Idris has neither aged nor slept since they remade his mind in the war. And one of humanity’s heroes now scrapes by on a freelance salvage vessel, to avoid the attention of greater powers.
Eighty years ago, Earth was destroyed by an alien enemy. Many escaped, but millions more died. So mankind created enhanced humans such as Idris – who could communicate mind-to-mind with our aggressors. Then these ‘Architects’ simply disappeared and Idris and his kind became obsolete.
Now, Idris and his crew have something strange, abandoned in space. It’s clearly the work of the Architects – but are they really returning? And if so, why? Hunted by gangsters, cults and governments, Idris and his crew race across the galaxy as they search for answers. For they now possess something of incalculable value, and many would kill to obtain it.
In the seventy-eighth year of the war, an Architect came to Berlenhof.
Science Fiction is not a genre I dip into often, but I generally do enjoy it when I do! There are quirky, heartwarming writers like Becky Chambers or the glorious weirdness that is Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb and even the lyricism of This Is How You Lose the Time War…
Shards of Earth launches us into an epic series, in which humanity has found its way into the stars and found itself amongst a range of other species. Crablike Hannilambra who tend towards the acquisitive; hivers, autonomous insect sized creations that create an intelligence and identity and sentience when they come together; the Tothiat, a grafting between what appears to be a human with an insect and is all-but indestructible, healing like Wolverine; the Essiel – space faring clams! And the moon sized Architects, crystalline beings who reshape and reform ships, people and inhabited planets – only inhabited planets – into twisted, aesthetically pleasing tombs, twisted and broken and dead, but beautiful.
We open the novel in medias res as the combined forces of a united humanity and its alien allies face-off against an architect approaching the bustling planet of Berlenhof, Earth having been the first victim of the Architects. They are armed with massive mass looms on the Partheni warships, as well as the first wave of the new psychically adapted Intermediary Program. Solace is one of the Partheni, a race of warrior women created through parthenogenesis, who is given charge to protect Idris, one of the Intermediaries. The battle is devastating but ultimately successful and both Idris and Solace survive as the narrative propels us fifty years into the future.
By narrative shenanigans, neither Solace nor Idris age over the time jump, but the world around them does. The Architects disappear and without a common enemy, the unity of the human polyaspora is lost and inter-factional, inter-racial, inter-species tensions have grown. It is a well constructed and messy world which we see primarily through the eyes of those on the outskirts of it: Idris has become the navigator of the Vulture God, a salvage scavenger ship for hire, and his viewpoint is that of the Spacers rather than colonials.
The crew of the Vulture God is that staple of science fiction: a rag tag crew of misfits who form a family of kind. We have the Captain, Rollo Rostand, the drone specialist Olli Timo, the Hannilambra Kittering who rented out advertising space on screens affixed to his shell; Medvik, a hiver; and Kris Almier, a lawyer who is as proficient with a dueling blade as she is with precedent and statute. Solace is sent to join them, to persuade Idris to come to the Partheni as an Intermediary because the surgery that made him capable of touching the mind of an Architect also allows him to navigate the mysterious unspace that permits interstellar travel, making him a valuable commodity. Solace quickly – perhaps too quickly – comes to view herself as a part of the Vulture God’s crew.
The diversity of species all working together with mutual respect is a (somewhat utopian) staple of the genre, isn’t it? The found family, looking out for each other, loyal to each other even to death. Diversity is actually also addressed explicitly – perhaps clunkily – in dialogue between Olli and Solace: Olli was born without limbs:
her arms ended at the elbows with a tuft of half-formed fingers, one leg stopped at the smooth stump of her knee, the other absent altogether. Olian Timo – Olli – had been born so, and without any sense of proprioception – a stranger in her truncated body. But she’d been born to a colony where every single human being was a precious resource and they’d found where she excelled.
In contrast, Solace was crafted in a vat as an example of genetic perfection, from a limited pool of genetic diversity, all of which was well formed and beautiful and female. And as Olli rails at Solace at one point
‘Your precious eugenics wouldn’t ever have made me, would it? You see a thing like me growing in your vats, you’d flush the contents out into space. Not fit for your perfect society, am I?’
The plot kicks off as the Vulture God is sent to recover a lost ship, a feat which they manage quickly enough, but when it is discovered, it bears all the hallmarks of an Architect attack, evidence of their return after two generations of peace, two generations’ respite from existential dread. Even more importantly, perhaps, it contains a cache of relics that can repel Architects and a device capable of transporting them successfully, a feat only the Essiel manage.
The crew, from this point, seem to bounce from one catastrophe to another, as the Vulture God is stolen, is recovered, is pursued by gangsters and politicians…. and the Architects return. Deaths occur – and this is not a novel where you should get too attached to any of the characters: no one feels safe – and enemies are uncovered; new friends are made and old allies recovered.
Travel and the practicalities of traversing the vastness of empty space is always an issue for this form of science fiction and Tchaikovsky solves it by the use of “unspace” – a layer of reality beneath or behind the physically real. The physics isn’t exactly clear or important. On most journeys, most crew is put into stasis because the state of unspace seems inconsistent with sentience – an utter aloneness, any crew that you may have been travelling with disappearing, and the universe an eternal featureless void around you. A void that seems to be looking back at you sometimes, looking and stalking – it feels that there is space for plot development in this experience and I loved the occasional moments when the crew were forced to enter unspace conscious. Is it truly that “your mind populated the absence with a spurious presence. It was just sensory deprivation, operating on a hitherto unexamined sense” or is something other there. Idris is unfortunate: being made into an Intermediary allowed him to navigate in deep void or “off piste” away from the managed Throughways left by the mysterious precursor civilisation of the Originators. This means that he is unable to be sedated through unspace, but also allows him some resistance to it, although the threat of his mind breaking is always present and real.
Tchaikovsky slips in a lot of exposition and history in well-managed infodumps, explaining the different worlds that he creates as the crew reach them. The exposition is both necessary and well-managed with a lightness of touch that did not make them as obtrusive as they might have been with a less accomplished writer. I did particularly like his description of the planet Jericho.
A survey team exploring a dead-end Throughway burst into a virgin system. They found a planet a little closer than Earth to a sun a little cooler than Earth’s. Then they found a biosphere crammed full of riotous life whose biochemistry overlapped with Earth by at least forty per cent. An Eden! surveyors crowed. Then the planet’s biochemistry ate two of the landing party and they quickly revised their estimate to A monstrous death world! But there were still scientific grants for that…
The plot certainly rattles apace as the crew are thrown from one incident and one star system to the next, from one revelation to another and the hefty 576 pages flew by quickly.
It was a great read and I am looking forward to picking up the sequel, Eyes of the Void, which was released in April this year.
What I Liked
- The ragtag found family crew of the Vulture God, combining a wide range of species, diversity and identities – a prickly and combative but unquestioningly loyal family.
- The range of alien cultures created by Tchaikovsky’s fertile imagination.
- The experience of what it is to be human in a post-Earth polyaspora – are spacers, colonists or Partheni entitled to use the identity human?
- The scope and scale of the narrative, which was epic and yet incredibly tautly structured.
- The deftness of Tchaikovsky’s language.
What Could Have Been Different
- I’d have liked more of Havaer Mundy, the shadowy agent of the Hugh Intervention Board who could have stepped out of a spy novel. I hope he returns in the future novels.