Children of Memory

Children of Memory is the third book in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s trilogy: Children of Time. This series chronicles the rise of an interstellar civilization. At the beginning of the series, humanity has begun projects to terraform several planets in other solar systems. The plan is to use a genetic virus to uplift (make sapient) an implanted species of monkeys on each world so that they can help prepare the environment.

However, a cataclysmic war erupts on Earth throwing civilization into a dark age. The terraforming projects are sabotaged by a computer virus sent by one of the Earth factions. The result is most of the scientists and technicians associated with these projects die, although a few manage to survive. So most of the projects fail, but a few manage to make some progress, often with unintended effects.

Later, civilization is able to recover on Earth to a limited degree, but its knowledge and technology is a shadow of the earlier era. And humanity realizes that the Earth is hopelessly poisoned. Extinction is inevitable. Interstellar arks are constructed to send colonists to the worlds that were supposed to be terraformed, in a desperate hope that at least some of those worlds were far enough along for humans to survive.

The first book tells the story of a world where the species that ended up getting uplifted were spiders, and the wretched journey of one of the human arks, and the human conflict with those spiders. The second book covers a world where the uplifted species are octopuses, and the discovery of an alien intelligence that seems to operate somewhat like the creature in The Thing.

By the start of the third book, these conflicts have been resolved, and there is an advanced interstellar civilization with all of these species working together with their very different types of minds. This book introduces a bird species (specifically a type of corvid) that is not uplifted, but ends up evolving on a particularly harsh world of one of the failed terraforming projects.

The birds mate monogamously. Half the birds turn out to be impulsive memorizers, but with little ability to make use of their accumulated knowledge. The other half are able to reason and use the knowledge, but without any ability to hold that knowledge. An intelligence is formed when one type of bird mates with the other type and they spend their lives working together.

A running question throughout much of the book is whether these bird intelligences are sentient, or just complex mimicry systems. Eventually one of the bird pairs provides their own opinion on the matter, in a response indicative of the panpsychists vs eliminative debate.

This bird pair is part of a crew of explorers, which also include a female and male spider, an octopus, a Human (the capital “H” indicating humans who have been altered to be more empathetic and less prone to war), and Miranda, an instance of the alien entity from the second book, now in the shape of a Human that allowed the entity to copy her mind. The explorers discover a new partially terraformed world, called “Imir”, that appears to have been settled by one of the later arks.

The beginning of the book actually shows the crew of that ark as they desperately try to keep their ship together despite catastrophic malfunctions, and barely arrive in orbit around Imir. They detect only a limited degree of terraforming, with no actual life yet introduced. They also pick up a mysterious signal that doesn’t match anything from theirs or the earlier terraforming civilization. They resolve to start their colony near the origin of that signal, in the hopes that they’ll eventually have time to find it.

When Miranda and her friends arrive, they send a drone down and observe a small society of farmers, apparently settlers from the ark ship. The narrative of the book is non-linear, so we see later periods where Miranda and some of her friends have infiltrated the society. Things appear bleak for the colony. The seeded ecosystem is beginning to fail, leading to increasingly frequent crop failures, and desperate times for the colonists, resulting in an increasingly paranoid society hostile to any potential outsiders.

Miranda poses as a teacher in Landfall, the central settlement. Her star pupil is Liff, a girl who is a descendent of the captain of the ark. Liff remembers her grandfather the captain, and the time he went to find “the witch” in the hills and never returned. She decides to go see the witch and see if she can get her grandfather back.

But it gradually becomes apparent that something very strange is going on with Liff. She has memories of her grandfather the captain, but it turns out that the ark arrived centuries earlier and there’s no way she could have such memories. She also witnesses events, and then seems to witness them again with variations. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the strangeness is not just with her.

As in the earlier books, Tchaikovsky is pretty fearless in exploring different types of minds. The birds are viewpoint characters, as is Miranda with her alien strangeness, and Liff, a human girl who eventually is revealed to be strange in a different manner. By the end of the book, the nature of sentience is explored, as well as the ethical status of certain types of minds.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it, although I’d start with the first book in the series. You could probably follow the story starting with the third, but many of the struggles and dilemmas resonate more when you know the backstory.

One thing I’m not wild about with Tchaikovsky’s writing is it isn’t very fast paced. There is a lot of inner monologue with the viewpoint characters. This does give us a closer connection with them, but too much of it seem like variations of the same thoughts repeated over and over. At times it felt tedious. But Tchaikovsky makes up for it in the ideas he explores.

So if you’re looking for something that will make you think about possible minds, and how they work, I recommend checking out this series.

Have you read it? If so, what did you think?

8 thoughts on “Children of Memory

  1. He is one of my top writers and has been ever since Children of Time. Some of his other books are also excellent, though I gave up on the massive Apt series after the second volume. Have you read Spiderlight? In that book he takes the most hackneyed fantasy trope and gleefully subverts them — most entertaining. His Architects trilogy is also well worth reading. The third volume is imminent, I think, so hope he lands it successfully.

    I had one problem with Children of Memory and that’s the whole notion of “extraction”. I won’t elaborate for obvious reasons, but I think you’ll know what I mean. The birds were *really* good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read too much of his other stuff. I did start Cage of Souls and been meaning to get back to it. The Architect series look interesting. As I noted in the post, I’m not wild about his writing style, but his exploration of ideas draws me in anyway.

      I usually avoid spoilers in the post, but they tend to come out in the comments. Still:


      With the extraction, do you mean that they were erased from the simulation? If so, I know what you mean, although if they were explicit about the erasure, I could see it happening. Of course, there are a lot of details we didn’t see, like exactly how they accessed and then pulled the minds out of the simulation.


      1. Just that. They weren’t running it, so erasure is a HUGE stretch.

        Cage of Souls is the one book of his I really disliked. Don’t judge by that.

        Dogs of War I would highly recommend, plus its sequel Bear Head

        I don’t know whether you like good fantasy at all. If you do, “Echoes of the Fall” trilogy is also highly imaginative. (Even though the 1st volume should have been shorter, I reckon.)

        BTW, the octopuses of Children of Ruin were, I think based on a very interesting book recommended by Dennett at one point: “Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith — non-fiction, based on authors first hand experience with cephalopods.


        1. Good point on the erasure. And they had a hard time finding her, which means they didn’t understand the system well enough to be confident they’d succeeded, only that they’d managed to retrieve her. Although I guess observing that it had returned to scenarios without her could be seen as confirmation.

          Interesting on Cage of Souls. I started to read it during my Dying Earth genre dive, but hit it when I’d had my fill for a while. And it was looking like it would be fairly grim. Although from what I’ve seen, his books often look grim early on and in the middle, but typically have an uplifting ending. Of course, I’m judging that by the Children books.

          I do like a good fantasy. It’s been a while since I delved into straight fantasy though. I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks for the recommendations!

          I actually have Godfrey-Smith’s book and started to read it, but wasn’t interested enough to go through all the scuba stories. I didn’t know Dennett recommended it. From the little bit of speculation I got to, he seemed primed to go in some fairly non-Dennett directions.


          1. T’s books do tend to get less grim (though not necessarily uplifting) — with the exception of Walking to Aldebaran, which I hated, even though it was a compelling read. One reason why I like his books is because they regularly don’t go you’d expect them to. But Cage of Souls didn’t really go anywhere — superb world building, of course, but no narrative momentum. Then again, it is *very* hard to write well about really far future. So dying Earth tropes never really did anything for me. (Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes being one exception.)

            On second thoughts, if you don’t much care for T’s writing style, then maybe Echoes of the Fall is not the right fantasy recommendation, original as it is. Do you know Max Gladstone’s Craft series? I saw Charles Stross confessing to be blown away by Three Parts Dead (the first book in the series), tried it and became a convert. 🙂


          2. Hmmm. Sounding like finishing Cage may not be worth my time. Appreciate the assessment.

            I’ve been meaning to check out Schroeder’s work for a while. The descriptions of his books sound pretty enticing.

            Based on the first page or so, Three Parts Dead looks interesting. Thanks! I’ll keep it in mind.


  2. I’ve become instantly biased regarding “future” visions of humanity that do not take into account AI’s obvious dominant place in society.
    It’s like reading stories written in the 90’s about the next few decades that have no concept of smartphones.
    Futurists must try to accurately predict what will happen in 30-100 years. Beyond that, 1000 or 1m years, authors are free to do what they please.
    Like Andy Weir’s Hail Mary novel — where the astronaut practically uses a sliderule to calculate critical numbers during space flight. He uses a computer – but HE programs it. And this is set in some near future. What future space story wouldn’t fully incorporate an AI in the story? Bah! (He didn’t much care for my email — which he responded to — when I pointed out this fact.)

    So, uplifting species? Will the AGI even allow it? Would it even be necessary if bots, that could be designed to self-reproduce and terraform distant worlds, were created by the AGI that is obviously coming? And uplift 3 times without figuring that humans are apparently unqualified to predict the outcome?

    What are your thoughts on stories that fail to take into account dominant trends in tech?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I prefer it when sci-fi provides deals with AI and provides an interesting answer to it. But I have some sympathy for authors who side step it. Most people want to read stories with characters they can relate to. Stories where the humans are back at the base drinking lattes, while reports come in from the robots doing all the dangerous stuff, aren’t very interesting.

      Even when authors do include AI in their stories, those AIs tend to be much more human-like than I think the reality will be. It’s hard to do it right.

      That said, Tchaikovsky does include mind uploading in the series, with one woman merging with the AI in her life pod, then later re-instantiating with various forms of technology. Although it’s not presented as something that happens easily. By this third book though, it appears to be widely available. The story also goes places that explores it a bit further.

      This reminds me of something one of the James S.A. Corey authors said when asked why there weren’t AIs in The Expanse. His response was that there were, in places like the life support, navigation, and weapons targeting systems. It just didn’t have its own personality. Of course, that ignores the fact that a lot of dangerous stuff would have just been handled by those AIs.

      Liked by 1 person

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