, the sole member of the expedition remaining to continue their studies.

The problem is, he hasn’t heard back from Earth in centuries. Nyr stays alive through advanced science, including long periods of sleeping in suspended animation. He last awoke a century earlier, and broke one of the cardinal rules of anthropologists by getting involved with the local people. His mission is to study and report; by mingling with the people, he’s potentially contaminating the study.

When Lynesse and her companion Esha show up at his tower, there begins a remarkable story of cultural differences and miscommunications. The early colonies on the planet were rudimentary, starting life over without technology. Their culture is agrarian and feudal and deeply superstitious. Anything unexplainable is attributed to magic and demons and sorcerers. And so even when Nyr tries to explain himself, the language gap between the cultures makes it literally impossible for him to translate the term scientist — every word he tries to use comes out as some form of magician or sorcerer or wizard.

“It’s not magic,” he insisted, against all reason. “I am just made this way. I am just of a people who understand how the world works.”

“Nyrgoth Elder,” Esha said slowly. “Is that not what magic is? Every wise man, every scholar I have met who pretended to the title of magician, that was their study. They sought to learn how the world worked, so that they could control and master it. That is magic.”

As their quest proceeds, Nyr goes against every principle of his training, as he realizes that he can actually serve a different purpose:

I am only now, at the wrong end of three centuries after loss of contact, beginning to realise just how broken my own superior culture actually was. They set us here to make exhaustive anthropological notes on the fall of every sparrow. But not to catch a single one of them. To know, but very emphatically not to care.

I can’t even begin to explain how gorgeously crafted this slim book is. Particularly mind-blowing is a chapter in which Nyr tells Lynesse and Esha the story of how his people came to the planet millennia ago. On the same page, in parallel columns, we read Nyr’s science-based story and right next to it, the same story as it’s heard by Lynesse in the context of her own culture and language. It’s a remarkable writing achievement, and just so fascinating to read.

Also fascinating is Elder Race‘s treatment of depression and mental health, which for Nyr is managed through the use of advanced technology that allows him to separate from his feelings — but not permanently. He can shut off feeling his feelings, but is still aware that they’re there, and can only go so long before he has to let down the wall and experience the emotions that have been walled away. The descriptions of dealing with depression are powerful, as is the way he explains knowing the depression is waiting for him, even in moments when he’s not living it.

I absolutely loved the depiction of a tech-free culture’s interpretation of advanced scientific materials and equipment, and the way the books chapters, alternating between Lynesse and Nyr’s perspectives, bring the cultural divide to life.

Elder Race is beautifully written and expertly constructed. The balancing act between science fiction and fantasy is just superb. This book should not be missed!

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

  1. This does sound fascinating. I’ll add it to my TBR. I think I like stories like this where the world is shown through both fantastic and scientific lenses.

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