Review: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Children of Ruin”

by Miles Raymer

Children of Ruin

Writing an excellent science fiction novel is a notable achievement, but writing an even better sequel is something truly grand. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin improves on each and every element that made Children of Time shine, while also plumbing new depths of intrigue and intellect. It is among the most daring and creative works of science fiction I’ve read to date.

There were two central features that made the first novel in this series so successful: (1) How it played with time, and (2) how it portrayed nonhuman sentience. Ruin matches Time when it comes to the first feature. Tchaikovsky tweaks the formula by jumping back and forth between past and present instead of tracking parallel narratives over thousands of years, but the effect is similar insofar as it explores the consequences of choices playing out over the immense scope of evolutionary time. 

When it comes to the second feature, however, Ruin makes Time look like child’s play. The first book featured a solid dose of nonhuman perspectives, most notably the intelligent spiders (Portiids) and a human scientist-turned-supercomputer. Ruin retains all of these while adding a lively pack of new players to the game: Augmented humans seeking to interface directly with spider minds, augmented humans preoccupied with inter-species translation, a self-aware micro-organism capable of hijacking the nervous systems of macro-organisms, and––most prominently––a technologically-advanced race of cephalopods.

Early on, I was skeptical that so many points of view could be convincingly enlivened by one author, and also that they could be crammed together into a single coherent narrative, but Tchaikovsky sets the bar high and then clears it with magnificent poise. I’ve read two other books that portray alien consciousness with similar depth––Peter Watts’s Blindsight and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris––but neither of those do so with the breadth on display here.

If nothing else, Tchaikovsky’s work is proof that we need more zoologists to start writing science fiction. The way he blends animal morphology and psychology with imaginings of future technologies is sui generis, making him a special voice in a genre bursting with talent. Take, for instance, his description of advanced cephalopod cognition, which is comprised of three semi-autonomous but interdependent components, an “arm-driven undermind (his Reach, as opposed to the Crown of his central brain or the Guise of his skin)” (140, emphasis his). Having read Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds last year, I found this to be both a highly inventive and true-to-science depiction. Better yet, Tchaikovsky doesn’t just drop the Reach/Crown/Guise distinction once or twice; he slowly develops it into a playful lexicon that is protean enough to make cephalopod consciousness feel truly alien but stable enough to bring readers along for the ride. This is just one of countless methods Tchaikovsky deploys to bend and delight our theory of mind.

Ruin is also deeply preoccupied with the project of inter-species communication. For narrative purposes, Tchaikovsky renders the language gap a bit more bridgeable than it would probably prove in reality, but he still makes a noble effort to respect the complexity of the problem. Front and center here is Helena Holsten Lain, a descendent of Time’s protagonists. Trying desperately to grasp the cognitive character of her cephalopod captors, she ruminates:

She had looked for a comprehensible narrative in the patterns of their skins and motions; a sense that their parliament was moving, through that visible debate, to some manner of rational conclusion. But then she realized that even Humans, even Portiids, might not present such an ordered picture in their decision-making. Even a single individual might not. What is a decision, after all? Helena knows the research better than most: there are Portiid scientists who say that the mind is like an ant’s nest, individual neurons, like ant workers, weighing in on either side of any given issue until a tipping point is reached and the brain, or the colony, thinks, I have made a decision and here (post facto) are my rational reasons. Looked at in such a light, this civilization of the octopus is perhaps not so different to her own, save that instead of the self-deceit of Human/Portiid determinism, they are comfortable with their own malleability.

Too neat, too pithy, for physically malleable beings? And again the anthropomorphism; in the end she cannot escape it, part of what makes her Human. She wonders if their hosts view their angular prisoners with, what, cephalopodmorphism? And pity them their lack of expression, maybe? And now Helena is honest enough to know that her mind is just spinning wheels to nowhere. (440, emphasis his)

Of its many superb qualities, Ruin’s very best is how it faithfully repeats and reinvents the message that made the ending of Time so inspiring. Unlike so many other science fiction authors, Tchaikovsky does not fall into the trap of turning his books into battle-stuffed thrillers (although they are undoubtedly thrilling). Instead, he deftly dramatizes a question that resides at the heart of both philosophy and biology: When two intelligent species meet on the endless plane of cosmic existence, are they fated to annihilate one another, or is coexistence possible? And if coexistence proves possible, what new horizons of flourishing and exploration might we unlock?

Rating: 10/10