I’ve been told, by a mostly reliable source, that as long as your ending is satisfying, you just can’t complain too much. As much as my instinct is to argue, I’ve mulled it over and find myself unable to substantially disagree. Perhaps it all comes down to preferences: is it the lure of a story that arouses emotion through admiration and joy, or one that uses the frisson of aggravation as a road to pleasure? The Doors of Eden most definitely chose frustration as it followed a group of mostly exasperating humans as they attempt to decipher strange incursions into their lives.
Structured with a dual narrative, it alternates more ‘academic’ pieces with a third-person limited viewpoint from one of a handful of characters. Although it’s a technique that often annoys me, Tchaikovsky uses it to good effect. The academic pieces are usually short, while the character narratives are full of action and conflict. He’s also kind enough to avoid leaving the reader on a cliff-hanger with each section. The academic writings are taken from a not-real book called ‘Other Edens: Speculative Evolution and Intelligence,’ while they have a drier, more academic tone, each examines a world where what humanity understands as evolution followed a more divergent path.
It is an extraordinarily long book that doesn’t feel long at all, which says something for Tchaikovsky’s ability to balance those edges with plotting. I found myself remembering the sympathetic spiders and irritating humans in Children of Time and wondered if he was making a similar point here.
“He lost most of the journey to that familiar adult tension that was a mix of “I should be doing something” and “I have possibly screwed up” with a side order of ‘I have just generated so much damn paperwork for someone, and that someone is probably me.'”
I’ll be honest: there were parts where I was so very vexed with characterization. Part was Tchaikovsky’s inconsistent and potentially sloppy characterization, while the other part was all me. There’s one young woman, Lee, whose character doesn’t make much sense. She goes ‘monster-hunting’ experience with bestie and lover, continues it after her lover disappears, and yet is absolutely flummoxed and overwhelmed with the monsters turn out to be ‘real.’ Our intrepid intelligence agents have children, but literally give almost no thought to them. They have the kind of ‘children’ that harken back to imaginary, pre-social revolution times, where they are mentioned but seem to have absolutely no bearing on ethics or decision-making. There’s a reason main characters are often childless–it’s so we don’t have to realize the characters are failing in being responsible to their progeny.
“She could feel herself teetering over a great well of despair. She had worked herself up for this; she had borrowed hope at a ruinous interest rate—one that she had no chance of paying back. She had, she forced herself to admit, been spectacularly stupid from start to finish.”
The all-me part? Oh, that’s because I like my characters to do a bit of learning, maybe have a bit of an arc. These people are largely static, despite great discoveries and supposed learning experiences, where horizons are, sometimes quite literally, opening around them. Lee is the only one who has any growth; Mal, Julian and Kay are all largely static, which is particularly frustrating, as Tchaikovsky seems to take pleasure in showing us exactly where they could grow.
You’re sensing my irritation, right? You should. At one point, I was actually reading for the academic interludes, which featured fascinating ideas on other evolutionary paths and tipping points. Creative and clever thought experiments that had their own drama, despite the faux-academic tone. I imagine if one had a whole book of these mini-epochal adventures, it might become dull, but cut between the action-filled human scenes, I found them intriguing. (mild spoilers). There were trilobites in the Cambrian, nautilus-like orthocones in the Ordovician (“Over ten thousand years, the ocean fills with their conversational flatulence”), the warrior sea-scorpion relatives of the Silurian seas (yes, I thought he was having fun with alliteration), the Devonian mudskippers and their climate correction, the Carboniferous cockroaches and their closed system, the aerial culture of the Permian pterosaurs, the weasels coming out of the Paleogene, the cats (I know he was laughing), the inbred, tribal lemurs and a few more.
I couldn’t quite walk away: He’d tease me with an idea, so I’d read a little farther, become irritated, and then tickle my imagination again. He’s good at stringing one along, that T. Then came the tipping point where I was hooked, and thoughts of extrication evaporated.
“This is a world where hard borders never existed: not between plant and animal, not between single and multicellular, not between species or individuals. It is a frontier town kind of world where the rules don’t apply. Something awoke when these creatures achieved a certain acreage, and what came to an awareness of itself was all of it. The world is a garden and the garden is a brain.”
All that build up lead to an absolutely amazing final quarter. It looked to be heading one way, then he’d magician another possibility out of the sci-fi hat. What a pleasure it must have been for a writer, getting to play with all those possibilities! (spoiler!) Everything more I could say would be spoilers, so I won’t. As an aside, if you thought Dark Matter failed to live up to its premise, this is the book for you. I went from considering abandoning it, to a better mood, to wondering if it was another entry by T. into Sci-Fi Canon. Because when he stops the teasing and it all comes together, it’s just that good.
Many thanks to Phil and Nataliya for the buddy read.