In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s tour de force, Elder Race, we first encounter Lynesse (Lyn), Fourth Daughter of the tough minded Queen of Lannesite, climbing the steep rugged slopes of a mountain to call forth a powerful wizard. As only the fourth daughter, Lyn is never taken seriously, but she is determined to change that by destroying a horrible demon that is terrorizing a nearby vassal state. The Queen and her court have dismissed the rumors of demons as mere fantasy, and they don’t much care what happens to those poor folk anyway. But Lyn is convinced this is her chance to shine, to conquer the demon (with a little help from a wizard) and forever change the way she is regarded by the rulers of Lannesite. But Elder Race has a lot of surprises in store for her.
When she comes knocking at the door of the formidable Nyrgoth Elder, a sorcerer of legendary powers, what she finds instead of a wizard is Nyr Illim Tevitch, anthropologist second class of the Earth’s Explorer Corps. Though quite formidable in appearance and with advanced technology that looks like magic to her, Nyr forever tries to convince Lyn that there is no magic and he is no wizard. He is a simple scientist trying without much success to do his job of observing the local civilization without ever getting directly involved in its affairs.
But the linguistic chasm between the young Lyn and the ancient Nyr (kept younger than his centuries of life would suggest by means of sleep stasis technology) keeps getting in the way. His advanced technology dazzles Lyn and lets her keep alive in her mind the fantasy narrative of his wizardry and her own heroic quest.
The truth that he can’t quite get across to Lyn is that he has been sent from Earth strictly as a scientific observer to write papers about the inhabitants of this planet, known to him as Sophos 4. He relays this information to a satellite orbiting the planet, which then sends it along to Earth. Problem is that Earth has long since stopped responding. Nyr, full of self-doubt anyway, begins to think either he and his studies have been abandoned as worthless or that something terrible has happened on Earth, leaving him truly alone.
By alternating chapters from the points of view of Lyn and Nyr, Elder Race does several remarkable things. It dramatizes the too often quoted line by Arthur C. Clarke about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, upsets a Star Trek-like Prime Directive, highlights the near impossibility of communication across vast technological, cultural and linguistic barriers and produces a running commentary on the distinction between fantasy and science fiction itself. And the novel does this while delivering a fine adventure interwoven with an endearingly funny almost-love story that is captivating and exciting. All this in a pretty short novel. Elder Race proves once again how richly imaginative and commanding a writer Tchaikovsky is.
One technology that Nyr frequent needs is the Dissociative Cognition System or DCS that can shield him from all emotion. Quite useful so that he can be completely rational in his thinking when he needs to be. The trouble is that emotion tends to build up under this shield and periodically he needs to lift it and let himself be tortured by full scale depression, anxiety, guilt, shame and the rest that reduce him to a sobbing mess. And those feelings forever lure him into violating his strictly scientific role and prohibition on direct involvement with the locals. So he accompanies Lyn on her quest to slay a demon that is ravaging the countryside.
Lyn is initially totally intimidated by the enormous figure Nyr cuts in her world. He is seven feet tall, wrapped in robes of intricate, high-tech designs, isolated in his impregnable tower, able to summon all sorts of magic, in her view. He seems an altogether satisfactory wizard, despite all his protests to the contrary that he is nothing more than a scientist and that there is no such thing as magic.
In a wonderful chapter, when Nyr finally decides that he must tell Lyn the truth of his origins and purpose, Tchaikovsky juxtaposes Nyr’s narrative with the one Lyn understands from his attempt to fit his narrative into her native language. For her, it is still about great adventures, daring and even magic, despite Nyr’s best efforts to set the record straight once and for all. All this talk of distant planets and technology never quite translates, and so Nyr and Lyn proceed on the same adventure, even while understanding it in completely different ways. It’s a great commentary on the difficulty of real communication, just as Nyr’s DCS brings out the uselessness of trying to understand the world without the interpretative guide of emotion.
Elder Race is smart, enjoyable, challenging in a humorous way and always delightful. Another great achievement among so many for Adrian Tchaikovsky.
My thanks to Tordotcom and NetGalley for letting me have an advance review copy for this review.