In my brief glance through the reviews, the summaries, the synopses before reading this book, I noticed that pretty much every single one began with Arthur C Clark’s quote about the equivalency of science and magic. It told me little enough about the book itself, but did ensure that I was absolutely not going to start my own review of Elder Race with the same quote, because however appropriate it might be, I would hate to be so…repetitiously unoriginal. Still, I do understand the temptation, because that concept is firmly at the heart of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel. Though plenty of other works have played around with this idea, including my own Fo’Fonas series, Tchaikovsky’s take is a delightful refresh that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Yet for all the attention that the equivalency between science and magic seems to take, it was not to me really what drove this book or made it enjoyable. I think this book was really all about perspective and communication, and the evidence is in the very structure of the book. It is written primarily from two perspectives: the “magic” perspective and the “science” perspective, and it is the contrast between the two that makes this book distinct from any number of other riffs on the interaction between more and less “advanced” civilizations.
People who are not authors, or people who read a lot of translations, probably don’t think very much about the techniques we use to apply our language to describing certain concepts, but it is a topic that is worth taking a moment now and then to marvel over and ponder. We have taken systems of communications evolved from those intended to tell each other where and when to find the best fruit, and used them to ponder physical and metaphysical questions, describe the abstract, and contemplate the very nature of our existence. The systems have evolved in order to help meet our needs, and yet I still find that there are things they are inadequate for communicating: certain types of fundamental physics, divinity, morality…I’m sure there are more.
Yet consider just a few centuries ago, and the number of words we use today that would be meaningless to them. Imagine how difficult it would be to communicate some of our modern ideas to someone a mere handful of centuries ago. Even words that existed then, like ‘computer,’ would convey an entirely different meaning to an individual from, say, 1822, and that was just two hundred years ago. Imagine even further back, trying to explain what we now understand about nuclear physics or space travel or the electromagnetic spectrum to someone from many centuries, or even millennia, ago. Or imagine trying to explain our technology. Go back to Gilgamesh’s city of Uruk, assuming you somehow have complete command of the language, and try to explain to them how airplanes fly, or what electricity is, or what a digital assistant is for (okay, so the last one is a bad example – no one can even explain to me what a digital assistant is for).
It’s no wonder, then, that the magic and the science perspectives in Elder Race seem sometimes to talk past each other. Far from being frustrating, this is what really makes this book work. The fact that we get an explanation of the history of the world from the science perspective, and then see that, in translation, it sounds exactly the same as the magic perspective’s creation mythology, is absolutely fascinating, and fantastically executed. It gives us lines like “I’m not a wizard, I’m a wizard, or maybe a wizard,” because the magic perspective’s language has only one word for what we might call a scholar, a learned person, a scientist, and that is ‘wizard.’ And that is true to form for our own history. We didn’t call all learned people wizards, but there was a time when, whether you were a theologian, a literary critic, an ornithologist, an archeologist, or a quantum physicist, you would have just been called a ‘philosopher’ (which, by the way, is why all of the scholars in Blood Magic who are pursuing a form of inquiry akin to what in our modern world we would call science are referred to as ‘rational philosophers’).
There are other things I enjoyed about this book, like the creative world-building with its waves of human civilization and destruction, its pseudo-Prime Directive and the conflicts that creates for the protagonist, and the really unique design features of the titular ‘elder race.’ The main character who gives us our magic perspective is not all that interesting, but her companions and her context more than make up for her, and the sole member of the elder race is well rendered, with his internal conflicts, self-doubt, and character journey. These elements may have taken a back seat to the ideas of communication and perspective that I mentioned above, but without their strength the book would be flat and uninteresting.
If there was anything unsatisfying about Elder Race, it was the demon, or rather what we do and don’t learn about it. While I realize that the main conflict was not with the demon, but rather the stranded anthropologist’s journey, the demon made up a significant enough part of the plot that I would have preferred a less hand-wavey, deus ex machina resolution to that line. I understand why Tchaikovsky chose not to provide us with more detail (preserving the pacing, keeping the focus on the character conflicts, et cetera), and have the characters go with the solution they ultimately implement, but I still found it unsatisfying.
Despite that, I really enjoyed this quick read. I’d classify it as science fiction, despite the strong fantasy elements and plotting structures. For all my dissatisfaction with the demonic resolution, I was very pleased with the final ending of the book as a whole; I think it did the characters justice, wrapped up everything that needed to be concluded, and left the reader with just enough room for mystery and imagination to walk away wondering just what might happen next. I would definitely recommend Elder Race.