Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s an idea that fellow science fiction (and fantasy) writer Adrian Tchaikovsky is putting to the test in his new sci-fi / fantasy novella Elder Race (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Tchaikovsky explains what inspired and influenced this genre-mashing story.
Photo Credit: Kate Eshelby
To begin, what is Elder Race about and what kind of a world is it set in?
Elder Race is the story of a feudal fantasy world where the queen’s errant youngest daughter goes on a quest to destroy a demon threatening her land (and world), for which she must recruit an ancient semi-human wizard of immense power known only through legends and old family histories.
At the same time, Elder Race is also the story of a junior anthropologist studying the post-tech culture that an old Earth colony has devolved into, battling loneliness and depression after he gets cut off from Earth, and who unexpectedly gets approached by one of the locals and ends up, very much against his best judgment, accompanying her on some kind of epic journey.
It is simultaneously a science fiction and a fantasy story, depending on whose perspective we see things from, and in the end neither of the two main characters has an uncontested claim to be “right” about what is actually going on.
Where did you get the original idea for Elder Race, what inspired it?
That essential character dynamic — the fantasy and the sci-fi character both trying to interpret events and misunderstanding each other — popped into my head fully formed. I’ve previous played with the epic fantasy story seen from an unusual viewpoint — Enth in Spiderlight, for example — and it’s a good way to deconstruct and examine the storytelling conventions of the genre.
You just said Elder Race is a mix of fantasy and sci-fi. Are there any other genres at work in this story as well?
I’ve always been fond of settings that tell a fantasy story with sci-fi trappings or vice versa. It’s there in some of my previous works like The Expert System’s Brother and Cage Of Souls. The works of Vance and Wolfe are huge influences. So from a certain perspective it’s a Dying Earth setting, and there’s also a strong dash of cosmic horror in there as we find out more of what’s going on. Writing the book felt a bit like casting light on a prism — the two beams of heroic fantasy and alien contact sci-fi created quite the spray of connections to a variety of other stories.
Speaking of genre, and The Expert System’s Brother, a few years ago we did an interview about it, in which we talked about it being a science fantasia. Is Elder Race similar to that book in any way, or did you mix the elements of sci-fi and fantasy in a different way?
The idea of telling a sci-fi story through that veil of fantasy, because the POV characters simply don’t have the frame of reference to understand the science behind the apparent “magic,” is definitely there in the Expert System books and in Elder Race. This new book takes things further, though, because rather than the sci-fi reveal (“Spaceships all along!”) the scientifically-minded character Nyr needs to make just as many adjustments to the way he sees the world as his less technical counterpart.
You’ve written dozens of novels as well as novellas and short stories. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Elder Race but not on any of your previous novels?
I’ve mentioned Wolfe, but honestly, he’s always been one of the biggest influences on most of my writing. I think my interest in writing about post-tech humanity on alien worlds was also rekindled a while back by Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. The idea of what we might forget, and how the alienness of a new environment — even one Earth-like enough to survive in — is endlessly fascinating.
One of the other big new influences specifically for this book is Emma Newman, whose own sci-fi stories often focus about characters with psychological difficulties. It’s a topic she approaches with a great deal of nuance, and as I myself wrestle with depression, I thought I would like to use the story to explore that through Nyr’s experiences.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; was Elder Race influenced by any of those things?
Various media have fed into my work at different times, especially games. I think Elder Race builds more on the book side of things, and on the general romance (in the Arthurian sense) tradition of noble quests and ideals and the like.
As I mentioned, Elder Race isn’t your first published work. Some of which were stand-alone stories, while others were part of larger sagas, such as those in your Children Of Time series and the Shadow Of The Apt books. What is Elder Race?
Elder Race is certainly intended to be a stand-alone book. But, at the same time, there’s very little I’ve ever written that I couldn’t follow up on if the idea came and the demand was there. I like to feel that my fictional worlds are living and growing, and so there’s always somewhere to return to.
Earlier I asked if Elder Race had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, as kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think Elder Race could be adapted into a movie, show, or game?
I think a screen adaptation would definitely work, although the clash of points of view would be an interesting challenge to bring over on the screen — you’d almost have to shoot the whole thing twice to show how the world comes over so differently to the two main characters.
I’m less sure of something game related, but that might just be me being behind the curve — the book focuses very heavily on character and interrelation, but those are topics games deal with much more often these days than they used to.
So if someone wanted to adapt Elder Race into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Elder Nyr and the other main characters?
Nyr would need to be someone who can be arch and strange, but with some definite pathos too — and as he’s something of a Doctor Who-style character I reckon either Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi would fit nicely depending on the sort of age band you wanted him to fit. Lynesse would need to have action chops, and also be vulnerable and sometimes ridiculous, because she stands very heavily on her place in the world and often oversteps. Maybe Sonequa Martin-Green [Star Trek: Discovery], perhaps.
Finally, if someone enjoys Elder Race, which of your sci-fi novels or novellas would you suggest they read next, and which of your fantasy novels or novellas would you suggest they read after that?
I think for sci-fi novellas, there’s a very natural transition to The Expert System’s Brother and The Expert System’s Champion, which have a number of common themes and elements. For novels, Cage Of Souls is probably a natural step, or go full sci-fi with Children Of Time.
For my fantasy work, Spiderlight has another unconventional take on the quest narrative, and for something longer I always stand by Guns Of The Dawn — Emily Marshwic from Guns and Lynesse from Elder Race would probably have a lot to talk about.