Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth raises questions about how good science fiction becomes epic science fiction. What makes a science fiction novel true space opera, in the best sense? Shards of Earth, the first book in Tchaikovsky’s new Final Architecture series, plays with the tensions and juxtapositions of scale and scope central to the beating heart of epic science fiction. If a story doesn’t get these right, it can have all the glossaries, timelines, alien cultures, and advanced technology an author likes, but it will only succeed in feeling dry and encyclopedic on the one hand or flat and overwrought on the other.
So let me say right off the bat: Shards of Earth nails it. It plays with these tensions of scale like a guitarist building chords, and the notes all work.
Let’s start with the human scale. A motley crew at the center of a science fiction epic needs to be a microcosm of the universe that the author has created around them. The characters should be people the reader can like and relate to and at the same time cyphers or representatives of the varied cultures and physicalities of an alien future. Tchaikovsky succeeds admirably here with his primary cast, the crew of the scavenger ship Vulture God. The human crew members each bring along their cultural referents; meanwhile Medvig, a person formed of a collective intelligence of synthetic insects, introduces the Hivers; and Kittering, the ship’s accountant who rents its own shell as advertising space, stands in for the crab-like Hannilambra race.
This balance works especially well with the two main characters. Myrmidon Executor Solace is first introduced as a potential antagonist, her primary object capturing the novel’s hero, the Vulture God’s navigator Idris Telemmier. In this pairing, besides romantic tension, Tchaikovsky introduces most of the major history of his universe. Solace is a member of the Parthenon, a technologically advanced race of parthenogenetically-reproducing women that separated from the rest of humanity a few generations ago. The contrast between the militaristic Solace and the meek, broken, and likeably pathetic Idris not only provides a nice reversal of science fiction tropes but connects to the broader scale of the book’s universe.
All this is key for that first tension that makes science fiction epic: every character should be a window into the broader universe. Each of Tchaikovsky’s characters is a wire pulling the rest of the universe close, latching onto or pointing out toward a culture, a world, an alien race. By doing this well, Tchaikovsky doesn’t need to spend time as an expositional tour guide or throw out any “as you know, Joe” dialogue. (The glossary, character list, and timeline come after the story, not before.) He can simply introduce his characters—which, in addition to Kittering, Medvig, Idris, and Solace, include Rollo, the Vulture God’s captain, Olian, an augmented drone specialist, Musoku the engineer, and Keristina, the lawyer who’s aboard to protect Idris’s legal independence. (Why a navigator would need a legal bodyguard is a perfect example of the sort of question Tchaikovsky poses in order to lead his readers from the character-scale to the broader political-scale of the novel.)
Once that first level is established, Shards of Earth brings a second level into play: human-scale politics. The conflict between the two primary interstellar groupings of humans—the Council for Human Affairs (“the Hugh”) and the Parthenon—find, as we’ve seen, their embodiment in the relationship between Idris and Solace. These political conflicts, alongside those among the scattered human colonies in the midst of which the Vulture God finds itself stuck, are, however, expertly represented as the scurrying of so many ants in the shadow of boots coming down. This second level—at first so apparently important—plays out in the shadow of the third and final level, and at a scale that science fiction can do so well because it has the scope of the entire universe in which to play.
It’s also at this third and final scale where the weight of this particular space opera rests: the scale of the ineffable, the transcendently huge and utterly ungraspable. In Tchaikovsky’s universe, this scale is represented by the Architects, and readers are dropped immediately among the scattered anthills of humanity as the boots of the Architects come stomping. Architects are sentient, mobile planets that appear in inhabited systems and resculpt entire worlds into alien works of art—in the process destroying all life with a deliciously chilling inscrutability. Indeed, they appear to be unaware of life, or even that life is possible on such a small scale.
In the years before the novel opens, humanity was not so much making war on the Architects as fleeing from planet to planet trying to find any method to stop them. This is unfolded in a series of flashbacks, during the course of which it’s revealed that eventually the Hugh succeeded at creating human minds—thought-soldiers—who could provide a bridge to the planet-sized minds of the Architects. Even this was only enough to say, “we are here,” but that slight contact caused the Architects to vanish as mysteriously as they came. Most of the thought-soldiers (called Intermediaries) died quickly under the mental strain—but we discover that Idris is a survivor, and has lived for years after the war’s conclusion, trying to pass life quietly aboard the scavenger ship Vulture God while protected from the Hugh’s political grasp by Keristina’s constant legal vigilance. 
Since the end of the Architect War, the factions of humanity that united to stop them have drifted apart. A rift has formed between the Hugh, who developed the Intermediaries, and the militant Parthenon, with whom they refuse to share the secret of the Intermediaries’ creation. And, in another clever reversal of science fiction tropes, many human colony worlds are leaving the Hugh to join the Hegemony, an alien empire ruled over by the mollusk-like Essiel, the only race able to provide any protection from the Architects. No Essiel-ruled world endured Architect attack, so for many human colonies the cost of worshipping the Essiel seems a small price to pay for safety.
Playing across these three scales—the scale of characters, the political background those characters are struggling within, and the larger level of planet-scale intelligences—Tchaikovsky’s terse prose keeps the narrative engine firing at each level. And as the novel progresses, there are sharp twists on each of these levels as well: a job that goes sidewise early on results in the death of several major characters; our assumptions about the cultural and political aspects of the universe are turned on their ear when the Vulture God is hired by an Essiel crime lord; and the largest scale itself spirals out into something even bigger when Idris learns—just in time to end this first volume on a cliffhanger—that the Architects are returning … but only because something even larger, more powerful, and less comprehensible is driving them. There are gods behind the gods, it seems.
In the right hands, of course, a good science fiction novel could be written that was focused on any one of these scales: constrained to the dynamics of a single crew on a single ship, focusing more exclusively on the political rivalries between worlds, or putting the emphasis on a sense of wonder. But it’s Tchaikovsky’s flawless layering of these three in Shards of Earth that makes this novel feel epic—and sets the stage for a series of definite interest to anyone with a passion for sprawling space opera.
 There is definitely a Firefly vibe here, as Idris and the Vulture God do their best to stay under the radar of the centralized human authorities, though instead of Reavers there are the inscrutable world-sized Architects that no one is sure won’t return at any moment, and the Hugh comes off less one-sidedly malevolent than Firefly’s Alliance. Tchaikovsky does a good job building readers’ empathy for everyone who wants to control Idris. Who could be blamed for wanting to keep tabs on humanity’s only viable weapon against planet-disassembling aliens? [return]