[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.]