RogerBW's Blog

The Alchemists, Geary Gravel 05 November 2018

1984 SF. In a distant future, humans are desperately settling worlds as their alien-donated FTL ships become increasingly unreliable. Only native human-level life will prevent the colonisation of a new planet, and no life has ever been judged to be human-level. But the evaluation team on Belthannis is faced with something entirely new.

This is a strange and haunting book. What seems to be the overall plot changes from chapter to chapter (so I'm going to avoid writing about it in any detail); characters are introduced and described well before their names are given; technology is very high but ill-defined, so that one never quite knows what it ought to be able to do.

"I bribed three very respectable planning computers to get you all here, Jefany. Especially you. It was very difficult. I don't like to corrupt machines—it's like deceiving children."

There's an infodump of the setting's history in the first chapter, disguised as a description of a piece of art in a museum. It's that kind of story. There are many things going on, and if some of the resolutions are excessively predictable, others definitely aren't. There's a puzzle-world in the style of Poul Anderson, but it's a puzzle of biology: why are these things this way, surely not by coincidence? (And the question is never really answered, but the journey to get to that non-answer is still remarkably satisfactory.)

The writing is sometimes lyrical, but often oddly disjointed; consider the order of the phrases in:

Here was a Tech creation embellished by artists: a mechanical mantis shape in pale green and silver, with many-jointed legs and a pair of hidden wings that fluttered out for stability in flashes of iridescence over uncertain terrain.

Wouldn't "that fluttered out in flashes of iridescence for stability over uncertain terrain" be a more natural progression of concepts? It's not wrong, but it makes this reader stumble, and that may be deliberate.

Most definitely an odd book, very much for the sort of SF reader who doesn't mind piecing together a puzzle rather than being presented with the solution. Followed by The Pathfinders.

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