The dockside air went straight to the back of the throat and stung the sinuses, icy cold and smelling of volatiles. It tasted like ice water and oil and it cut through coats and gloves the way the clean and the cold finally cut through the stink Bird smelled in his sleep and imagined in the taste of his food. Time and again you got in from a run and the chronic sight of just one other human face, and when you looked at all the space around you and saw real live people and faces that weren’t your face—you got the sudden disconnected notion you were watching it all on vid, drifting there with only a tender and a hand-jet between you and a dizzy perspective down the mast—worse than EVAs in the deep belt, a lot dizzier.
What was there to say? Civilization was like a mad dash that lasted five thousand years. Progress begot more progress; countless miracles gave birth to more miracles; humankind seemed to possess the power of gods; but in the end, the real power was wielded by time. Leaving behind a mark was tougher than creating a world. At the end of civilization, all they could do was the same thing they had done in the distant past, when humanity was but a babe:
Carving words into stone.
(Spoilers regarding The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest, obviously. Also some spoilers for this book. If you liked the first two, you’ll probably like this one too.)
Linguists will tell you the ancients were less sensitive to gendered language than we are, that we react to it because it’s rare, but that in ages that heard ‘he’ and ‘she’ in every sentence they grew stale, as the glimpse of an ankle holds no sensuality when skirts grow short. I don’t believe it. I think gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors as it is to us, but they admitted the place of sex in every thought and gesture, while our prudish era, hiding behind the neutered ‘they,’ pretends that we do not assume any two people who lock eyes may have fornicated in their minds if not their flesh. You protest: My mind is not as dirty as thine, Mycroft. My distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place. Would that you were right, good reader. Would that ‘he’ and ‘she’ and their electric power were unknown in my day. Alas, it is from these very words that the transformation came which I am commanded to describe, so I must use them to describe it. I am sorry, reader. I cannot offer wine without the poison of the alcohol within.
(Mild spoilers ahead. The book’s fantastic and I urge you to read it blind, if you’re willing to take my word for it.)