Pan, 2015, 604 p. (The author’s surname is given as Czajkowski on the copyright page.)
This is this year’s Clarke Award winner. I read it for that reason.
In the last days of the Old Empire it had set up terraforming projects on planets in other solar systems. The plans of the watcher over one of these to seed it with a virus that would exalt monkeys were frustrated by the adherents of Non Ultra Natura, the transfer ship, containing monkeys and virus both, going down in flames. Millenia later the last remnants of humanity, the successors to the old Empire, trying desperately to use its all but forgotten tech to preserve the species by leaving a devastated Earth on the starship Gilgamesh, make an approach to the system and the Sentry Pod housing the watcher, the persona of Avrana Kern. Meanwhile on the planet below, the virus has been doing its work; but on invertebrates. Giant spiders dominate, slowly evolving greater and greater intelligence and cooperation.
Kern’s mission causes her to spurn the remnant humans, warning them off and all but disabling their ship. After an abortive landing an agreement is reached for them to leave for the nearest terraformed planet and never come back. This is a forlorn journey as that planet’s environment turns out to be unsuitable and the commander of the Gilgamesh orders a return.
The chapters set on the Gilgamesh are seen from the viewpoint of Holsten Mason, a classicist (historian) revived from and put into suspended animation at frequent intervals throughout the novel. Those describing the spiders – to whom more or less each successive chapter is devoted – are in a distanced third person. Here sentences like, “Their planet’s oxygen levels are higher than Earth’s,” “Something more virulent than the Black Death,” and, “Hidden in this arachnid Alexandria are remarkable secrets,” are jarring as they relate to things beyond the spiders’ ken. They are there for us, as readers in the twenty-first century. This, I would submit, is poor writing. The use of the same names for the different spiders at various stages of the story (Portia, Bianca and Fabian reoccur frequently) is also somewhat odd, though there is a rationale in that the spiders retain memories of the existence and knowledge of their predecessors through their genetic inheritance.
Avrana Kern has been in communication with the spiders by radio but she is ignorant of the nature of the species which have been exalted until they at last manage to send her a picture. She nevertheless regards them as her children and the remnant humanity on the Gilgamesh as impostors.
That ship’s systems begin to deteriorate badly and Mason witnesses increasing degradation and conflict within the crew as time goes by. However so much of the novel is spent with the spiders that by the time of the final confrontation we have known is inevitable between the two species it is almost they who seem the more human and sympathetic. In this regard the disruptions within the Gilgamesh have rendered its inhabitants less sympathetic to the reader.
The initial chapters were turgid reading with far too much information dumping. While things improved a little later on I could never quite suspend my disbelief at the goings-on on the Gilgamesh. The chapters on the planet were more interesting but even they became overly programmatic (especially Tchaikovsky’s shoe-horning in of arachnid sexual politics.)
I can only conclude that this won the Clarke because of its unusual spidery protagonists. There were certainly at least two novels on this year’s Clarke Award short list that I would consider were better written (as well as one that was considerably worse.)
Pedant’s corner:- The Non Ultra Natura lobby were (the lobby was,) miniscule (x 3; it’s spelled minuscule,) there were a limited number of circumstances (there was a limited number,) species’ (in the singular sense, so species’s, x 2,) loathe (loth or loath, x 2. Loathe in its correct sense of revile is used later,) “it came out more as a plea than he had intended” (as more of a plea?) one antennae (one antenna,)” another handful of her kind are already here” (another handful is here,) “Less than half her infiltration force remain alive” (any fractional value counts as singular so; less than half remains.) “The exploration of Earth’s orbit” (the context implies the solar system not merely Earth’s orbit.) Tiny animicules (usually animalcules,) overlain (overlaid,) “it was as if the human race was unwilling to be freed from their confines” (its confines,) “the host of individual ants reach” (the host reaches,) a host of Paussid beetles are lined up (a host is lined up,) “none …. are familiar” (none is familiar,) “there are a handful” (there is a handful,) the balance are here (the balance is here,) the crew are preparing (the crew is,) some of the crew gather (gathers,) “there were a few” (was,) ditto “there were a handful”, “there were a lot” of looks, “Lain’s tribe have done a remarkable job” (Lain’s tribe has done,) by no ways (either “by no means” or else “in no way” but not “by no ways”,) chromatopores (x 2; chromatophores,) a colony of hundred million insects (of a hundred million,) “The vibrations of the enemy’s approach serves as forewarning (vibrations; therefore “serve”,) Portia’s band are able to set an ambush (Portia’s band is able.)