Synopsis: A series of four novelettes in stone-age settings exploring technological advancement.
Book Review: This is a hard novel to summarize. It would be called “historical fiction” perhaps, except that it happens in literal pre-historic times, so that technically doesn’t apply. :) Also, historical fiction usually focuses a fair bit on the actual historical events/people/places that we know from that era, which isn’t a primary focus of Antediluvian.
What Antediluvian does focus on is a sense of wonder, surviving cosmic forces, and technological advancement. It does this from the perspective of very ancient humans, though. So I think rather than pre-historical fiction, it would be most accurate to call this Cave Man Science Fiction. It takes the conventions and interests of classic SF, and puts them in a primitive human perspective.
In this regard, it feels very much like Roots of Progress, or Primitive Technology. Like both of those projects, this novel is fascinating. I know it’s not everyone’s thing, but seeing how our ancestors slowly made their way from banging rocks together to creating cities and sea-faring states that smelt iron is a wonderous thing to experience. There are many ways that telling this sort of story could have been boring, and McCarthy manages to avoid most of them. We get to experience what it could be like to work out how to make floating craft, and discovering that putting a spear tip in a fire can make it harder than before. We even get a peek into what it might have been like to be around when the very first technology was being invented, a tech I won’t spoiler here, but one so basic that it could arguably called that which made us human, and was partially evolved as much as it was created.
Every single one of these stories was engaging and felt like old-school SF to me in terms of tech-dependance, exploration, and wonder. However, it’s not all good. There is a framing story about a guy in the near future with some past-seeing device which, to be honest, seems completely unnecesssary. It felt like a distraction to me every single time. I didn’t care about this professor or his invention, and the framing device felt like something that was tacked on after the fact to tie the dissparate stories together. I didn’t need this, the stories were interesting on their own, and the professor’s story never had any stakes or tension. I just wanted to get back to the good stuff.
Likewise, like the classic SF this reflects, there isn’t much in terms of “characters” in these stories. There is enough to keep you interested and move you from one cool dicovery or action to the next, but they aren’t a major concern. I only vaugely remember any of the characters now, or the personal journies they went through. Normally this would be bad, because that’s usually what novels are written for. But not in this case. The heroes of these stories aren’t the individual characters, they are the human race as a whole. Our continued progress to know more of the world, and make it more managable and livable. In the style of Utopian SF that shows us how amazing the human race can be when we defeat death, conquer physics, and spread out to the stars, this novel shows us the first faltering steps in those processes, as we were first beginning to understand that we can make the world better and safer as we learn how it works and how it can be altered. Ultimately, I don’t need every story to be angst and drama. When its done well, the joy of exploration and science can carry an entire book.
I have to put in a personal disclaimer here – I know Wil McCarthy IRL, and I quite like him. He even wrote a guest-post on this blog when this book releasted. I have no illusions about the fact that this must inevitably color my reading of any of his works. I have strived to be as objective as I can, but there are limits to how much one can disentangle personal emotions when judging something that’s specifically designed to evoke emotions (like all art does). So, that’s a thing to keep in mind? Though if the book was bad, I either would have said that outright, or just not reviewed it at all to prevent hurt feelings.
As for recommendation — my metric is always “would I recommend this book to the me of the past that hasn’t read it yet as a good use of my time?” Initially, I was kinda torn on this. Antediluvian is a fine story, but it doesn’t have the pathos and drama that I so adore in fiction I read. It isn’t like the best thing I read in 2020 or anything. But on the other hand, it’s a lot better than much of what I did read in 2020. And, crucially, it has aged very well in my memory. A lot of novels that are fun at the time fade from my memory very quickly, and I can’t tell you much about them even after six months. Antediluvian, OTOH, still comes up in my mind from time to time, as something unique with an interesting perspective. I am glad I read it. I would put several things before this one in a strict ordering, but I would certainly include this on a list to myself of things I will be happy that I spent the time to read. Thus – Recommended.
Book Club Review: This is a harder call to make. The major problem with this book is expectations. Based on the cover, and the framing story that opens the book, almost everyone in our book club was expecting a near-future SciFi work. It’s not that — it’s prehistory novellas — and the clash of reality with expectation really threw a lot of readers off. They were frustrated by the back-and-forth of the novellas with the framing story, the feeling that whenever they were in the past it was a distraction from the “main story” (even though the prehistory novellas are the large majority of the word count), and the fact that the framing story didn’t have much substance. Again, I believe this would have been a better novel if the framing story was excised completely. After our discussion, several people said “I probably would have liked this if I thought I was reading prehistorical fiction, rather than expecting SF.”
I think, if you can set these expectations, there is a lot in here to talk about in terms of human developement and the history of technological advancement. Sadly, we didn’t quite get to that point. So, as is, probably Not Recommended. But with some initial intervention – possibly! If someone gets a chance to do this, please let me know how it goes, and I can updated this page.