This book is full of marvelous science fiction elements, building not only a vision of a future academia on Earth, but also a society of termites and their distant world, and several other alien species already interacting with humanity.
I found it a compelling read, however, I also had some frustrations. The book begins with a biological expedition gone wrong: while exploring and collecting specimens, the party is attacked by a giant warrior termite. They succeed in killing it, and bringing home a smaller specimen. On the journey, one of the team leaders begins to suspect the creature is intelligent, and brings in a young linguist to study the termite in its dying hours.
The scenes between the doomed bug and its human interpreter are beautiful and moving, and they set me up to want more human/termite interactions. Alas, in this volume, that is not to be. The book alternates between scenes of Kaitrin and Gwidian, the other team leader who initially does not believe the creatures are intelligent, and scenes on the termite world, where the human incursion has caused turmoil which may lead to the equivalent of civil war.
Most of the book takes place in dialog. For a book about a linguist, that makes a certain amount of sense, but the dialog is serving every purpose: it provides backstory, exposition, conflict and even description. The trouble with dialog is that it reads in real-time, as if you are listening to a conversation. In a book consisting almost entirely of dialog, that makes it very hard to manage the pace–everything unfolds at the same rate.
Many of the conversations at the outset take place during committee meetings to plan the voyage. Some of this is vital information we’ll need in order to understand Kaitrin’s linguistic leaps–but often it’s simply too much. Also, most of the dialog is “on the nose”: it is about exactly what it says, with little conflict, tension, subtext or character development.
The author has made the choice to portray her termite characters entirely through dialog, with occasional stage directions, due to their sensory limitations. This is a choice that fits with their world, but also limits the author’s range in presenting them to the reader. The feel of these sections is almost like Greek drama. I think the effect could have been heightened by thoroughly investing in the sensory information in the human-narrated passages–showing the reader how different the two species are.
The science fiction content, especially the linguistic approach and the alien societies, is fascinating stuff and made me want to read on, in spite of the book’s stylistic flaws.