Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Communication is something which is too often taken for granted in science fiction, a closed box of magic without which the actual story being told could not progress so readily, the telepathic circuits of the TARDIS, the universal translator of the United Federation of Planets, the Babel fish which so often made clear to Arthur Dent that which he would rather not have known, only relevant to the plot when it is absent or malfunctioning.

Too rarely is the absolute necessity of communication and the astonishing difficulty with which it is achieved given more than cursory attention, as in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life and its cinematic adaptation Arrival, and now in Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s sequel to his Arthur C Clarke award winning novel of terraforming and evolutionary interference gone awry Children of Time, set decades apart in another system yet bound to the fate of the Gilgamesh and its crew.

Disra Senkovi awakes on the Aegean en route to Tess 834, home to two bodies which may be adaptable for habitation though the more favourable is within the Goldilocks zone with liquid water while the other is largely frozen and would require substantial terraforming before it could be made suitable for human life, but the reports of advance probes to the system have missed crucial data.

Tess834h is already supporting an ecosystem, early in its development but undeniably life, a complex web of multicellular species across water, land and air, and in command of the mission it is the decision of Yusuf Baltiel to suspend their primary goal of terraforming to explore the planet, aware that whatever they find it is only a matter of time until Earth catches up with them.

Their duty to prepare for shiploads of colonists who will be expecting the world to be well on its way to becoming a new home and to whom preserving the novelty of an alien turtle analogue or flying blanket jellyfish other than as a specimen in a zoo will be a low priority, attention instead turns to the glacial Tess834g.

Named Damascus by Senkovi, he has his own plans for the world for which he has been breeding assistance, ostensibly elevating a lifeform in order to be more useful to the terraforming process as Avrana Kern once proposed to do with primates using the Rus-Califi virus, though Senkovi’s preferred subjects are cephalopods, specifically the Pacific striped octopus, forty-three of them so far.

Inquisitive, tactile, exploratory, accustomed to exploring the virtual space Senkovi has rendered for them but already making conceptual leaps beyond what their keeper has realised, raised in a controlled environment with no natural predators they have no concept of what the universe beyond their tanks is, but they are eager to find out.

Like the preceding volume, in Children of Ruin Tchaikovsky has created new alien perspectives, intricate and intimate and hugely dangerous by virtue of their incomprehensible nature, undertaking actions, employing methods and beholden to goals which cannot be predicted by humans who have no fundamental understanding of the psychology of aquatic creatures of distributed brains.

As complex and sophisticated as the ideas of Children of Time were, they seem a placid stroll through the forest before the deep dive into the teeming oceans of Children of Ruin, the Portiids essentially rational and so relatable in some alien way even though intrinsically inhuman, while here the mindset of the principle species is as malleable and flexible as their boneless bodies and the flickering camouflage which broadcasts their wheeling emotional states.

Their static monochrome displays and the ungainly locomotion of the sinew and muscle of their inflexible frames leading to the justifiable supposition that the humans are intellectually and emotionally deficient, can even the combined efforts of human, Portiid and that which once was Avrana Kern overcome that prejudice and render the visual displays of the evolved octopus race into comprehensible blocks of language or are they simply too different?

Now an entirely artificial simulation, Kern has rediscovered the temptations of human emotional complexity, perfecting routines for self-interest and self-deception in order to achieve its own interests as well as those of the broader mission parameters which it may be willing to sacrifice in order to preserve itself, yet one more complication in Tchaikovsky’s hugely ambitious, accomplished and endlessly surprising work.

Children of Ruin is available now from Pan Macmillan



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