Last year I recommended Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, a novel about the far future involving a struggle between an interstellar ark of refugees from a dying Earth and an accidental civilization of uplifted spiders over the one terraformed world known to be available.
Children of Ruin is a sequel, although a substantial portion of it actually takes place before most of the events in Children of Time. Similar to the first book, this one has two major threads, although in this case, one of the threads is in the distant past, while the other takes place after the first book.
The first “Past” thread starts off with a terraforming project, but in a completely different solar system from the first book. In this case, the terraformers discover that the planet they intend to terraform has life, the first alien life ever discovered.
The commander of the mission proposes to study the alien biosphere instead of wiping it out in the terraforming process. However, his second in command, a man named Disra Senkovi, proposes that a part of the team study the planet with alien life, while another part move on to a planet further out from the star, an ice world with an underground ocean, and terraform it instead. The commander agrees and the team splits up.
Like in the first book, the team originally planned to use an engineered virus to uplift an implanted version of chimpanzees so they can maintain the machinery and prepare the planet for humans. However, since the ice world will be terraformed largely into a water world, Senkovi, a lover of octopuses, starts experimenting on giving the virus to octopuses, who quickly gain in intelligence, so quickly in fact that they start to cause trouble.
Like in the first book, a substantial part of this one is about a developing civilization, but this time instead of spiders, we have octopuses. While the spider civilization in the first book was pretty alien by human standards, the octopus one is barely comprehensible.
Tchaikovsky gives us plenty of scenes from the point of view of the octopuses, and it is exceedingly strange. He works the distributed nature of the octopus brains into these perspectives. The perspective of the octopus characters comes from their “crown”, their central brain, but this is more like the emotional center of the system, with the intellect residing in their “reach”, the brains in each arm. The result is highly emotional entities that think what they want to have happen, and then watch as actions are carried out by their reach, that is their distributed nervous system.
Meanwhile, the other part of the crew is studying the alien life. At first, that life seems interesting but limited. There is complex life, but none of it seems very intelligent. There are interesting evolutionary ideas here on alternate biology, such as the animals having hydrostatic support structures rather than bones.
Things become grim when signals from Earth indicate an increasingly cataclysmic war, then send an attack computer virus to all the terraforming projects, and finally go silent. The crew suddenly don’t know if anyone is left alive back home. They briefly debate returning to Earth, but it would take decades with no guarantee of finding anyone. So they soldier on a best they can, but as the silence continues for decades and centuries, they become increasingly depressed and fatalistic, wondering if there remains any point to their efforts.
It’s at this point that something on the alien planet is awakened. It turns out that there is an intelligence there and it decides to investigate the new occupants in the only way it knows how, a horrifying way that sets up the central conflict of the novel.
The second “Present” thread starts with the mission from Kern’s world that began in the epilogue of the first book, following the interstellar signal detected from another star. That star turns out to be the one from the Past thread. The crew is a mixture of humans and spiders, as well as a computer system occupied by the persona Avrana Kern, the uploaded terraformer from the first book.
Among the human / spider crew is a human man and male spider, named Meshner and Fabian respectfully, who are experimenting with exchanging spider “understandings”, the memories that spiders can share among themselves. Meshner, like all characters in the book, has an implant that allows him to communicate with information systems. The experiments involve enhancing Meshner’s implant and experimenting on his brain.
In the process, they stumble on an ability to upload Meshner’s personality, although they don’t realize it. Kern does realize it when she accidentally experiences emotions through Meshner’s implant. Craving more, she surreptitiously begins using his implant to experience feelings she hadn’t had in millenia.
The human and spider explorers come into contact with the octopus civilization and become embroiled in the many octopus conflicts, as well as their overall conflict with the force from the alien planet.
The book switches back and forth between the Past and Present threads. We see in the Past thread how the situation presented in the Present one develops, and watch as the explorers come ever closer to the peril from the planet.
Like the first book, this one ends up being an exploration of different kinds of minds. I discussed the octopus minds above, but the mind of the alien intelligence is explored, Kern’s perspective as an uploaded entity, the differing viewpoints of humans and spiders, and Meshner’s experience attempting to access spider memories, as well as the one of having Kern in his head. A crucial plot point of the book is the struggle for all these different types of mind to communicate with each other.
The science of the book is mostly solid, although the abilities of the alien entity at times might have been thermodynamically questionable. As in the first book, this is a universe where faster than light travel or communication isn’t possible, so travel between stars takes years.
So, a book with a lot of ideas, and a good amount of action. Thoughtful space opera with a good helping of exobiology and exploration of different types of minds. Oh yeah, with some horror mixed in for good measure. If that sounds attractive, I think you’d enjoy this book. Though I do recommend only reading it if you’ve first read Children of Time.
20 thoughts on “Recommendation: Children of Ruin”
Once again, I’m confounded by having both a TO-READ list and a TO-BUY list. This sounds interesting, but there’s a line… 🙂
I gulped down the Amazon Prime adaptation of Good Omens this weekend. It’s one of my favorite books, and with one of the authors writing the scripts, they really nailed it. Very good adaptation.
I also finally got around to watching the last 10 episodes of season three of The Expanse, and that I found a bit disappointing. As you mentioned, they really get into the territory of Clarke’s Third Law, and it was a bit much for me. The ending seemed somewhat contrary to all that had happened in the series, but maybe it’s better explained in the books.
But the main thing I noticed was the pacing. The first two seasons seemed taut with many things going on. The third season was often tedious and dull with not much happening. Seemed to be a lot of padding. By the time I got to the end, I was kinda glad it was over. I think I only watched the last four or five episodes hoping for a good explanation of what was going on. (And I don’t feel I got it.)
All-in-all, a decent series, definitely a thumbs up, but ultimately a little disappointing in how it resolved. I enjoyed the set up way more than I did the payoff. [shrug]
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Definitely we can’t all read everything. And I’d be surprised if anyone read all the stuff I recommend here, just as I don’t read most of the stuff other people review.
Never heard of Good Omens before. Thanks! Looks interesting.
Sorry you found The Expanse disappointing.
For some reason they spent a lot of time on the second book (up to the creation of the ring) and then rushed through the third book (to the opening of the rest of the gates). That was puzzling because the third book was a lot more eventful. The only reason I could see is that the events of the third book were more expensive to show.
If you found the last five episodes to be like filler, then it means they failed to get you interested in the conflicts between the different factions. One of them, the one about whether the ring environment should be destroyed, they actually made less vivid by having it be an intra-OPA conflict, where in the book it was a fight between religious conservatives and everyone else. Maybe the show felt that would be too political.
Certainly they didn’t answer all of the questions. The original purpose of the protomolecule was to construct the ring gate. (The humans playing around with it were like monkeys trying to use construction equipment.) But they left a major question unanswered; what happened to the civilization that produced the ring system? That isn’t answered until much further in the series.
Or were there other answers you were hoping to see?
“Never heard of Good Omens before. Thanks! Looks interesting.”
Much depends on taste, of course, but it really is one of my favorite books. If you’d ever read and of Pratchett’s Discworld, that would give you a sense of its flavor.
Imagine if Douglas Adams had been even better, although that’s not the right way to put it. Hitchhiker’s Guide is a supernova — unparalleled. Pratchett is a galaxy of wonderful stars. Likewise Neil Gaiman.
“Sorry you found The Expanse disappointing.”
Only a bit. Overall my opinion of it is positive. One yardstick for me is whether I see something as re-watchable. This one … maybe, but it’s borderline (especially since I’ve seen season two twice, now). It’s possible I might watch the first season again someday.
“The only reason I could see is that the events of the third book were more expensive to show.”
That can certainly affect things.
“If you found the last five episodes to be like filler, then it means they failed to get you interested in the conflicts between the different factions.”
Very much not. It’s the sort of thing people love, apparently, but (especially in today’s world) people being the worst of humanity not something I enjoy or find entertaining. I like stories about people rising above and showing what humanity is capable of.
“The original purpose of the protomolecule was to construct the ring gate.”
Yeah, I got that much, but I would have liked more about the events on Venus.
And the ending… let’s all turn off our fusion drives and that’ll signal this system that we’re not a threat… That seemed a bit facile.
And the bit with Miller… was he a rogue in the system helping the Roci crew or part of the system. What was the point of Holden completing the circuit?
I do have to say I was glad Drummer didn’t die like I was sure she was going to there. She was my favorite character. 🙂
“I like stories about people rising above and showing what humanity is capable of.”
In a human vs nature sort of way? Or is human vs human okay as long as one side is rising above (and the other side isn’t)?
I’m noticing a trend of a human vs some overwhelming force (like the protomolecule or the White Riders in GoT) coupled with human vs human conflict. In truth, that’s an old pattern. Even LOTR had a lot of human vs human conflict mixed in with the human vs orcs / Black Riders / Saruman / Sauron conflict.
“but I would have liked more about the events on Venus.”
Venus was really just the protomolecule constructing the ring using all the energy available in the Venusian environment. (The science station thing was something added that wasn’t in the books. I guess to remind everyone that the protomolecule was still there and doing something?)
“And the bit with Miller… was he a rogue in the system helping the Roci crew or part of the system.”
In the book, you get the idea that the system is using Miller’s persona to communicate with Holden. Miller himself even says as much at one point. Although the show heavily curtailed a lot of that discussion.
“What was the point of Holden completing the circuit?”
Can’t recall if that was in the book. The show may have added it for drama.
“I do have to say I was glad Drummer didn’t die like I was sure she was going to there. She was my favorite character. :)”
She’s a good character, but they actually expanded her role a lot from the book, and ended up cutting another pretty memorable character in the process, a cut that I thought made the story less enticing.
“In a human vs nature sort of way?”
Yeah, that’s about right. I like stories about people solving problems or building things. There needs to be a certain amount of conflict for drama’s sake, but I don’t care for the modern trend of low intelligence hot-heads who turn out to be right because script.
I very much enjoy stories in that have one agreeing with parts of what the “bad guy” believes. Black Panther, for example, was very good that way. People who are misguided seem more real to me than cartoon villains.
My favorite theme of all is redemption, so I especially like stories in which the misguided encounter the error of their ways. I like growth and discovery.
A lot of it has to do with a long-standing view that the bulk of human misery comes from these very kinds of characters people seem to love seeing in their drama. On some level I can’t fathom why people would want to wallow in the worst humanity has to offer (which is kinda how I see GoT). To me it’s something we should be turning our backs to, not consuming like pizza.
And don’t get me started on Nazis. “I hate those guys.”
“In truth, that’s an old pattern.”
It sure is. Used to be gods and fate. Now it’s alien protomolecules! 🙂
“The science station thing was something added that wasn’t in the books.”
As an example of the sort of thing I was just talking about, the two main characters on that science ship, the commander and the scientist. They start out as opponents, find common ground, and become friends working together. I liked that so much. I was hoping to see more of them, find out what happened. Ah, well.
You’re probably right that it was to keep it in viewers’ minds.
“In the book, you get the idea that the system is using Miller’s persona to communicate with Holden.”
That’s what I couldn’t figure out. If the system is aware enough of humanity to communicate with Holden, why all the “turn off the fusion drive” drama? If the system understood things well enough to communicate with Holden, then it should have understood the full situation.
Alternately, if Miller was a “rogue AI” in that alien system… well, that didn’t make much sense to me, either.
And as dramatic devices go, the “coy guide” who only reveals bits and pieces… is a trick I really don’t like. It’s always a trick to keep the viewer/reader from the Big Reveal.
“She’s a good character, but they actually expanded her role a lot from the book, and ended up cutting another pretty memorable character in the process, a cut that I thought made the story less enticing.”
Ah, the perils of knowing the source material. That would have completely escaped me, obviously. Never knew what I was missing. I just find very severe, very competent women very attractive.
“(which is kinda how I see GoT)”
“They start out as opponents, find common ground, and become friends working together. I liked that so much.”
You might find the last two seasons of GoT more satisfying than the earlier seasons. There are a lot of alliances that get formed and a lot of people work together, allied against the threat from the north. Of course, it’s still GoT, so it keeps going after that threat is eliminated, and it’s not all sweetness and light. 🙂
“If the system is aware enough of humanity to communicate with Holden, why all the “turn off the fusion drive” drama?”
In the book, it’s different parts of the technology. If I recall correctly, it’s the systems generated by our solar system’s copy of the protomolecule working to get the old gate system back up. So, actually two different systems. The Miller ghost is actually generated by a bit of left over protomolecule in the Rocinante cargo hold.
“And as dramatic devices go, the “coy guide” who only reveals bits and pieces… is a trick I really don’t like.”
It’s definitely a plot gimmick to reveal what the author(s) want to reveal while holding back some mysteries. I think the conceit with Miller was that he’s a glitchy translation interface that the alien technology is trying to work through, without fully understanding how humans work. All very convenient to ensure we only get the answers the authors want us to have right now.
“Of course, it’s still GoT,”
Right, and none of the elements (Medieval, kings, dragons, zombies, assholes) attract me. The Expanse is way more my cuppa. When it comes to fantasy, I’m much more Pratchett-Gaiman-Asprin-Zelazny than Jordan-Martin. When it comes to fantasy, I like zany and mythological. 🙂
Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series is a good example (and recommended for some goofy light reading). College student smoking pot in his dormroom is transported, by a wizard turtle, to a fantasy realm where humans are just one species among various intelligent animal species. Magic works, no tech, Medieval society. Great perils abound, hence the need for a hero. Who invokes magic with rock lyrics, which can only be used once, and always have somewhat unpredictable results. Hilarity, peril, adventure. (Until I got that Wiki link, I didn’t realize there are two more books in the series. My TO-BUY list just got bigger. [sigh])
“So, actually two different systems.”
Oh, that makes way more sense!
“The Miller ghost is actually generated by a bit of left over protomolecule in the Rocinante cargo hold.”
Now that you say that, there was one shot of the stuff in the third season. I remember thinking, “Oh, yeah! I wondered when that would pay off.” I’d managed to keep it in mind for a while, but had forgotten it.
Speaking of which, whatever happened to the samples Naomi turned over to Fred Johnson?
“I think the conceit with Miller was that he’s a glitchy translation interface that the alien technology is trying to work through, without fully understanding how humans work.”
The show did kind of communicate that. The problem is that they were able to make him a pretty good Miller in terms of persona, which seems a harder task than managing what information he might pass on.
(It’s kind of a variation on what I think of as “the Mork and Mindy” problem: the humor revolves around Mork’s lack of understanding of human culture (a “fish out of water”), but the humor actually depended on a deep understanding of that culture.)
That’s kind of my conflict (besides my perception of the pacing) with the resolution. On the one hand, the protomolecule doesn’t understand all these things, but yet it seems to understand other things pretty darn well. And, of course, the divide is convenient to the plot.
There are stories that feel like the conclusion was determined, and then the author(s) figured out how to get there. And then there are those that grow from an idea or character or situation and the plot and goals are often more organic that way. (Not that both techniques aren’t good.)
I think the main difficulty with the former is that the plot logic can sometimes be shaky due to the needed conclusions. The plot logic has to work in service of a desired result. When an author is “letting the plot speak for itself” it seems more likely the plot logic would be more solid. Characters do things because of who they are versus because they need to.
Maybe I’m just sensing how, at that point in the ride, the tracks had to go in a certain direction. And, as you suggested, I wasn’t captured by the factions’ friction. (I did like how they spun up that Mormon ship and invited everyone who needed some g-force aboard. That’s the kind of rising above I mean.)
“Now that you say that, there was one shot of the stuff in the third season.”
Yeah, technically I dumped a spoiler on you when I revealed that. They eventually figure it out in the books and remove it. Miller’s visits cease after that.
“Speaking of which, whatever happened to the samples Naomi turned over to Fred Johnson?”
Good question. That didn’t happen in the book, so not sure what they plan to do with it in the show.
The Expanse authors are outliners, so they probably are guilty at times of bending the plot to their eventual outcome. The books mostly handle it well, but the show is probably a little more prone to cut corners.
As you note, one of the benefits of being a pantser (as in “by the seat of your pants”) is that you’re unlikely to get that forced plot feel. Although pantsers sometimes come up with endings that feel…haphazard, like they got tired of writing, found a plausible way to end it, and went for it.
The good thing about pantsing is that you’re unlikely to write any boring scenes. The bad thing is that the resulting structure may not be satisfying, and it might take a lot of rewriting to fix it. (I pantsed my Nanowrimo novel, and while the result wasn’t awful, I wasn’t satisfied with it.)
In truth, now that I think about it, the faction conflict in the book felt a bit forced. The whole conflict with Clarissa Mao dominated the first 75% of the book, together with Holden’s exploration of the station. And the show heavily abbreviated what was an epic fight between Naomi and Clarissa in the book. In the book, Naomi had to win it by herself. Anna never shows up. And both her and Clarissa come out severely bloodied. But even in the book, the battle at the end felt like it happened because it needed to for plot reasons. (The book was still awesome though.)
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“That didn’t happen in the book, so not sure what they plan to do with it in the show.”
I hadn’t realized Amazon was doing a fourth season. Cool!
“Although pantsers sometimes come up with endings that feel…haphazard,…”
Yeah, or even whole plots! 🙂
“…like they got tired of writing, found a plausible way to end it, and went for it.”
You know that thing about Neal Stephenson being notoriously bad at endings? A lot of his early books just kind of stop at some point. I wonder if that isn’t a greater danger with “idea” books, like his. Even if one does work by outline. Having covered the ground — explained all the stuff to explain — maybe that last bit isn’t interesting. (I can certainly relate the feeling to certain kinds of project work.)
I suppose the best thing (as usual) is a blend of techniques. Top-down and bottom-up. Some kind of outline, but following where the characters lead. True in software design; I’d imagine likewise in building a story.
“The whole conflict with Clarissa Mao dominated the first 75% of the book,”
That whole plot line kinda came outta nowhere for me. No hint of it in the first two seasons (that I noticed, anyway). Did they plant any Easter Eggs on that?
Given how far gone she was, her redemption felt a bit forced. But I can see an off-screen story where everything she’s done weighs more and more on her. That doesn’t really come through on-screen, though. She just seemed insane.
“I hadn’t realized Amazon was doing a fourth season. Cool!”
Definitely. It should be coming out some time soon. (I actually would have thought it’d been out by now.)
“Yeah, or even whole plots!”
I read something recently that if a writer has to choose between having most scenes be entertaining or having the overall story structure be good, that they should choose to keep scenes interesting. Apparently readers gripe about lousy endings, but keep reading the author if the rest of the book was good. Supposedly the same isn’t always true for brilliantly plotted books with dull stretches. Makes sense when you think about it. We read a book to be entertained, not to work our way to being entertained.
“You know that thing about Neal Stephenson being notoriously bad at endings?”
Alastair Reynolds had the same issue with a lot of his early stuff. It’s like he reached a point where he didn’t know how to end it, found something semi-plausible, and put it down to wrap it up. He’s gotten better in the later books.
“That whole plot line kinda came outta nowhere for me. No hint of it in the first two seasons (that I noticed, anyway). Did they plant any Easter Eggs on that?”
They briefly mention at some point that Julia Mao has a sister, one that the father is much more happy with, but that’s about all I remember. (I probably wouldn’t have caught it if I hadn’t already known Clarissa was coming.) Clarissa is a viewpoint character in the book, but in that book she also mostly comes across as insane. It’s only toward the end, when as a prisoner on the Rocinante, she starts to see the crew as people, that she begins to climb out of it, but it’s far more subtle in the book. She doesn’t have any one big redemption moment in the book like the show had.
“I read something recently that if a writer has to choose between having most scenes be entertaining or having the overall story structure be good, that they should choose to keep scenes interesting.”
That does make a great deal of sense. Fans complain endlessly about structural issues, but no one would bother with a boring story. Those complaints, in a way, are a form of praise. They read it with enough engagement to be upset about what they were reading!
“They briefly mention at some point that Julia Mao has a sister, one that the father is much more happy with, but that’s about all I remember.”
Yeah,… rings a bell. Maybe that scene between Mao and Julie under “her tree” — something about ‘you always liked her better’ or whatever.
BTW: I just discovered a show on Prime, Paradox, that’s an SF anthology from the late 1990s. Watched the first ep last night, kinda got a Black Mirror sensibility — the effects of tech on humanity.
I see a couple of shows call Paradox, but I think you’re referring to the one “Welcome to Paradox” taking place in a city called Betaville? If so, looks interesting. I might have to check it out. Black Mirror is a bit dark for my tastes, but I might check this out anyway. Thanks!
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Yep, that’s the one. The one episode I’ve seen so far was based on a short story by James Triptree, Jr., which is a pretty good pedigree.
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I still have to read Children of Time. Right now I’m just starting Leviathan Wakes. So many books I need to catch up on!
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Obviously I read a lot of books, particularly space opera, and I’m blogging about more of them these days.
If you’re starting on Leviathan Wakes, you’ll likely be in the Expanse universe for a while. (They’re now on book 8, with the final book due out next year.) I think you’ll enjoy it. Lots of solar system action, spaceflight logistics, and battles!
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I’m absolutely loving it so far. It’s exactly the kind of book that’s been missing from my life.
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In many ways, the books are done as a tribute to the old time space opera books. They’re like the old pulp stories, but modernized and done with higher quality writing. I think I’ll actually be sad when I finish the last book.
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I wouldn’t have thought of that, but I see the pulpiness.
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