This is a plausible and very entertaining book by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which I read as the Kindle edition. I will go so far as to say it is in the tradition of some of the finest classic science fiction, like that of Arthur C. Clarke. The science is all plausible by today’s anticipations of what will likely exist in the medium to long-term future.
Earth has had its day; the Old Empire – near God-like in its capabilities – has fallen and the survivors on Earth succeed in only partially reclaiming their predecessors’ capabilities. Among such capacities were interstellar travel and terraforming distant planets within the galaxy. The story begins with Dr. Avrana Kern, eventually the last survivor aboard the Brin 2 satellite, an experimental station whose mission is to accelerate long-term evolution of life on “her”planet, which had been previously terraformed by the Old Empire; her goal was”to seed the universe with all the wonders of Earth” and become a god in so doing. She became progressively megalomaniacal over two millennia; her evolving status – both as perceived by herself and by others – is a twisting and interesting commentary in its own right, though not an essential to the plot.
Her mission was to send a population of monkeys (which were suspended in cold stasis, as were all interstellar travelers) down to the surface, then accelerate and guide their evolution through use of an engineered nano-virus which was to be separately sent down, designed to infect the monkey population only. However, an unknown member of NUN in her crew (non ultra natura – a group which vehemently opposed seeding the universe with humans, engineered or not), sabotages the re-entry. The monkeys are all destroyed, but the flask containing the virus reaches the planet intact, and has long-term tremendous, unanticipated results. The creators of the virus never imagined it might infect other species. The effect of the virus on spiders – whose existence on the planet was unknown to Dr. Kern (she was unsure whether some of the monkeys might have survived the sabotage) was dramatic, indeed, and this forms the warp on which the entire compelling story is beautifully woven. Dr. Kern waited a thousand years or so in and occasionally out of stasis, to be awakened finally by the Brin 2’s AI when her monkeys finally “phone home,” i.e. contact her when they became sufficiently cognitively advanced.
Told along with our introduction to Dr. Kern and the beginnings of her God complex, is the story of Earth’s destruction in a final war between the NUN’s and those who were about the business of seeding the universe with life. The fact that weapons had advanced but human restraint had not led to the end times. These events form merely the background for the story of what happens over a few millennia after Earth’s demise on and near “Kern’s planet.”
Much of the tale is told from the point of view of Dr. Holsten Mason, the classicist of the Key Crew of the starship Gilgamesh. His role was to understand history of the Old Empire and translate its dead language as the need arose (with Dr. Kern, for instance). The ‘cargo’ consists of 500,000 humans in deep cold stasis. Key Crew, on the other hand, are intermittently awakened by the ship’s AI, when specified or unexpected events occur. Gilgamesh attains speeds a large fraction of light speed over two thousand years by virtue of compact and near-limitless fusion reactors which power the ship.
Throughout, this book thoughtfully explores many aspects of human nature, both in the words of the well-fleshed-out characters and in their (and their society’s) deeds. Juxtaposition of human against the non-human nature of highly-evolved characters of different species, gives free reign to the author’s profound and literate insights into life’s possibilities and meaning generally and into various possible futures for humanity as well.
As a ‘meanings junkie’ and one who cannot help but ponder the long-term future of humanity, I found this to be thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking. It is truly awe-inspiring. A Must Read!