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.