There seems to have been a rash of science fiction books featuring octopuses just lately, with at least one nominated for a Nebula (The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler). Not sure I can see the appeal, myself.
I could just about cope with the uplifted spiders in Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s far future space opera about the scattered remnants of humanity and what became of them. But I waited a long time before getting around to the second in the series, Children of Ruin.
And now the uplifted spiders and their Human friends are exploring the galaxy and come across a system where humans tried to settle and failed, leaving a chaotic legacy behind in the form of uplifted octopuses and… something else.
And it’s at this point that I check out of the series and lose interest. It might not have been so bad, but this book is so very, very long (576 print pages) and quite honestly, there just is not 576 pages worth of plot. So it gets very repetitive and becomes a massive drag. It takes a good couple of hundred pages to set everything up, but by this time I was bored with it.
I read it to the end out of sheer stubbornness, since I’d read so far that to turn back would have been as tedious as going on. But by the end I was completely disenchanted with this series, and I’ll skip the last one (Children of Memory), even though it comes in at a mere 496 pages.
I wouldn’t mind the length if it was packed full of plot and I cared about the protagonists, but somehow the vast scale (in both space and time) of this is just off-putting, and neither the spiders nor the octopuses are particularly interesting to me.
This is the first in a new space opera series by the prolific and reliable Adrian Tchaikovsky. It had a day at 99p, so here we are. It manages to both reach back into the past of the sub genre and acknowledge more recent developments. On the one hand, we have the technological sublime, galactic empires, and truly alien aliens; on the other, we have a plucky crew of misfits from different species whose main loyalty is to themselves.
The Architects are the main mystery here, the villain of the piece (or are they), an alien force which turns inhabited planets inside out for no apparent reason; an inexorable force that doesn’t even seem to notice the puny humans (and others) who try to stop them. Until they are stopped, it seems, by modified humans known as Intermediaries, who somehow penetrate the consciousness of the moon-sized vessels and turn them aside.
Faster-than-light travel is possible through (*waves hands*) “un-space” routes created by an ancient and vanished civilisation, but trained Intermediaries are also able to navigate unspace in the wild, using a kind of extra sense. Intermediaries are all damaged by the process of creating them, all in different ways, and the member of this ship’s particular crew has neither aged nor slept since turning an Architect away at the end of the recent war. Through a legal loophole, he is a free agent, and does his best not to draw attention to himself: a vain hope.
The maguffin here is a set of ancient relics which might be important in dealing with the Architects if they ever come back. The complications come in the form of clashing political factions, another alien empire, and a set of gangsters with symbiotic thugs who are more or less impossible to kill. If you were so inclined, you might see the distracting nativist politics in the face of an existential threat as a kind of snarky metaphor for… something.
This is a rollicking, pacy entertainment, with lots of space battles and close-up action, and a central crew who are not quite as touchy-feely as those in other recent popular space operas. I found it enjoyable, though there were perhaps one or two too many fight scenes. A second in the trilogy, Eyes of the Void, is on its way in April 2022.
I picked this one up from the library, confident that, as it was the first in a series, I wouldn’t be lost. I’ve not read any Elizabeth Moon before, and should have twigged that a series called “Vatta’s Peace” comes after a series called “Vatta’s War”. Doh.
So there are characters and situations here, back story etc., that is only filled in sketchily. I scurried off to Wikipedia to fill in some blanks, but on the whole it wasn’t a problem, except in the sense that a lot of the characters are merely sketched here, on the assumption that you know them from before.
Anyway, this is a military science fiction adventure set in a space trading/war universe that reminded me of nothing so much as the old Ambrosia software game Escape Velocity and sequels. Ky Vatta is an admiral in some space fleet on a visit to her home world. Her shuttle is sabotaged, possibly by a rival company, and she ditches in a hostile polar region with some other survivors, not sure who she can trust. My problem, however, is that I don’t really care about these warring companies. There’s an academic point to be made about capitalism and wastefulness, and what happens when corporations become quasi-governmental, sure. But I’m not going to root for one corporation over another, or really care about the people who work in their employ. Perhaps if I’d read the previous six books or whatever.
Overall, this just made me feel tired. Nobody can trust anybody, people are constantly being attacked, or abducted, and for what? Power and profit? Ugh. So you get this atmosphere of heightened paranoia, a constant game of Prisoner’s Dilemma (always betray etc.) which I’m thinking might be a fairly accurate representation of how it feels to be among the super-rich. You want to keep all your stuff, other people are trying to get your stuff, you want their stuff etc. Exhausting.
There’s no proper resolution to the story, which has some interesting elements (a strange and secret installation with a mystery as to who built it), and there’s already one sequel, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering. And here’s the central problem of these multi-volume series: give up at any point, and you’ve wasted your time.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This novel is a winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, and like Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, is an excellent exploration of creatures that have been “uplifted” by biotechnology to the level of intelligence, co-operation and technology. It’s also a novel in the sub-genre(s) of space colonisation, generation ships, and Deep Time.
So humanity is at the peak of its technological development, busily terraforming planets and planting the seeds of life so that arriving colonists might find habitable worlds prepared for them — in one specific case by uplifted smart monkeys. But on the cusp of success, the whole thing falls apart. The monkeys don’t make it and nanovirus designed for them uplifts something else instead.
Centuries later, the dregs of humanity, who have long forgotten the advanced tech of their forebears, arrive in a ship looking for somewhere, anywhere to land.
Such is the set up of this novel, which uses twin narrative threads (with subtle parallels) to tell the stories of what’s happening on the ship, and what’s developing on the planet. And there’s more Prisoner’s Dilemma, so that’s a thing, only this time you care more.
As with his Dogs of War, it’s a surprisingly easy read, with well-drawn characters and a fascinating portrayal of alien thought, which must result from extensive research. Tchaikovsky is a worthy winner of the Clarke award, and writes accessible science fiction based on the kind of grand concepts that most people just don’t think about, but perhaps should. I mean, the media call this kind of thing a “breakthrough” but rarely pose the moral question: just because you can, does that mean you should?