We’re going on an adventure: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

[Some minor spoilers for Children of Time]

The philosopher Thomas Nagel* wrote one of my favourite essays that I would recommend to anybody interested in the speculative aspect of speculative fiction: What Is It Like to be a Bat? Nagel looks at questions of subjectivity and how a mind might interact in the world, raising sceptical objections to how much we can possibly understand consciousness objectively or scientifically. You really don’t have to accept Nagel’s conclusions to enjoy the essay and you don’t need to even read the essay to enjoy the ramifications of the question in the title. What would it be like to actually be a bat?

Nagel, of course, certainly does not answer the question he poses as his argument suggests limits to what we can know about minds. He does make this observation near the end of the essay:

“I should like to close with a speculative proposal. It may be possible to approach the gap between subjective and objective from another direction. Setting aside temporarily the relation between the mind and the brain, we can pursue a more objective understanding of the mental in its own right. At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination—without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method—an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination. Though presumably it would not capture everything, its goal would be to describe, at least in part, the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.”

What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, Thomas Nagel, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450

It is an interesting challenge to try and side step the imaginative approach, although I don’t see how that is possible. Alternatively we can delve into fiction and specifically, science fiction to explore minds quite different from our own. However, science fiction does not present us with the inner workings of alien minds as often as would be implied by its subject matter.

Science fiction aliens are often explorations of variations on human cognition, personality and culture. I don’t want to dismiss that — there is value (both speculatively and as entertainment) in thinking about the species of hyper-stoical Vulcans. Alternatively, aliens may be quite cryptic and offer a huge barrier to understanding that human characters may only bridge as the climax of a story (or in the case of Ender’s Game as a coda to the climax). Yet we don’t get many insights into really alien minds.

I first encountered Nagel’s essay in the anthology of consciousness “The Mind’s I”. At the end of each essay/story in the book there is a reflection section written by either Daniel C Dennett or Douglas Hofstadter. For Nagel’s essay, Hoftstadter explores the ideas in the essay with his own imaginative tangents. At one point he lists of a very long set of alternative “what is it like to be a…” statements. These include:

“What is it like to be a molecule? A collection of molecules? A microbe? A mosquito? An ant colony?…What is it like to be a running AI program? An operating system in a computer? An operating system at the moment the system crashes?”

The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, Douglas R Hofstadter, Daniel C Dennett

The snippet above doesn’t quite match Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin but Tchaikovsky makes a bold attempt to answer some of those questions and even an amalgamation of them: what is it like to be a molecule in an operating system of an AI in a computer that is also an ant colony when the system is close to crashing?

The answer is “scary”.

Children of Ruin is the sequel to Tchaikovsky’s earlier book Children of Time. Set in the same universe but with new characters (aside from one) the story starts in a similar position. Earth is at the height of its technological prowess but also deeply politically unstable. Vast terraforming projects are underway and also experiments in uplift: bringing non-intelligent creatures to human levels of intelligence using viral engineering. The eugenics-like experiments are themselves provoking the political instability on Earth.

In Children of Time we meet the arrogant and abrasive Dr Arvana Kern, who aims to populate her self-named world with uplifted primates rather than humans due to her disgust with the rest of the species. That plan goes horribly wrong due to an apocalyptic terrorist event on Earth. The viral agent intended to finagle natural selection into creating intelligent life, works its magic on a species of jumping spider instead.

In Children of Ruin, members of Kern’s broader terraforming project have arrived at a different solar system. There are two candidate planets but the team discovers that one of them has already developed life, although it is apparently very basic. The other planet is a cold ice ball, that even if terraformed would be mainly ocean. As with the previous book, events on Earth overtake the terraformers but due to a happy accident, they survive the attacks that kill Kern’s team in the first book.

As it happens, the eccentric scientist onboard this team has a deep fondness for octopuses and access to exactly the same virus that (unknown to him) is busy creating intelligent spiders light years away. He’s also got access to terraforming equipment and a planet just waiting to be turned into a paradise for cephalopods.

But what about the other planet, that they name “Nod”? What kind of life has evolved there and why is it so very different from Earth?

Children of Time took us through the evolution of the Portiid spider civilisation like a cross between a historical drama and a nature documentuary. Naming four spiders and tracking the lives of their ancestors we get to see how their civilisation grows and their minds expand. In parallel we follow the fate of the crew of the Gilgamesh, a cobbled together space ship using hibernation to take the last remenants of humanity to the stars. Eventually the plot brings the spiders, the humans and the uploaded half-mad AI-mind of Arvana Kern together.

Millennia later, the Portiid-Human (plus-AI) civilisation is itself exploring the universe. Following signals, an exploratory ship arrives in the solar system that now contains its own octopus civilisation. However, the octopuses present a unique challenge for communication even for a society that has its own struggles with spider-human communication. More disturbingly, why do the octopuses have such a deep and violent fear of the planet Nod?

Children of Ruin uses a similar structure of deep time and past events, coupled with a “present” story line of vastly different civilisations meeting each other. Unlike the previous book, there is less emphasis on the stages of octopus evolution and more on the lives, discoveries and eventual deaths of the original terraforming crew.

There is more of a sci-fi thriller component to this story, with elements of Alien:Covenant (if humans were the mysterious progenitors of life) as well as parts that have strong resemblances to the the Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library”. However, this is within a broader framework that is very fresh and original, creating a sequel that does different things while maintaining the positive qualities of the original.

For plot reasons, the intelligent spiders of Children of Time and their descendants in Children of Ruin are presented as having minds that are both like and unlike are own but which differ from us primarily in terms of senses and language structure. The divide drives the later chapters of Children of Time, as the humans of the Gilgamesh clash with apparent monsters and the spiders clash with equally alien creatures (i.e. humans) but the similarities drive the resolution and also the crew dynamics of the sequel. Spider society has its petty jealousies, professional rivalries and sexism (although inverted) and a common integration of emotion and reason.

Tchaikovsky uses the octopuses to stretch that question he explored in the first book: what is it like to be a…? Gifted with technology from the start (their ancestors being used as animal helpers in the terraforming of their planet) and blessed with innate curiosity and problem solving skills from their original state on Earth, the octopuses have a complex orbital society. However, Tchaikovsky imagines them as creatures that think in two modes, mindful that an octopus’s limbs are themselves rich in neurons. As full of emotion and reason as humans (or the spiders), the octopuses have divided modes of thought and communication. There inner selves are emotional beings who communicate visually, using their colour changing skin to express complex states of being. Actual practical problem solving (along with mathematics and science) is devolved to their limbs. A fight between two octopuses can be a literal exchanging of ideas, as their limbs tussle and maybe swap equations.

I’m hard pressed to think of many stories that delve so effectively into a non-human mind in a way that is both relatable but also distinctly non-human. Of course, the humans and spiders and octopuses and AI ghost of Arvana Kern are not the only minds in this story but…spoilers.

I love speculative fiction that is heavy on the speculative and both Children of… books deliver that by playing with some standard science fiction tropes (terraforming, uplift, hibernation for space travel, AI) along with ideas about evolution, cognition and civilisation. I also love more character driven stories and I also love space battles and haunted space suits with spooky catchphrases, and Children of Ruin delivers all of those.

Alien beliefs, alien modes of thought, alien fears and alien curiosity. In the end it is the commonalities that bring both books together. I don’t know if there will be a third book**, with a look at the even more complex space-faring civilisation we see in the final chapter but I am eager to read it.

*[In 2012 Nagel wrote a book called “Mind and Cosmos”, which I haven’t read but which apparently was somewhat sympathetic to the crypto-creationist Intelligent Design theory. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_and_Cosmos ]

**[I don’t know about international availability of Children of Ruin. I could buy it as an audiobook in Australia. Children of Time wasn’t available in the US until 2018.]

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: Nine Last Days on Planet Earth by Daryl Gregory

Nine days over the period 1975 to 2062 in a very slow invasion of Earth. We meet LT as a child in Tennessee. An incredible meteor shower lights up the sky.

“LT was ten years old, and he’d only seen one falling star in his life. Not even his mother had seen this many at once, she said. Dozens visible at one time, zooming in from the east, striking the atmosphere like matches, white and orange and butane blue. The show went on, hundreds a minute for ten minutes, then twenty. He could hear his father working in the woodshop back by the garage, pushing wood through a whining band saw. Mom made no move to go get him, didn’t call for him.”

https://www.tor.com/2018/09/19/nine-last-days-on-planet-earth-daryl-gregory/

Each year follows LT through his life as his circumstances changes. His mother moves to Chicago, his father retreats into religion. LT follows new loves, intellectual and physical, and grows up. Meanwhile, around him the world changes in more alien ways.

The events of that night in 1975 brought alien seeds to Earth. Strange, possibly empathic plants begin to multiply and humanity has to adjust to their botanically invasive ways.

There are echoes here of the puply 1960’s movie version of Day of the Triffids or the bleak inevitability of Thomas M Disch’s novel The Genocides. The alien plants are slow invaders, who might defeat humanity through indefatigable progress and our capacity to ignore slow change. These particular plants also have some kind of empathic quality, encouraging people to adopt them as house plants and connect with them.

“The fern man stood in the dark on the coffee table. Its bulb head drooped sleepily, and its stem arms hung at its sides. The torso leaned slightly—toward the window, LT realized. He picked up the ceramic pot and set it on the sill, in a pool of streetlight. Slowly, the trunk began to straighten. Over the next few minutes, the head gradually lifted like a deacon finishing a prayer, and the round leaves at the ends of its arms unfurled like loosening fists. The movement was almost too incremental to detect; its posture seemed to shift only when he looked away or lost concentration. Slow Mo, he thought. That’s what we’ll call you.”

https://www.tor.com/2018/09/19/nine-last-days-on-planet-earth-daryl-gregory/

However, the invasion is in the background. The main melody of the piece is the changing family relationships of LT, from child to adolescent, to first romance, to marriage and parenthood himself, as well as the connection (or otherwise) with ageing parents.

The timescale and time shifting sections create a deep picture of LT through his life as well as a map of the invasion of Earth. The effect is like a time lapse film of a plant’s movements which forces us to shift our perspective of the botanical from immobile beings to creatures that shift and react and move, just not at the pace we perceive. That we also don’t see how our relationships change from day to day is an apt metaphor for the “plant speed” timeline. In the 2062 sections LT reflects: “Everything moves too fast, he thought, or else barely moves at all.”

A melancholy story mixing regret and happiness with a sense of the force of slow movements.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try, Again” by Zen Cho

Byam is an imugi, a kind of Korean proto-dragon or water serpent creature. Byam hopes to reach a level of spiritual advancement to fully become an actual dragon and ascend to the sky but this is a difficult path and over hundreds of years, Byam experiences many setbacks in it’s quest.

“If you wanted to be a dragon, dumb perseverance wasn’t enough. You had to have a strategy. Humans had proliferated, so Byam retreated to the ocean. It was harder to get texts in the sea, but technically you didn’t need texts to study the Way, since it was inherent in the order of all things. (Anyway, sometimes you could steal scriptures off a turtle on a pilgrimage, or go onshore to ransack a monastery.) But you had to get out of the water in order to ascend. It was impossible to exclude the possibility of being seen by humans, even in the middle of the ocean. It didn’t seem to bother them that they couldn’t breathe underwater; they still launched themselves onto the waves on rickety assemblages of dismembered trees. It was as if they couldn’t wait to get on to their next lives.”

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/sci-fi-fantasy/if-at-first-you-dont-succeed-try-try-again-by-zen-cho/

Byam’s struggles last over millennia and brings them to the modern age, where Byam encounters Leslie, an astrophysicists. At a particularly rough spot in her life, a glimpse of an imugi attempting to ascend into dragon-hood, inspires Leslie to complete her failed Phd and continue her career.

There are no big twists or surprises in this story and the moral (of sorts) is right there in the title. True love (and possibly learning some modern astrophysics) is what Byam has been missing and it’s no spoiler to say that Byam succeeds in the end. It really could have been quite a trite story about having people who care for you and believe in you but without really departing from a kind of romantic comedy-but-with-Korean-sea-serpents template manages to be genuinely moving.

Sweet and melancholy but it is the sweetness, successfully confectioned, that marks it out in this set of novelettes that collectively have a fair share of melancholy.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

Leah is a researcher who collects ghost stories. Not artfully crafted spooky tales but rather the stories ordinary people have of encounters with things that they felt were supernatural.

The most interesting thing about ghost stories is that almost everyone has one.
The other really interesting thing, to me, is that they’re nearly all terrible stories if you try to take them as stories. A good story has a beginning, some buildup, and then a resolution or a twist or something at the end. Ghost stories go, “This creepy and inexplicable thing once happened to me. The obvious explanation is that I dreamed or imagined it; I am certain that I didn’t dream or imagine it.” Or in some cases, “I used to live in this house where creepy stuff happened all the time. Then we moved.” Every now and then you’ll hear a story with a ghost that has a beginning, middle, and end, but those are most often urban legends: “One day we were driving along and we picked up a hitchhiker.” (Beginning.) “As we drove, we had this creepy conversation with the hitchhiker.” (Middle.) “Then we reached our destination and the hitchhiker had vanished from the back seat.” (Twist!) That one’s not a real ghost story. It did not happen to your cousin, no matter what he says.

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-thing-about-ghost-stories/

It is a brave way to open a ghost story with a discussion about how the genuine ones do not work as narratives and how the ones that do work as narratives are inauthentic.

However, Kritzer commits to her opening statement. Much of this novelette is styled as an essay or a personal reflection on its subject matter. An account of the life of somebody collecting ghost stories, the people she meets and the nature of the things she collects. The actual ghost story that is there is approached circuitously, introduced in fragments. Likewise, the thesis of the essay, that ghosts can be about grief and loss and lingering presences of emotional bonds (good and bad) is woven in slowly.

A personal essay, a ficto-critical examination of personal encounters with the supernatural, a story of one woman’s relationship with her mother AND a ghost story all sounds rather too much. When I list it out like that I can’t help think of my whining about novellas being so over stuffed that the story doesn’t fit. But there’s nothing over-stuffed here, it all fits together neatly and leisurely and with generosity.

Moving and clever, the multiple modes of the story (the short vignettes, the personal history, the discussion of ghost stories) all mesh together expertly.

Voting for novelettes this year is going to be a nightmare of indecision. Can we add “All of the Above” as an option as a kind of anti-No Award?

Is Timothy the Leader the Tories Need?

With Theresa May gone and a crowd of incompetents and malefactors running for Conservative Party leadership it behoves me to put the obvious name forward: Timothy the Talking Cat.

Let’s run through the pros-&-cons:

Things that qualify him for high office in the Conservative Party:

  • Educated at a reactionary Public (i.e. private) School.
  • Tortures small animals for sport.
  • Envious of the things American conservatives get away with.
  • I struggle to follow what he is going on about.
  • Owns at least one tailor made suit.
  • Mean to public servants.
  • Actually, mean to any kind of servants, domestic staff, anybody in the hospitality industry. I can’t take him anywhere.
  • A constant source of embarrassment to those associated with him.
  • Francophobic, as in ‘scared of France’ not as in ‘scared of General Franco’. Also scared of cucumbers.
  • Has the potential to unite the warring factions of the Conservative Party.
  • Could defeat Nigel Farage in a baked bean eating contest. Which has not yet been ruled out as a means of settling Britain’s internal power struggles.
  • Milkshake proof.

Things that disqualify him:

  • Not actually a Tory MP. However, if the Queen made him a Lord, he potentially could be Prime Minister.
  • Not actually going to be made a lord by the Queen. The Queen prefers dogs to cats.

The ‘pros’ easily out weigh the ‘cons’, IMHO.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: When We Were Starless by Simone Heller

In a clouded, toxic and blasted world, a nomadic tribe does it’s utmost to survive. Mink is a scout, looking for the remnants of an old world to scavenge, while the tribe evades monstrous centipedes and ghosts.

“The run-in with the rustbreed had not been my fault. I was a good enough scout—I scoured inaccessible ruins for scarce materials, and I never ran the tribe into the lairs of the befouled crablion or let anyone’s mind become ghost-shifted. But when the heat-baked ground of a salt flat we were crossing was suddenly riddled with burrower holes, a full legion of the writhing, rearing centipedal creatures already upon us, all I could do was to change the gentle hum of the Lope Concord to the jarring trill of the Rush and find us a path out of this trap. The air had been filled with the dry stick sounds of the rustbreed’s milling legs and the sharp smell that went for communication among them. But for all their legs, we were the better runners, and we made it. Barely. The hindquarters of our sole gearbeast were a fused mass of metal and dried fluids from a rustbreed feeder, and I didn’t want to think about Truss’ side, which had been similarly exposed. Others, like Renke, had been burned badly, too, but he had been the only one to suffer a bite and get the corrosive substance under his scales.”

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/heller_10_18/

But in her searching, Mink stumbles upon a very different kind of ghost: Orion, some sort of holographic AI set to maintain a museum of sorts. The meeting leads to change and violence for Mink and her tribe as well as a new understanding of the world they are.

The story asks a lot of its readers. It is never clear what kind of creature Mink is but the implication is that she isn’t human. What a ‘weaver’ is needs to be inferred from events in the text and the disasters that have overwhelmed the planet are so ancient as to be forgotten.

The setting and style is reminiscent of Heller’s 2017 story “How Bees Fly’ (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/heller_02_17/) but that featured “demons” rather than ghosts and a more human-like protagonist (with a tail). Perhaps the story is set in an earlier time amid whatever disaster has consumed Earth (e.g. both mention gearbeasts).*

Of the two, When We Starless accentuates the contrast between the desperate lives of the people and the potential for kindness and hope and common understanding. It is a surprisingly up beat story for a world that is a literally poisonous.

It is slow to get into, I bounced off it twice, and demands both patience and thought from the reader. However, once I was in the rhythm of it, there is a dark but hopeful tale of enlightenment and ambition in a very alien setting.

My tendency to dad-jokes makes me want to call this story haunting and atmospheric but the description works unironically.

*[OK, so I should have read the author’s website first before writing that paragraph but I’ll leave it as is because I’m too lazy to reword it. The two stories are directly connected: https://missnavigator.com/new-novelette-when-we-were-starless/It is my second story set in a world I call the Shrouded Earth. It’s not a direct sequel to How Bees Fly, but they follow a shared trajectory, and WWWS holds some spoilers for things that are revealed in the course of HBF.” Also, apparently Mink’s people are lizard-like which means this one fits into my hugo-dinsoaur project!]