At first glance, Spiderlight seems one of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s less substantial works. Not just because it’s too small to beat a hippo to death with, unlike his Shadows of the Apt. But because of the way it’s pitched, as an exciting quest fantasy.
And sure, it is exciting. It is fantasy. It is about a quest.
But it’s also a book that rearranges the furniture of fantasy quests, providing a fascinating reflection on the nature of good and evil.
The Rules of the World
Spiderlight starts with a group of heroes on a quest. It’s a familiar setup for anyone who’s played Dungeons and Dragons, watched a fantasy movie, or read a little book called The Lord of the Rings. It tells us that this is a world where huge problems can be fixed by small groups of heroes completing self-contained missions.
This is a style of story that brings a lot of assumptions with it. Not least is the idea, common to quest fantasies, that good and evil are intrinsic elements in the universe. Their existence, their interactions, and above all their opposition are fundamental to the mechanics of the world. In roleplaying games, this can extend to magic affecting only creatures of good or evil, to skills and abilities being limited based on these alignments, and to objects that detect the presence of evil like some kind of magical geiger counter. Good versus evil is a clear cut and well understood mechanic.
The idea that this duality is baked into the universe, like so many raisins in a Christmas cake, isn’t something that sprang fresh-formed from roleplay games. It’s an idea as old as religion. The Abrahamic religions in particular, with their battle between God and Satan, tend to look at the world this way. For many Christians, sin isn’t just another word for mistake, it’s a metaphysical taint upon someone’s being. And modern roleplay games, for all their pagan trappings, have emerged from a culture defined by that duality.
So when Spiderlight starts in the middle of a D&D-style quest, it’s setting us up to expect a clear duality. It’s something that the author, who’s a roleplayer himself, is clearly very aware of. And it’s an assumption he’s going to spend the rest of the book unpicking.
Because in reality, Spiderlight‘s world has a constructed morality, one far more shaped by modern philosophers than by Old Testament theologians.
Spider as Symbol
The most powerful symbol of this challenge to old-fashioned duality is the character of Nth. Nth is a giant spider, a creature of darkness and the “evil” side. A creature who, from early on in the book, is trapped in a semi-human form. He mixes features that the world’s inhabitants would recognise as signifying good and evil. He’s a creature of evil brought into a good cause. He’s breaking down familiar boundaries, whether he likes it or not.*
A spider is a perfect choice for this. Much like the quest narrative, it comes loaded with baggage. From Tolkien onwards, giant spiders have been portrayed as creatures of evil in fantasy fiction. In less fantastical adventure fiction, spiders often equal danger, like those tarantulas crawling all over Indiana Jones. When we talk about a spider at the heart of its web, we’re talking about something predatory and Machiavellian.
By making a giant spider into one of the protagonists, Tchaikovsky forces us to empathise with a creature we’re trained to see as evil. It’s a clear symbol of what the novel’s about to do, shaking up the quest fantasy’s familiar morality.
Acting Out Morality
Throughout Spiderlight, Tolkienesque metaphysical morality is contrasted with a more personal morality, in which good and evil are defined by how we treat others. In this regard, the characters who claim the strongest morality are often shown to be the most corrupt. Harathes, a knight in the service of the light, is revealed as an entitled sex pest with a cruel streak towards those who stand in his way. In contrast, professional thief Lief is the first of the supposed heroes to show kindness towards Nth, to make any effort to empathise with him.
This creates startling contrasts. We’re shown the difference between presenting as virtuous and living that way. An ethical system built on grand ideas is shown to be blind to the needs of real people, on whom an alternative value system is built. Some become so focused on the big picture and appearances that they lose sight of the reality of how people will be affected.
Look at the news on any given day, or worse yet social media, and you can see the same problems. From the President of the United States to bullies in a playground, from right to left, liberal to conservative, alt-right to social justice warriors, we all tend to tout our causes more than we listen to what’s driving people different from us. I’m not saying that all sides are equal in this, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a problem.
The Origins of Evil
Spiderlight ultimately moves on to explore the origins of morality in its universe. It’s a revelation that will seem familiar to anyone who knows their Old Testament, though as usual Tchaikovsky gives it his own twist.
This, more than anything, makes a point about where we are now. Because it’s vital that we consider who is defining our ideas of right and wrong, and in particular why they’re defining them that way. If we won’t interrogate those concepts, then we risk being manipulated in some very unsubtle ways.
Relevant to More than D&D
None of these themes I’ve mentioned are new. They’ve probably all been addressed in some form of fantasy literature by now. But by combining them with a traditional quest narrative, Spiderlight creates a sharp juxtaposition. It forces us to examine the nature of good and evil in fantasy literature. It encourages reflection on good and evil in the world. And ultimately, by its example, it shows why fantastical fiction can be so relevant to reality.
* He doesn’t like it. Not only is he being forced into actions against his will, but anybody becomes uncomfortable when their old certainties collapse. I could write a whole post on that, but let’s stick with a footnote.