Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Review: Lords of Uncreation by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The epic quest to defeat the enigmatic Architects now extends beyond this reality

Confession time: I hate cosmic horror. I detest it with a fervent passion. I find its conceptual foundations intrinsically repulsive on a visceral level. The notion that the underlying truths of the universe are impossible to grasp and dangerous to glimpse by mortal minds strikes me as a ridiculous underestimation of human capabilities. The suggestion that the vastness of the starry expanse reduces all human desires to insignificance goes against every humanist principle I hold. The unquestioned assumption that human beings ought to fear the unknown is one I oppose on principle, as the ultimate insult to human reason. The intended aesthetic effect of awe before the immeasurable might of ancient transdimensional overlords offends me as contrary to human dignity.

Which is why I absolutely adored Adrian Tchaikovsky's latest novel Lords of Uncreation, which concludes the story told in the monumental masterpieces Shards of Earth and Eyes of the Void. Finally, we have a novel that understands that, when you meet an eldritch abomination from the unfathomable nothingness between universes, the correct human response is to laugh in its face.

The story so far: the galaxy is in panic because of the return of the Architects, gigantic alien beings who destroyed Earth and doomed humankind to a nomadic life between the stars. Our protagonist Idris Telemmier has been gathering experts in xenoarchaeology to refurbish incompletely understood ancient machinery. The plan is to launch a counteroffensive that would hit the Architects in their home turf. Only two problems: (1) said ancient machinery is irresistibly attractive to every military power in the galaxy, and (2) the home of the Architects is located in the negative space where both physical things and the human mind lose their link to reality.

This third novel in the series jumps right into action and never releases its grip on the reader as our heroes get caught in an unrelenting chase to stay in control of their superweapon as every faction tries to get their hands on it, and stay in control of their sanity as they visit the hostile realm of the unreal. Yet Idris hopes to convince his colleagues that ending the war shouldn't require paying back genocide for genocide. And here one of the strengths of the novel becomes evident. It's great when you can notice how deeply an author loves his characters. Lords of Uncreation takes care to portray Idris with all his convoluted interiority, achieving the unlikely feat of making an ageless telepathic unsleeping cyborg with the power to save the universe and the self-esteem of a termite feel close and relatable. As a war survivor who was brutally weaponized and is now wanted as an asset, Idris is barely functional. The scars of his trauma and the anxiety of having only a temporary freedom were already a difficult burden to carry before his mind opened to the revelations of unspace and contracted an obsession with exploring the forbidden regions of that not-place.

Drawing from a profound empathy for human suffering, and with the extreme care of a master wordsmith, Tchaikovsky proposes a more mature way to look at characters who have gone through painful events and then have to face new, comparable hardships. Not only Idris, but his companions the duelist lawyer Kris and the clone warrior Solace demonstrate an inner strength earned in fire. I refer to extreme care because it would have been too easy to romanticize their trauma and treat it as an advantage in their subsequent adventures. Tchaikovsky knows to steer away from that simplistic recourse. While his characters do gain strength from the hard lessons of their past, at no point does he pretend that they're better off for having suffered. What their bad experiences give them is not a thicker skin, but a broader perspective. These are not the kind of heroes who learn to shrug off blows, but heroes who go on to ensure others don't have to receive them.

The moral stance of Lords of Creation is grounded on an unwavering affirmation of the value of human life even in a universe that is infinitely bigger. As an illustration of what might be called optimistic nihilism, our heroes come face to face with uncaring monstrosities older than the universe and, instead of losing their minds from the despair of realizing their smallness, they stand their ground and refuse to kneel. It's not that they've become strong enough to punch Cthulhu; it's that they feel at home in the universe and wish to deal with its other inhabitants as fellow creatures. The fate of humankind is not to serve, but to thrive.

However, the competing factions of humankind have their own ideas of what that thriving looks like. Through this novel, our heroes have to defeat not one but two separate eugenic conspiracies that threaten to derail the course of future history. This theme of refusing to grant some lives more worth than others is reaffirmed in the climactic confrontation with the titular Lords of Uncreation, who for the previous two novels have been sending the Architects to reshape the universe into a perfect work of art, mere mortals be damned. And here the central theme of humanism vs. fascism finds its clearest expression.

Walter Benjamin's description of fascism as the insertion of aesthetics into politics can be rephrased in this way: fascism is the desire to politically enforce an aesthetic. If you pay attention to far-right discourse, its obsession with "disorderly" society and "disgusting" sexualities and "unclean" literature and "impure" blood is always described in the language of aesthetic preferences. Fascism doesn't want good citizens, just good-looking ones. In Lords of Uncreation, upon hearing the final antagonists describe their grandiose plans for the universe and their inflated sense of superiority, one senses an echo of every tyrant who appointed himself as society's curator.

The winning strategy for our heroes turns out to be, refreshingly, community. The universe is saved by the joint effort of all who give up factional divisions and choose instead cooperation. The cosmic abandonment that the human mind feels in unspace is made more bearable in company. The terrors of the transdimensional void don't hold a candle to the nightmares that lurk inside us, and if we've been able to survive those, we can survive whatever the universe throws in our direction.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Lords of Uncreation [Tor, 2023].