Orbit Books, 2019, 608 pages
The astonishing sequel to Children of Time, the award-winning novel of humanity's battle for survival on a terraformed planet.
Thousands of years ago, Earth's terraforming program took to the stars. On the world they called Nod, scientists discovered alien life - but it was their mission to overwrite it with the memory of Earth. Then humanity's great empire fell, and the program's decisions were lost to time.
Aeons later, humanity and its new spider allies detected fragmentary radio signals between the stars. They dispatched an exploration vessel, hoping to find cousins from old Earth.
But those ancient terraformers woke something on Nod better left undisturbed.
And it's been waiting for them.
Children of Time was one of my favorite SF novels in the last decade, ranking up there with my favorite Vernor Vinge, so the sequel was a must-read. While Children of Ruin didn't quite knock it out of the park the way the first book did, it was almost as good, so I'm still adding it my highly recommended list.
In Children of Time, the "Old Empire" of Earth had perished in nuclear war, leaving a few interstellar colonists the only survivors of the human race. These colonists arrived at a planet that had been terraformed long ago by preceding explorers, only due to accident and some shenanigans by the mad scientist Ivana Kern, the planet was occupied by artificially evolved spiders. The first book described the history of the spiders, and then their conflict with their creators when humans returned to their world.
What Tchaikovsky does really well is write a believable alien society that is both relatable and yet truly alien. He portrayed sentient spiders as intelligent creatures who have emotions and motivations that are comprehensible to humans, and yet not human emotions and motivations.
Children of Ruin introduces us to another group of human refugees who tried to terraform and colonize another planet, thousands of years ago, only for things to go... wrong. And thousands of years later, the newly-formed alliance of humans and spiders encounters the results, for yet another inter-species conflict whose solution is not a war of technological superiority, but the efforts of a few individuals willing to see the "human" (using that term in a very broad, non-species specific way) in the alien.
And it all starts when one scientist decides to teach his pet octopi to play computer games.
So, you've genetically engineered some octopi to make them more intelligent, because you think they can be trained to perform useful tasks on this watery planet you're trying to terraform, and you let them have access to the ship's computer network so they can learn to play games. Yeah, that sounds like a great idea to anyone who's never, ever seen a sci-fi movie before, right?
What follows isn't entirely the octopods' fault. They're just... curious. And playful. And very not-human.
Also, the humans and octopi encounter something else on the planet Nod...
So, thousands of years later, a ship full of humans and uplifted spiders follows a signal to another star system, and finds a world inhabited by uplifted octopi, and at first, things do not go smoothly.
Just as Tchaikovsky made the spiders relatable, interesting characters in the first book, he creates a believable octopod society in this one. But perhaps because the octopi are less individualistic and also far more fluid in their feelings, their motivations, their allegiances, they are even more alien, and thus harder to relate to, than the spiders. This does not make them uninteresting, but I didn't find myself caught up in the individual stories of any octopus protagonists like I did with the spiders in Children of Time. For that matter, I still found the spiders more interesting in this book, particularly the male scientist spider who is in a position that sounds very familiar: spiders basically have traditional gender roles that are the reverse of humans, and like humans, spider society has developed to the point where the "inferior sex" has equal rights in theory, but in actuality has to fight hard for respect and a seat at the table. Our arachnid scientist is an ambitious, clever fellow who is constantly chafing, nay, seething, at the unfairness of having to play obsequious status games with females. All the times he really wanted to tell one of his female peers to fuck off but had to bite his mandibles will definitely be relatable to a lot of human women.
That's really only a small part of the book, though. Most of it was awesome science fiction, the return of the acerbic scientist with a god complex, Ivana Kern, in AI form, and an even more alien race that isn't from Earth at all. The conflicts and non-conflicts with the octopods were interesting, if not quite as compelling as I found the parallel story in the first book when humans and spiders worked their way to an understanding. But what I've really appreciated about these books is that Tchaikovsky shows humans and aliens alike being flawed, sometimes foolish and violent creatures, prone to unnecessary conflicts, and yet capable of working things out and struggling their way to peaceful coexistence if only they can hold back their first, worst impulses and try to understand the Other.
At the end of this book, there are four distinct species all bound in an uneasy coexistence, and an entire galaxy to explore, and while the story was tidily wrapped up, I think the author is definitely leaving it open for another volume, which I will eagerly read.
Also by Adrian Tchaikovsky: My review of Children of Time.
My complete list of book reviews.