Russell Letson Reviews Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Shards of Earth: The Final Architecture Book One, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor 978-1-5290-5188-9, $28.00, 549 pp, hc) August 2021. Cover by Steve Stone.

Once upon a time I used the term “re­combinant SF” to describe stories that whipped multiple ideas and themes and gadgets and speculations and story-patterns into busy, complicated, surprising concoctions: a Chi­nese AI emperor and Tibetan yak-wranglers on a terraformed Mars; a moon-size ancient alien and clone-soldiers on a deathworld; noir detectives and asteroid miners vs. ancient-alien-nanotech monsters; starship battles and arranged mar­riages and formal dinner parties in spaaace. Of course, science fiction has always had a kitchen-sink side, but at some point the combination of authorial ingenuity and audience familiarity made such busyness commercially viable, if not explicitly named. And it seems that the named subgenre most friendly to such an approach is the “space opera”–or, to be precise, the inter­stellar/interplanetary adventure, especially the far-future variety. To list a handful of recent practitioners: Neal Asher, James S.A. Corey, Ann Leckie, Arkady Martine, Alastair Reynolds, and of course the late lamented Iain M. Banks.

I have a sweet tooth for such concoctions, and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth is a par­ticularly appealing example of the omnium-gath­erum adventure. The prologue offers minimal setup information: that “in the seventy-eighth year of the war… the lights of human civilization across the galaxy had been going out,” and then it introduces two central characters in an elliptical battle sequence. Myrmidon Solace is a soldier of the Parthenon, an all-female-clone military society, and Idris Telemmier is a neurologically-surgically-mentally altered Intermediary, and they are part of a multispecies alliance facing one of the unstoppable, moon-size Architects that ap­pear out of nowhere (well, out of “unspace”) and turn an entire world into an “intricately crafted floriform sculpture… intentional and organized, all the way down to the atomic level.”

Forty years after the strange ending of that war, the Parthenon could really use Idris’s abilities as an interstellar navigator (and possible weapon), so former-comrade Solace is dispatched to persuade, bribe, or maybe even kidnap him into Partheni service. She finds Idris working as pilot of the itinerant salvage vessel Vulture God, using his altered senses to guide it through the deeply disturbing strangeness of unspace while his ship­mates cold-sleep in mental safety. Idris is a valued part of a motley but tight-knit multispecies crew that includes the fatherly, faintly Falstaffian Cap­tain Rollo; Kitterling, a “crab-like” Hannilambra accountant who rents out advertising space on his carapace; Olli, a physically disabled engineer, dependent on a highly adaptable Swiss-Army-knife exoskeleton and remote drones; Medvig, a collective-personality AI whose insect-like units also reside in an artificial mechanical body; and Kris, Idris’s agent and the ship’s attorney and fixer, whose law school had a strong sideline in knife-duelling.

The story links and braids a series of pursuits and escapes, motivated by three McGuffins. Two are fairly traditional: the salvaged wreck of a ship that may signal the return of the Architects, and a container of strangely potent ancient alien artifacts. But Idris is himself also a prize, since Intermediaries are rare, expensive to create, crucial to interstellar travel, and therefore valu­able. Most are indentured by “leash contracts,” but Idris’ nearly unique independent status does not prevent unscrupulous operators from treating him like a fugitive slave. Extricating Idris from the grasp of a greedy planetary aristocrat and his gang of hired muscle provides the first get-out-of-town sequence and gives Solace the chance to join the crew. Thereafter they encounter, evade, bamboozle, fight, or run from human-govern­ment undercover operatives; human Nativist xenophobes; alien-worshiping cultists; an alien gangster (The Unspeakable Aklu, the Razor and the Hook); and the persistent aforementioned aristocrat and his gang of goons.

The story moves from world to world in search of items and answers (five parts, one for each planetary system visited), half quest and half a series of frying-pan-to-fire chases and escapes. Along the way, the book’s Big Ideas and extensive trope-collection get introduced and elaborated: utterly inscrutable, unstoppable aliens doing vastly destructive things to technological civiliza­tions; merely deeply strange and powerful aliens as nextdoor neighbors; ancient, near-magical, potentially world-saving objects left behind by a vanished precursor civilization; a potent, Sparta-like military society of women; relentless villains and their nearly unkillable minions; and most of all, a busy, variegated, very-populated interstellar environment in which humankind, barely recovered from near-elimination, doesn’t even play third fiddle. Larry Niven has called this kind of future-historical setup a playground. I’d call it a carnival, with noisy, scary rides, operated by strange-looking folk, and plenty of mischief and danger available.

That’s a lot to keep track of, and the story’s forward movement requires occasional exposi­tory pauses to outline back-story, with such in­jections held until required for their stage of the tale – for example, the story of the first, accidental Intermediary; or of the origins of the Parthenon (the result of a program aimed at “breeding a better version of humanity”); or the introduc­tion of another powerful alien threat to human independence.

The Essiel Hegemony was a genuine space empire, complete with conquered species, all dominated by a race of alien overlords. When humanity appreciated what they’d found, they retreated in fear and disarray

Fortunately for the impatient or forgetful reader, there is a back-of-the-book set of answers to most questions: a Timeline and a Glossary, the latter including lists of characters, species, organizations, planets, and ships.

As much fun as it is to play Name That Trope, the book’s greatest pleasure is in seeing how well all the parts and pieces and subassemblies mesh–how the story manages to simultaneously sprawl and cohere. One thing the sprawl allows is room to build and use the spacers’ culture, their solidarity, their hardship-won resilience and stubborn, unbreakable loyalty. That in turn connects with more complex sets of connections: lines of authority and alliance, agency and con­straint, loyalty, affection, mutual understanding and respect, and resentment and bigotry–and conflicts across all those connections, as char­acters act outside their official limits or even in defiance of their orders and hierarchies, out of higher loyalties.

As much as I like “recombinant,” another descriptive metaphor that fits William Tenn’s SF-as-jazz, perhaps updatable to SF-as-riffing or -sampling. In any case, it’s an art that loves to borrow, swap, steal, build on, elaborate, extend, invert, argue with, parody, and generally mess with all the elements that go into it: the what-iffery, the so-whattery, the not-only-but-also, the how-about-this variation? And since it’s art we’re talking about, the proof is in the performance, the execution, the integration of elements into a working whole. Shards of Earth is not only a carnival of monsters and marvels, it’s as jazzy a widescreen space opera as you could want.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the October 2021 issue of Locus.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyWhile you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.

©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *