Monday, 29 February 2016

World Building in Shadows of the Apt

The world of the Apt is a fascinating one. Drawing on a vastly different set of sources to the vast majority of Fantasy fiction, being both modeled on the Classical world via Steampunk and using insect based races in a Shamanic bargain that bypasses gods and other forms of higher powers. Tchaikovsky has made some interesting choices in the creation of his world and there are places where they truly shine.

It is a world of empires and city states, sustained by martial law, fear, and magic or mystique. Only Collegium, our heroes, have experimented with democracy, in a fashion far more inclusive than ancient Athens ever did. The Ant cities, as Adrian pointed out in his interview, are basically Sparta without the Helots. The Wasps at least resemble the Persian Empire and there are other analogies. Khanaphes feels very Egyptian for instance. The Scorpions are more like the Bedouin, travelling tribes of nomads, while the Dragonflies are the culture who really seem to break the mold, being more like the Medieval period. The Sea Kinden dwell in a truly alien world, but still one that is based upon the city state, which is the basic building block of any polity here. Only the Dragonflies resemble anything like a kingdom, and that has been largely destroyed.

Let's look at the Kinden, those fascinating amalgams of man and invertebrate. They're a hard concept to wrap your head around in some ways. Each has a different look, and individual groups resemble different species of insect - so the Ants of Tark, Maynes and other Ant city states look different to each other, even if that's largely their skin tone (reflecting red, black, blue and other coloured ants). As I said in my general review I'd be fascinated to see what the massive colony of ants along the Mediterranean coast looked in the Apt's world. Conceptually the Kinden allow for a lot of different perspectives, and gives Tchaikovsky a lot of toys to play with, not just through modeling the behaviour of insects but through our interpretations of those behaviours as they're extrapolated to humanity. As a result there's at least an element of cliche in the mix, that Wasps are hot headed (and Hornets more so), that the Spiders are cunning, patient and Machievellan. In many ways this fits them into human understanding rather than leaving us with a huge alien landscape to navigate as readers. The exercise by and large leaves us with quite novel fantasy races, different to many of the other books out there.

At the same time, if we take the Inapt races as a chunk we can see correlations with other fantasy works. Consider the fate of Tolkien's elves, those beautiful fading, magical creations and then look at the Moths, Butterflies, Mantis, Dragonflies and so on and there are certainly ways that they echo each other. The fading power, the reversion to being recluses, their territoriality, their ancient secrets; all hint towards a dichotomy of the Elven peoples in a vast number of fantasy worlds. On a slight tangent, I feel that Spiders and the Melniboneans have a great deal in common, not least a large reliance on slave races to do their dirty work. Again, they represent fading glories and dying civilisations, even if the Spiders have not yet begun to feel the Revolution's bite one senses that soon they will, and that the great houses will probably hasten their own destruction by playing typical Spider games.

In a similar fashion the Wasps and the cliche Orcs, there are similarities between them, with the need to fight, for conflict and battles. One thing I applaud Tchaikovsky for is adding substantial depth to the Wasps, throwing away a 'baddies' perspective to explore a more nuanced approach of a conflicted race that in many way has simply moved its internal divisions into a more nuanced form of combat.

It would be easy to go through each Kinden drawing parallels to other work, but ultimately that would be pointless. Suffice to say that 'under the hood' the Kinden aren't entirely free of Tolkien's Shadow, though it is very hard to create anything entirely new especially in Fantasy. One only need to look at roleplaying games that try to recreate the wheel only to end up with classic races, only with different names, to see that.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the Kinden is the Ancestor Art, giving them access to magic without needing to become mystics. This ups the stakes of the novels, blending new ideas into what characters can do, while still keeping magic mysterious and dangerous. As 'true magic' seems more like the kind you find in Sword and Sorcery, full of peril and summoning forces as likely to destroy you as come to your aid, the Ancestor Art allows characters to do interesting things without going down that road. It also fits thematically, what would a Dragonfly be without the ability to fly? This trick, if we can call it that, allows Tchaikovsky to play with different aspects. From the Ants' telepathy (which gives us both the idea of outcasts who cannot allow themselves to be subsumed into the group mind and eventually an Ant psychopath who though he seems to be connected to the hive mind has such a strong sense of individuality that it has unhinged him), to the Wasps' sting the Arts enliven the setting. It is a shame that the Beetles' don't seem to have much in the way of Arts, and it feels as if the Revolution may have led to them overly rejecting their mystical side to focus on science. An interesting position for the race, who are arguably the central one, to be in.

The most interesting part of the relationship between the Kinden and the insects is the lack of religion in the setting, something that only becomes apparent at the end of the series. Sure, there are Mantis shrines where they undertake barbarous rituals and the text talks about bargains struck in the distant past, but the idea of religion, of Godhood is largely absent. At the end of the series it become a central theme. The Centipede spirit, extracted from within themselves by 'The Worm', is a mindless thing, all consuming but essentially just a force of nature (which is interesting to me because the work I'm undertaking at present also uses this as an idea). In contrast the salvation of the Mantis Kinden comes in the form of another God, or something as near as damn it to a God. A parental figure, determined her children should find their own path and destiny, an 'ur mantis' takes over the role of leader of the two remaining Mantis holds in the Low Lands. This is an entirely different view of godhood, one far closer to the modern Western ideal of what a deity should be. I find it interesting that the concept of Gods is introduced towards the end and that it takes such conflicting shapes.

On the flip side we have science, mostly dedicated to war (hardly surprising given how prominent that activity is in the series). It is here that the series travels through leaps and bounds via a steampunk collision with madness that transforms the world. Again the world building is interesting, not just because of the form the technology takes but from the ones it doesn't. For instance, we don't see the development of difference engines, or other forms of computing, and the bombers in the later books are dependent on slaves to launch their incendiary devices. The huge Sentinel automatons are operated by men, there's no danger of AI's blossoming in this world. There's also no sign of a domestic market, even in Collegium (this is entirely in keeping with steampunk and superheroes, where to introduce too much technology into 'the real world' would rapidly transform the setting into something the reader no longer recognises). While this latter problem isn't an issue for Tchaikovsky, this being a world based on cultures long dead, though he does portray a slave dependent world, and we know that one reason the Romans did not push their own industrial revolution forward was because of concerns over what they would do with all the slaves. Of course the other reason we don't see the domestic development is that, as  I said above, war is the focus and there's not much call for the equivalent of a modern oven in a world where you're mostly writing about people blowing each other up.

All in all this is an interesting world, one that's use of antiquity with modern technology renders it fascinating to read.