Russell Letson reviews Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Eyes of the Void – Locus Online
eyes of emptinessAdrian Tchaikovsky (Orbit 978-0316705875, $28.00, 608 pp, hc) May 2022. Cover by Steve Stone.
by Adrian Tchaikovsky eyes of emptiness is the sequel to Earth Shards, the second in a sprawling and showy space opera series featuring a menagerie of space-traveling lifeforms, a galactic tale of war and crumbling civilizations, and entire species fleeing from impenetrable planet killers and invulnerable. Humanity is a laggard in this interstellar situation and anything but a dominant player. In fact, we have become refugees and wanderers, thanks to the destruction of Earth and many of its colonies by the Architects. These moon-sized beings/machines appear out of space without warning and, for reasons no one can discover, turn living planets (and any inhabitants who can’t escape) into sculptural wreckage elaborated. The Architects seem unstoppable, but that doesn’t stop ad hoc alliances of threatened civilizations from trying and failing, until the discovery of a wild talent gives humans a weapon in the form of the Intermediaries – Ints – some of which are finally able (for reasons no one understands) to fire the architects, ending the war.
And that’s just the story of the series. The main story of Earth Shards opens 40 years after the apparent end of the Architects’ War, when the tramp rescue ship vulture god comes into possession of artifacts from the original civilization that disappeared millions of years ago, objects that somehow distract the architects, making them extremely desirable for all sorts of powers and factions. This discovery sends the GodThe conventionally ragtag multi-species crew and various allies, adversaries, and pursuers in a lengthy chase (which also doubles as a tour through various planets, habitats, and alien cultures) that ends with insight into the architects’ motivations.
In The eyes of the void, the Architects have returned and are now attacking the once immune worlds of the immensely powerful, enigmatic and very, very strange Essiel Hegemony. The surviving crew members of the God, along with an intelligence operative from the Council of Human Interests (not quite an interstellar government), once again find themselves engaged in multiple hunts for objects of interest (one of which is again the in-demand veteran intermediary Idris Telemmier), up against parties with extreme notions of doing business – a noble planetary gangster and his rogue nephew; a real mobster Essiel, The Unspeakable Aklu, the Razor and the Hook; two nearly indestructible alien enhanced assassins; and the purely human intelligence arm of the Council. And again, much of the forward movement is provided by a familiar pattern of chases, evasions, violent encounters, feints, scams, and space combat.
The eyes of the void adds new elements to the mix. In fact, a description of this volume could be “layered”, since the storyline is punctuated by a series of expanded, deepened, and convoluted revelations. The architects weren’t the prime movers in the war, but unwitting instruments of some force or entity deep in space, and Idris (kidnapped and kidnapped once again) finds himself probing that geometry profoundly foreign to their research. The human realm is also home to factions and hidden agendas, which puts secret agent Havaer Mundy in a tricky and dangerous position when he discovers their plans. Even Essiel society has its weird layers, since the horrible renegade The Unspeakable Aklu, etc., is not a mere criminal, but part of an inscrutable cultural arrangement (for non-Essiel) in which he fulfills functions that others in his company cannot. . (A possible reason for his name is demonstrated in graphic and unsettling detail.)
As much as this series is a descendant of pulp-era extravaganzas, other genres occupy its story space as well. Its world of spaceports, mining colonies, and roving ships is rocky, and much of the language on this side is drawn from the tough-guy milieu, such as when a sleazy ship captain, dealing with a client/worshipper of the ”Essiel with the weird looking shellfish” thinks, ”Look, those are clams. You’re kneeling before an altar that’s mostly an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. But, because she was a respectable businesswoman, she said nothing about it.
Perhaps more important, thematically, is the notion that beneath our ordinarily dangerous reality lies another universe so alien and terrifying and haunted by monsters that it blasts merely human (or AI) senses and perceptions. . The “non-space” realm that is essential to interstellar travel is so hostile to any form of consciousness that even machine-based Winters turn off their processors before sinking. It’s a pattern imported from the supernatural horror/cosmic terror lore that dates back to Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson (The border house), and even Algernon Blackwood (“The Willows”) and persists in, say, the predatory multiverse of Charles Stross’ Laundry series. Long stretches of the sections from Idris’ perspective struggle to convey the terror that space inflicts even on his severely impaired nervous system.
At the deepest point of unspace, far below… was the Other, the presence that dwelt in unspace. A single entity, which looks like nothing, which is entirely its own…. [It] drove lesser minds insane by its very nature, killed by proximity, had wrists slit by unlucky travelers, spaced itself out, sabotaged its own vessels…. He knew what it felt like, that shoulder presence so repulsive and intolerable that self-assassination would be a blessed release.
I’ll say it again, in a slightly different way: the Final Architecture sequence belongs to what might be called a meta-genre, a narrative space that absorbs and integrates motifs, tropes, and conventions from near and less near neighbors. The inevitable comparison is with The Expanse: a similar combination of space operas, noir elements and dirty plots, fellow band adventures, gothic dread, alien weirdness, special effects sequences and mysteries that could well remain mysterious when everything is finally closed. This omnivorous – not to say kitchen sink – quality could be the source of the recent Venue interview remark: ”I like the idea of a world that feels real and is bigger than the book.” That’s certainly the effect this series has, and I suspect even a third volume will leave many undefined spaces beyond its borders.
Editor Russell Letson is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He’s been hanging out in the world of SF since childhood and writing about it since his grad school days. In the meantime, he has published a good deal of business, technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book on the Hawaiian slack key guitar.
This review and others like it in the June 2022 issue of Venue.
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