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488 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 2015
“If there had been some tiny bead present in the brain of all humans, that had told each other, They are like you; that had drawn some thin silk thread of empathy, person to person, in a planet-wide net – what might then have happened? Would there have been the same wars, massacres, persecutions and crusades?”This is an excellent SF story, a modern classic in my opinion. For those of you who are not fans of the idea of SF, this is also a wonderful literary story chock-full of philosophy and allegory.
How good is it, you ask? Well, good enough for this arachnophobe to read it twice now, and good enough to feel unexpected kinship to the giant sentient spiders - to see them as persons and not just as alien creepy crawlies. Maybe I got hit with that nanovirus too, who knows?In a distant future humans are terraforming planets. Avrana Kern, a scientist, is about to seed a newly terraformed planet with monkeys and add to the atmosphere a nanovirus engineered to accelerate their development and allow it to happen on the scale of millennia rather than millions of years, and allow the monkeys to develop into “a race of uplifted sentient aides and servants [who] would welcome their makers.”
“This is the future. This is where mankind takes its next great step. This is where we become gods.”Except that, predictably, human squabbles on a galactic scale plunge the Earth and its colonies into Dark Ages from which they take millennia to recover, and eventually the survivors leave the dying poisoned planet in ark ships, headed for the hope of terraformed planets, zeroing on the green and beautiful Kern’s world. But things went wrong there, too. Kern’s monkeys have never made it to the planet. The nanovirus, lacking the species it was made for, manages nevertheless to find a species it could infect and change and accelerate the evolution of - the spiders. Whose civilization is robust and so different from ours. And the AI imprint of Avrana Kern still circles their world in her shuttle, the Messenger as the spiders perceive it, unaware that the monkey experiment failure has become the spider triumph.
“In the end, he supposed, it didn't matter. Genocide was genocide. He thought of the Old Empire, which had been so civilized that it had in the end poisoned its own homeworld. And here we are, about to start ripping pieces of the ecosystem out of this new one.”The story is told in the alternating chapters set among humans on the spaceship, the last of the dying civilization, and the spiders that are building their civilization one generation of the time - each time a new generation of Portias (as in Portia labiata spiders), Biancas and Fabians spinning the webs of knowledge and society, making their own literal world wide web. Collision is imminent.
“For a species that thinks naturally in terms of interconnected networks and systems, the idea of a war of conquest and extermination – rather than a campaign of conversion, subversion and co-option – does not come easily.”Spiders are creepy, no doubt. They might as well really be aliens, they are so fundamentally different from us in all the respects. And we are hardwired to distrust and fear those that are different, that are *other*, that are not us - that are “them”. We seem to be hell-bent on the destruction even of those who *are* kin, let alone those who are as different as can be. That’s just how our survival instincts work, I guess.
“Sometimes all it takes, to crack a problem, is a new perspective.”The alternating chapters of human and spider narratives are done very well. Human parts of the story are done in a more ‘usual’ tone of SF adventure, relying on dialogue for exposition. Spider parts have a completely different voice and feel - more of the omniscient narration, less dialogue (as the spiders’ speech is nonvocal), and more of a chronicle feel. There is never a doubt that these are alien beings, not too anthropomorphic but just ‘person-ized’ enough to be relatable. The world building is masterful, immersive and vivid. And writing itself is excellent.
“Life is not perfect, individuals will always be flawed, but empathy – the sheer inability to see those around them as anything other than people too – conquers all, in the end.”So good.