We humans encounter the world through a very limited set of senses, compared to much of the animal kingdom. Our visual acuity is good but our ability to see colours is crippled by nocturnal ancestors. Birds, reptiles and many grounds of invertebrates see far more bands in the rainbow (if there was a mantis shrimp pride march their flags would be incredible). Our hearing and smell are the shame of Mammalia. What to us is a satisfactory baseline would make dogs cringe with embarassment.
This is my first go-to when approaching a non-human character: the window on the world that the senses give. Obviously there’s more than that, but neuroscience and cultural tropes and the like are all going to be strongly influenced by the tools an entity has to perceive its surroundings.
Spiders have very much been my field of study, recently. I’ve given them the full science fiction treatment with Children of Time, and a counterpart fantasy treatment in Spiderlight. The two books required approaches that were different, but overlapping.
Portia and co. from CoT are salticids, meaning jumping spiders. They’re a very visual species backed by a broad range of other senses. I gave them a language that was based in gesture and dance, with the latter communicating mostly vibrations. Much of the rest of their baseline worldview came out of what the real Portia labiata spiders are capable of. They show an incredible capacity to map three dimensional space and plan routes, and this becomes a metaphor for their approach to solving larger and larger problems as their civilisation develops throughout the book.
Nth’s nameless people from Spiderlight are somewhat different. In his natural state, Nth is not very visual and his world is one composed almost entirely of touch. The language of his people is communicated along the twanging of web strands, so the very act of running to an emergency is simultaneously an alarm call. His initial stock of concepts is very simple – he knows about food and hunting and he knows about familial loyalty. Unlike Portia, whose anarcho-oligarchic society is formed of many loose-knit groups of relatives, Nth’s world is one of a single mother and a vast brood of siblings. (This sounds a bit insect-y, but where social behaviour evolves in spiders it often independently follows a ‘dominant breeding female’ route, just as with social insects.)
Portia and Nth both have their run-ins with humanity, of course, but Nth, the simpler creature, has a far steeper learning curve. As the humans have a use for him, and as they can’t exactly parade him through the lands of the good on a leash, Nth ends up shunted into an approximately human form. And he doesn’t like it one bit.
This is the key concept in Spiderlight – in fact the theme of both spider related narratives. Along with the exercise of the fantastic in dabbling with the experience and sensorium of the Other, that alien perspective lets us see ourselves in a new light (/vibration). Coming to terms with an internal skeleton and half as many limbs, Nth’s experience gives us a new view of ourselves – both in the physical and sensory spheres and in Nth’s take on the human culture he encounters (although he does start to like beer eventually). Later, when Nth meets more of his own true kind, he finds that he is sufficiently humanised to view them in a new way, too. Neither species escapes criticism. Nth cannot exactly to be said to stand between the angel and the ape, but certainly between the spider and the man. And with his newfound and unwanted semi-humanity comes the ability to be frustrated with what he is, and what he was, and the way the world is determined to treat him.
I get asked “Why insects?” a lot during Shadows of the Apt, and my stock answer was a terribly intellectual piece of reasoning invoking Kafka, Pelevin and Capek to discuss the insect as metaphor for human personality traits, when in truth I just really like insects and spiders and all the leggy little things of the world. But now I look back on Spiderlight and Children of Time, I think I’ve had a go at rising to my own challenge. Perhaps the giant spiders aren’t really the Other after all. Perhaps they’re inside all of us. Or maybe that’s not such a comforting image after all…
Also on CR: Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky; Guest Post on “Nine Books, Six Years, One Stenwold Maker“, “Art of Gunsmithing — Writing Guns of the Dawn” and “Looking for God in Melnibone Places: Fantasy & Religion“; Excerpt from Guns of the Dawn; Reviews of Empire in Black & Gold, The Bloody Deluge and Guns of the Dawn.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of the Shadows of the Apt series, Guns of the Dawn, Children of Time, The Tiger and the Wolf (all published in the UK by Tor Books) and Spiderlight. For more on his novels and writing, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.
On a personal note, I highly recommend Adrian’s work — his prose is excellent, and his gift for storytelling is easily among the best in SFF. If you’re nervous about starting a 10-book series, I’d recommend Guns of the Dawn as a great fantasy standalone novel and excellent place to start. Spiderlight, which is published on August 2nd, 2016, is also excellent, and a standalone.