Adrian Tchaikovsky's award winning Science Fiction novel is another brick, and another of his arthropod based tales. Set in the far future it is a story book ended by savagery and civilisation and by the essential question of what intelligent life is, and how helpful technology is.
Tchaikovsky starts the story out with a chillingly prescient moment in which a situation very similar to the one we're seeing in the real world occurs, with the rejection of knowledge in favour of 'purity' which destroys everything humans have established away from Earth, plunging the species into a new dark age. This results in an act of sabotage that destroys a science experiment in uplifting and sets the story on its course. The interesting thing here is that he avoids the urge to overly exalt technology, instead preferring to show that time takes its toll on everything.
The rest of the book is divided into alternating chapters that split the narrative's perspective between the uplifted creatures of the planet (all arthropods, with spiders forming the reader's perspective characters) and the survivors of Earth, now destroyed after both its flirtation with purity and the eventual destruction of a livable habitat. Now, after 2000 years of space travel, their ship the Gilgamesh is heading towards a fateful day, their arrival at the world seeded in the prologue.
So, as the spiders' chapters detail the growth of their civilisation and the travails they face on the way to being the dominant species, the human narrative goes in the opposite direction, detailing a descent into hostility and barbarism. To be fair, the latter only occurs from desperation and from many failed attempts to put strategies into action. Throughout the book the spiders grow and thrive, co-opting opposition and bringing it into line with their hegemony, while the humans become increasingly divided, even creating new divisions in their pursuit of authenticity and purity. Eventually, when the two groups clash it is a clash of these two ideologies and Tchaikovsky makes a strong case of the divergent neurological qualities of each species being driving factors in their actions.
The characters are interesting, not least because the human protagonist is not really heroic, or even much of a protagonist. He performs the role of being our primary point of view character but he doesn't really have a story of his own. He is a bystander rather than a central part of the action, and while he does things that are integral to the story, he is very much a hostage of fortune.
In contrast, Portia, the common name for the spider protagonist, is an integral part of the development of her culture, even if there are actually many spiders who all have the same name and the book details a lineage rather than the actions of one individual. Again this is interesting, because it suggests a stronger chain of personality and identity being passed down the centuries than would be found among humans. Her actions shape the society she lives in, and she can justifiably referred to as a heroine in many respects. The spiders are, initially, very dependent upon inherited knowledge, 'Understandings', as they are called which helps to strengthen the feeling that the characters are actually different iterations of the same spider.
Tchaikovsky's world building is excellent, he ably envisages a world that's true alien, but at the same time not so alien that we can't grasp it. He creates a powerful vision of cities made up of trees, of silken walls and of technology that is metal light. At the same time the elements of the human world are also well realised, including the failed terraforming project that has rendered a world no more than a host to a grey fungus.
All in all this is a fascinating book, a little dense in places, perhaps, but still a good read. I wouldn't recommend it if you're an arachnophobe though, and have had to warn Eve off reading it. However, the world building is excellent and I would suggest it should be read on those grounds alone, as well as for the philosophical ideas within the text.