Shards of Earth review: A rip-roaring space opera with a psychic twist

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The price of piloting through the mysterious unspace is horribly high

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Shards of Earth

Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Tor (out on 27 May)

MOST tales of clashing alien civilisations require some mind-blowing science to let ships cross the vast distances between stars. This might involve shortcuts through hidden dimensions, Star Trek’s powerful warp drives or, as in Douglas Adams’s satirical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the new laws of mathematics invoked when you drunkenly try to settle a bill after a long meal in an Italian restaurant.

Usually, the secrets behind space travel are a minor detail. However, in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest work, Shards of Earth, the mechanism – in this case a hidden dimension – has freakish psychological effects that are integral to the plot.

Tchaikovsky was awarded the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke prize for Children of Time, which won praise for its sympathetic portrayal of a race of oddly endearing spiders.

Shards of Earth is more traditional sci-fi fare: a rip-roaring space opera featuring starship battles, genetically enhanced superhumans and multiple weird and wonderful aliens. Some trade with humans, others try to enslave them, while the mysterious and menacing Architects seem to barely notice humans as they go about destroying their planets.

Architects are entities the size of moons and their godlike abilities mean they can reshape space and matter as they see fit. For unknown reasons, their favourite pastime seems to be turning other people’s spaceships – or entire worlds – into filigree sculptures that are wholly incompatible with life.

“The mysterious Architects barely notice humans as they go about destroying their planets”

In this universe, ships move between the stars by popping in and out of a weird realm called unspace. Piloting through it can be mastered only by humans who have had sinister things done to their minds in a programme of chemotherapy and psychosurgery that few can survive.

Anyone capable of piloting ships in this manner, such as one of the book’s protagonists, Idris Telemmier, becomes immensely valuable and in constant danger of being kidnapped and put to work by gangsters or space fleets.

As the book opens, Telemmier has been trying to stay under the radar, working in a team of misfits who salvage wrecked spaceships. But the strange, psychic powers of unspace pilots happen to be one of the few ways of communicating telepathically with the Architects. As war with the Architects looms, Telemmier sees his chance of living a peaceful life dwindle.

To add to the troubles, piloting in unspace isn’t good for the human brain: it reacts by creating the sensation of a predatory presence that can send people insane. Passengers on ships travelling between the stars can enter artificial sleep, but pilots must stay awake. Telemmier hasn’t slept in 47 years, and sometimes it shows.

Tchaikovsky writes in convincing detail about the effects of unspace. One of the book’s most gripping passages comes when a non-psychic crew mate of Telemmier has to enter this realm awake due to a technical hitch and we accompany her descent into near-madness.

My one complaint is that the book falls into the sci-fi trap of being occasionally hard to follow, with so many alien species, worlds and characters to track. But this wasn’t a deal-breaker and things improved once I discovered the glossary and timeline at the back of the book. Shards of Earth is the first part of a trilogy and I can’t wait to read the next one.

Clare also recommends…

Short story

Difficult Times

Adrian Tchaikovsky

If you are a Tchaikovsky fan, check out this short story he wrote for New Scientist , about why a failing fringe electro band may have plugged into a cosmic secret.

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