Gary Rendell is living the dream. One of a handpicked international team of astronauts on board the Quixote, he’s been sent out to the very edge of the solar system to investigate a strange, gravity-defying structure known variously as the Artefact or the Frog God, due to the gaping holes in its surface that suggest eyes and a mouth. There’s no doubt that this object has been constructed by intelligent beings, but what is it? Gary and his team are there to find out. But when we meet Gary, some time after their expedition sets out into the Artefact, dream has become nightmare. He’s alone, desperate, driven half-mad by the psychological tricks of this alien labyrinth. As he fumbles his way through the darkness, he becomes aware of something scratching at the edge of his mind; something calling him; luring him. But Gary Rendell is in no mood to be lured. He’s been through hell and back; these endless corridors have changed him, and all he wants is to get home. But, when we’ve experienced so much, is it ever possible to go home? There’s certainly a monster in this dark esoteric maze; but is Gary its victim?
I haven’t read Adrian Tchaikovsky before, although I’ve been tempted at various points by both his fantasy and his sci-fi. This novella seemed like a good place to start and I thoroughly enjoyed its mixture of old-school adventure and psychological thriller. If asked to describe it in one phrase, I’d probably say it feels like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Beowulf. Make of that what you will. Tchaikovsky starts us off with a familiar concept: the doughty international team ready to go where no man has been before, courageously stepping forth into the hallowed passages of some unidentifiable alien thing in order to increase the sum of human knowledge. Tchaikovsky plays with the cliches of the genre. Obviously, in such a situation, there will be monsters lurking in the shadows. The team will gamely push on, and expendable characters will be lost; but our hero will somehow survive in the depths and become clued in to the vast meaning of this extraterrestrial object. All well and good. Except that this theory relies on the fact that the object is somehow there for humans to understand. It relies on us being the intended recipients of its wisdom. It relies on the human brain being able to grasp what it encounters. And, as Gary Rendell is about to find out, that ain’t necessarily so.
Gary Rendell comes from Stevenage and, quite frankly, wouldn’t have signed up if he’d known what the mission would have in store. He’s walked for weeks or months – who knows how long? – in a place where there is no sense of time passing. He passes through pockets of unusual atmospheres or strange gravity. He has encountered alien travellers, like himself, trudging along corridors or, occasionally, lying dead within them. Gary has learned to eat where he can, and to fight back against the strange denizens of the Crypts, as he’s come to call this eternal labyrinth. His mission – or pilgrimage – has honed him in ways he can’t fully understand, but he discovers that he has somehow transcended what it means to be human, in strength and ferocity. He can slay horrific predators with his bare hands, but is still British enough to feel just that little bit awkward:
I’ve utterly disembowelled it… I am victorious. I am savage. I beat my chest and howl like an animal. After that, listening to the echoes of my whooping bounce back to me from the walls of the Crypt, I have the grace to feel somewhat embarrassed. I am British, after all, and I feel my behaviour may have crossed some subtle line of etiquette Let us never mention this again, Toto.
Toto – that’s us. We are the silent listener inside Gary’s head: his sole companion as he trudges deeper into the Crypts. And we are the witness to the fact that all is not quite right with Gary. As he passes through the Crypts, surviving the creatures which killed his colleagues, fighting against hostile environments, his body forming and reforming in a kind of accelerated evolution, he risks leaving behind all that makes him human. Certainly, there may be monsters in the depths. But what if we’re the monster?
Playful, ironic and yet deeply unsettling, this is a claustrophobic vision of man meeting other intelligent beings, in a way that he can’t control, can’t comprehend and can’t endure. It undermines the human-centred nature of so much science-fiction, but also turns sci-fi into a psychologically-scrambled tale of terror. It’s a quest with an end, an answer, that we almost can’t bear to contemplate. And it’s both clever and compelling. Based on this, I’ll be seeking out the rest of Tchaikovksy’s works very soon.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review