Speaking of scope, this is a text defined by it. Following what can only be described as an “incident”, a planet-sized terraforming project, designed to uplift the planetary fauna into intelligence, is left effectively unattended. In the absence of human interference, that intelligence thrives – but it comes from some rather unexpected directions. A large part of the novel deals with this gradual process of uplift. The reader is shown the first stirrings of sentience among the original creatures of the world. Each chapter feels like a historical vignette. The learning of co-operation for hunting. The first struggles against an external environment. The struggle against biological urges in the interests of the greater good. The stirrings of religious awe. The rise of technology and urbanisation. The battle against disease. The casting down of gods. Each is crafted as a set piece, a window into the slow evolution of a species which has intelligence in common with humanity, but which comes across as almost entirely alien. It’s perhaps the author’s greatest achievement that the reader can empathise with these protagonists throughout their history. Can see their point of view, can understand their alien needs, wants, the struggles that define them as people, rather than other, even if not human. At the same time, the reader is always left with their empathy immersed in a sense of the alien – where humanity can perhaps sympathise but not entirely understand. Frankly, the crafting of this sympathetic yet thoroughly unique viewpoint an absolute masterpiece.
As we’re being dipped into the nuances of an entirely foreign psyche, the reader is also being shown the potential, one way or another, of humanity. The heirs of the terraforming project are returning, if not entirely to schedule. Rather than a sleek armada, however, we find our cast of humanity coiled in the guts of a slowly decaying Ark-ship – the crew and euphemistically termed “cargo” frozen at launch, awakened in need. At the same time as we watch the slow uplift of the planetary inhabitants, there’s another view – the struggle against the decline and decay of humanity, the increasing desperation to find a home. Here our protagonist is a historian, giving us a view on Earth’s future past, struggling to understand and document events in snatches between trips into the sleep chambers. Humanity, as ever, starts with the best of intentions, but entropy, and their own worst natures, are something more of a challenge. Watching every step, every potential catastrophe, Tchaikovsky manages to give us an understanding of the stakes, of how each person is acting as they think best – and keeps the reader aware that the stakes are incredibly high.
Eventually, of course, these two strands of narrative are set on a collision course. I won’t go into the conclusion here, but will note that Tchaikovsky really manages to turn the screws on the reader; the tension as the book draws to a close was wonderfully unbearable. The denoument promises a lot, and honestly, it pretty much manages to deliver.
The human characters that we see, scattered between cryogenic freezing, are fascinating. Dropped in and out of time, we can see members of the “Key Crew” mature, age, and react with and against their circumstances. There’s a couple of the supporting cast which seem a little underdeveloped, but the central relationships are strongly crafted, and entirely believable. At the same time, the individuals on the terraformed planet are inscrutably alien, but also feel perfectly human – a line that Tchaikovsky walks with great care, and great success.
With that in mind, is this worth reading? Absolutely. It’s well written – the prose has Tchaikovsky’s hallmark accessible but compulsive quality. The characters are believable, and in some instances, genuinely, astoundingly alien. The perspective, literally across space and time, is unique. The narrative arc is driven, tense, highly emotive (tears more than laughter, but definitely a bit of both), and incredibly compelling. A highly intriguing piece of science fiction – wonderfully done.