Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, as you might have seen in this year’s best novellas piece, is fabulous. My favorite type of novella is one that knows how to use its limited space to make a point, explore an idea, or execute a premise efficiently, smoothly, and with fabulous flair. Elder Race checks off all of these boxes and more to tell a heartfelt tale that focuses on isolation, the meaning of life, communication barriers, and split perspectives all in a small package. Despite only being a few weeks old, it manages to top our favorite novellas of the year, it is definitely worth your time.
The core premise is a two POV short story told by a scientist (Nyr) from a technologically advanced Earth and an evolved human (Lynesse) who no longer recognizes the science of their ancestors. When the story is seen from the scientist’s POV, the narrative is heavily based on science and technology. When the story is told in the descendant’s POV, everything is told from the lens of magic and mysticism. It is an extremely creative idea and it makes use of Tchaikovsky’s dual talent for both science fiction and fantasy, as well as his knack for telling two stories that explicitly foil one another. The insight into the old adage that ‘sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’ is delightful.
The brass tax of what the plot is actually about is Lynesse climbs her way to Nyr’s tower to awaken him from cryosleep to petition him for help to intervene with a problem that is beyond the scope of her people to solve. A piece of technology from old Earth has awoken and she believes that it can only be stopped by Nyr, a sleeping elder god who had intervened on her family’s request generations ago. The two team up and go on an odyssey, but the quest they go on is very different depending on whose perspective you are reading from.
Lynesse’s perspective is heavily anchored in the present. Her troubles are things right around the corner; present threats that might kill her or her family in a matter of days to years. She is contemplating her purpose in life and how she is going to make her mark on the world and history. Her viewpoint is filled with an infection and engrossing reverence for life and the world that that extends to the reader. While I wouldn’t call Lynesse necessarily optimistic, she is planning for the future and thinking about how to make the best of it.
Nyr on the other hand is an anthropologist mired outside of time and who has discovered that life, and history, are meaningless. He has lived the equivalent of millennia and all it has amounted to is loneliness, isolation, and a complete alienation from humanity. His priorities are that of someone thinking thousands of years ahead. He wants to avoid interaction with Lynesse because while it might fix her problems today, it could affect the direction and purpose of life on this planet in ways that cannot be predicted. He is so focused on the big picture that he literally uses a program to suspend his emotions, particularly empathy, so he can “make the right choices.” He is a wonderful contradictory mess that is an inch from falling off a cliff into a depressive spiral.
The clash and resolution of these perspectives are frankly astoundingly powerful. I have read enough of Tchaikovsky at this point to know that this is a narrative structure that he really excels at, but this is still a step up even for him. The personas at war here are just great and the stylistic differences in narrative structure between the two POVs in the story is one of the coolest narrative tricks I have ever read. It makes the points of the tale stand out like they were written in the sky in burning letters. All of it adds up to one of the best stories of the year.
Rating: Elder Race – 10/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.