This Adrian Tchaikovsky novella packs several themes in a successful mix between science fiction and fantasy that I found delightfully entertaining. The story is equally divided between two points of view: Lynesse Fourth Daughter is the wayward scion of the realm of Lannesite, more interested in the lore and legends of her people than in the practical duties of a queen’s daughter, and so she’s always getting into trouble and harshly reprimanded by her mother and elder sisters. Nyr Illim Tevitch is a lowly anthropologist assigned to study Lynesse’s society, a distant offshoot of human colonization: he’s been left alone to monitor the culture, since his companions returned to Earth some time ago and never came back, prompting Nyr to accept the dire fact they might never do so and that he might end his last days alone.
Rumors of a demon plaguing the nearby lands have reached the court and been dismissed by the queen as nothing more than the peasants’ excessive fantasy, while Lynesse is convinced that the realm might be threatened by a danger similar to that faced by her ancestress Astresse Once Regent, who successfully vanquished it with the help of the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder. So, against her mother’s wishes, she takes the long journey toward the wizard’s tower to ask for his help on the strength of the ancient compact signed with her great-grandmother. The “wizard” is of course the anthropologist who long ago, and against the rule that prohibited the observing scientists to have any contact with the locals, lent his help to Astresse, and is now whiling away the long, empty years in suspended animation.
Lynesse’s resemblance with her ancestress – for whom it’s clear that Nyr harbored some very strong feelings – and her impassioned request for help clash with the scientist’s deeply settled despondency and depression, not to mention the sense of guilt for having already broken the rules once, and his unwillingness about doing so again, even though it’s become clear by now that there will be no retribution from back home, given the too-long silence from Earth. Still, the young woman’s determination and some curiosity to inspect the disconcerting phenomenon that Lynesse describes as a “demon”, ultimately convince Nyr to travel with her and her companion Esha Free Mark to the affected lands, in a journey that will prove enlightening for both of them.
The clash of different cultures has long been one of the main themes in science fiction, but here in Elder Race the conflict – and ensuing misunderstandings – come from two different lines of evolution of the same people, just as the two points of view, Lynesse and Nyr, represent the two genres merged in this story. From the fantasy-inspired outlook of Lynesse, Nyr’s abilities and technological tools are nothing short of magic, and serve only to reinforce her faith in the powers of the aloof wizard, and in his ability to find and vanquish the demon infesting the land. For his part, Nyr is battling with his own conscience and the contrasting feelings engendered by the bizarre situation, and keeping them at bay with the Dissociative Cognition System, or DCS, an implant that allows him to disconnect himself from his feelings so that he can conduct his observations with emotionless detachment – the only downside of the DCS being that he must turn it off at regular intervals to avoid a dangerous accumulation of repressed emotions, a practice that ends up enhancing the aura of mystery surrounding him from the locals’ perspective.
The theme of the Heroical Quest is played to the hilt in Elder Race, and with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly where the language barrier comes into play, giving way to an amusing “comedy of errors” flavor that reaches its peak as Nyr tries to explain the hard reality to Lynesse, only to see technical details turned into fairytale terms by a translation that shares very little ground with the common language once employed by the original colonists. There is a chapter where the two versions are given side by side, and the gap between the actual reality and the one perceived by Lynesse shows, in a quite amusing way, the chasm that has opened between the two cultures, so that, for example, the term “scientist” used by Nyr becomes “wizard” in Lynesse’s tongue, taking the reader straight to Arthur Clarke’s famous sentence about advanced technology and magic…
Nyr’s frustration, and Lynesse’s difficulty in connecting with him, are not only the product of the changes in language but also of the changes in the way one looks at the world: where the anthropologist (especially when he engages the DCS) bases his observation on hard science and provable facts, Lynesse is driven by the stories she heard from early childhood, stories of heroic deeds and slain monsters, of weird magic and amazing feats, so that the two of them are kept apart not only by the terms that are lost in translation, but more importantly by a legendarium that for the girl is as close as humanly possible to reality while for the scientists it’s an unexplored land. If you have seen that superb Star Trek: TNG episode titled Darmok, you will know what it means to be unable to understand someone whose language is so steeped in legends as to be totally incomprehensible.
And yet, despite these seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, the two manage to form an effective team: where words fail them, actions and – above all else – faith in each other’s commitment to the quest end up creating a bond that is a delight to behold and that adds a touch of sweetness to the mix of adventure and humor that are the main ingredients of the story, a story that despite its shortness ended up being even more enjoyable than Adrian Tchaikovsky’s longer and more complex books.