review of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novella Elder Race

Nyr sees the world through a sci-fi lens; Lyn sees the world through a fantasy lens. I enjoyed the book recounting the same conversations from both perspectives to show how the gap in language and worldview frustrates Nyr's attempts to communicate. He asks "Why are you here?"; she hears "For what purpose do you disturb the Elder?" Admittedly, the extent to which he seems unable to translate basic historical facts into the target language without mythologizing them strains credulity.

Nyr has a "dissociative cognition system" which allows him, at will, to stop feeling emotions. He remains aware of the emotions, just dispassionately. Fear and despair become mere data that hold no more sway over decision-making than any other considerations do. There's a nice twist though: the DCS doesn't eliminate feeling, just postpones it. At some point he has to turn off the DCS and deal with his emotional backlog, or it becomes overloaded and fails. Now, obviously, I want one. But let me ask you: if you had had such a device throughout your life, would you always have used it with restraint? How old would you have been when you first experienced something so overwhelming that you couldn't resist the temptation to try to leave your feelings turned off forever? My DCS would definitely have been busted more than once by now.

I appreciate the book's lack of appreciation for Star Trek-style noninterference policies. Nyr's society endorses something along the lines of the Prime Directive: he's not supposed to intervene in any way that would affect the natural development of the society he's observing. That sounds nice when you're thinking of cultures as objects, as jewels through whose process of formation you must wait patiently so that you can admire the end result. When you remember those cultures are made of people, the policy sounds monstrous.

...locals die, and that’s just a part of the study. We can see how they treat their dead and write bright little dissertations on what we think it means, and never actually know what it means or how it feels for them.

I am only now, at the wrong end of three centuries after loss of contact, beginning to realise just how broken my own superior culture actually was. They set us here to make exhaustive anthropological notes on the fall of every sparrow. But not to catch a single one of them. To know, but very emphatically not to care.