Farewell Jessica Jones & Marvel Netflix

There is no sugar coating that Jessica Jones season 3 is not good. I stuck with it but to get through I took to skipping through multiple conversations between characters. The version I ended up watching improved as a result but even with impromptu editing, the pacing was weak and dialogue was often unconvincing. There was a decent story in there and some interesting themes as each of the core characters (including the Machiavellian Jerry Hogarth and the photography obsessed serial killer) explored the idea of people seeking to punish the wicked (as they see them) for reasons other than righteousness.

I already thought that the Netflix Marvel shows had run out of steam. The novelty had worn through and the consistent flaw of poor pacing and overlong seasons was only getting worse. Bookended between the first Avengers movie and the final one (in its current form), the form of these shows either had to change radically or conclude. I just wish they could have brought them to a stronger end.

Jessica Jones season 3 was emblematic of this arc. Still running on good will from the brilliant first season, the show hoped that we were still sufficiently invested in the main characters to follow a plot that mainly dealt with how unhappy they are with their lives. The effect was a script that felt like it was trying to find a way to fill 13 episodes with a 5 episode story. Two whole episodes were re-telling events we had already seen (and understood) from the perspective of Trish Walker rather than Jessica. There was a logic to that in terms of the character’s arc but neither episode brought any new insights.

Strong cast and an interesting premise but so, so ponderous. When the idea is that you are an intelligent show, there should be some trust that the audience has already got the point you are trying to make and can already see where a character is heading.

Of the remaining shows, Daredevil had a proper ending, The Punisher was already at a stage of diminishing returns, Luke Cage looked like it was heading somewhere interesting and ironically Iron Fist looked promising. A final season of The Defenders would have been a nice way to bring the whole thing to an end, so long as they kept it short :). I’ve suggested elsewhere that a gutsy move from Marvel would have been to have them all evaporate into dust Infinity War style mid-story.

A MicroSFF Collection from O.Westin

I formulated a rule a while back that I’d only review what I was encountering organically. I review a lot of things but I don’t want to be a reviewer as such. Mainly, this is to avoid the blog feeling like work or writing to feel like an assignment. I have whatever the opposite of a work ethic is.

But I decided to make an exception for an eARC that I got from the O.Westin, the mercurial mind behind MicroSFF. It’s a collection of over 300 of their tiny tweeted tales. I’ve been reading these stories in my Twitter feed for years now but their very nature makes them difficult to review. So a collection is kind of nice to have.

If you haven’t read any of them before, they are exactly what they sound like. A very short story with science fictional or fantasy elements. As you might expect from short stories in general, the stories are typically a set-up followed by a twist. The length restrictions of a tweet mean that they often follow the structure of a joke with a sudden shift of perspective or breaking of expectation at the end. However, while some are intentionally funny, with many the shift in perspective provides emotional insight into a character or social commentary or a disturbing reveal (or all of those).

The brevity invites readers to imagine the world and setting around the story. For example this Black Mirror-like story:

Other times the set up is overtly science fictional and the twist is an insight into character:

Others deftly throw an idea in from left field creating weird, funny and disturbing situations:

Some stories evoke little more than a wry smile and others provoke an urge to write. Some are just funny 🙂

Review: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S A Corey (Expanse Book 8)

[Some spoilers for Book 7]

The minds behind James Corey are the masters at the obvious-in-retrospect plot twist. Each of the Expanse books never quite goes the way you expect it might but there is a common sense to the events. It is a feeling of realism rather than any deep commitment to realistic science fiction. The background setting has evolved from a gritty tale of social conflict among asteroid miners to interstellar travel, aspiring galactic empires and not one but two sets of enigmatic aliens.

There’s never been many fundamentally new ideas in the Expanse series but rather it has pieced together familiar science fiction elements to tell a serial epic story of politics and protomolecules. Which of the two themes dominate in a story varies but the implications of more science fictional events always ripples out politically. Likewise, the factional manoeuvrers of the political stories gang aft a-gley as ancient alien legacies do their own thing.

Tiamat’s Wrath is the direct sequel to Persepolis Rising, in which the serial jumps forwards several years to first show a new normal for the solar system and humanity’s colony planets only to be disrupted by the return of a breakaway faction of the former Martian Navy. Dubbed the Laconians, they have formed a militaristic society under the leadership of “High Consul” Duarte (a background presence in earlier books). Armed with technology derived from the protomolecule, the Laconians stomp all over everything. By the end of the book, the protagonist crew of the Rocinante are scattered and their captain, Jim Holden, has been captured by the Laconians.

The end of the last book marked out what to expect from the next one: a tale of dogged resistance against the fascist Laconians as Bobby, Alex, Naomi and Amos each find ways to fight back against the growing tyrrant. Put another way, it looks like we were going to get a more political rather than protomolecule book. When there is expectation to zig, Corey inevitably zags. Life and the universe is fickle and Duarte’s plans for galactic domination face threats more complex and incomprehensible than a resurgent Belter resistance.

As always, there’s a mix of point-of-view characters. Of the establish cast, Alex, Bobby and Naomi take centre stage. The character-returning-from-a-previous-book-that-you-had-forgotten-about is Elvi, the scientist from Cibola Burn who is now working for the Laconians investigating the remains of the alien civilisation that built the hyperspace gateways. The newer pov character is Teresa, the daughter of the High Consul.

There are plots, schemes and intrigue aplenty as Naomi attempts to coordinate a scattered resistance and Alex & Bobby try to work out how best to use their stolen Laconian warship. Holden is a secondary character, kept as an open prisoner on Laconia but running schemes of his own as best he can. Meanwhile, the lingering mystery of ships that disappear as they pass through the gates comes to the fore, setting off catastrophic consequences for everybody.

By the end, there have been multiple epic space battles and at least one person reanimated from the dead by alien technology and everything has changed again. Disruption as the only normal is the recurring theme of the Expanse books, the authors notably skipping a few years between book 6 and 7 when they needed a period of relative calm to have existed.

I gobbled up this book in two days. Bring on the finale.

Hugo 2019 – Looking at Fan Writers Part 1

“Qui quos recenset recensere” is what Google Translate gives me for “who reviews those who review”. My first attempt was “who reviews the reviewers” but it wouldn’t translate “reviewers”. I wanted something closer to the famous Juvenal epigram “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, but “Quis recenset ipsos recensere” back translated to “Who has an account of themselves to review the”. I have no idea how Latin works of course and a smart-alec quote to start this post ended up as a pointless (but pleasurable) waste of time.

Putting my time wasting aside, there is a lot of stuff in the Hugo Packet for Best Fan Writer this year. Disappointingly not one of them have a puzzle corner in their Hugo Packet contributions! However, there is plenty of good reading from all the finalists.

The challenge of what and how much to put in the packet is clear. Of the six finalists James Davis Nicoll presents the most volume. It’s important you read his overview file first [James Davis Nicoll Hugo Overview.docx] which explains the difference between the epub document and the pdf. It also has links to much of his other writing. The epub is a collection of 16 reviews and the pdf is a collection of even more reviews. The sheer amount of writing he does is astounding and then doubly astounding because it’s excellent stuff.

The leanest packet contribution is from Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, which collates three excellent essays from Tor.com, Fireside and Uncanny. There’s also a link at the end to a Twitter thread she wrote that is well worth reading on eugenics in science-fiction [ twitter.com/snarkbat/status/1032406100400906240 ]. Links to Twitter and Tumblr and other social media platforms highlight how the Hugo packet may distort perceptions of fan writing by placing emphasis on the essay as the predominate mode of fan writing.

As well as essays in general, the Hugo packet contributions inevitably have a lot of reviews. Bogi Takács contribution is mainly reviews, which is interesting because I mainly read eir Twitter and more general commentary. Aside from reviews the essay “Why women + non-binary is not a good idea” that looks at how to include more inclusive language in calls for contribution. I also liked the inclusion of “Worldcon panel resources 1-3” as it demonstrates that collating resources and making lists is a key part of fan writing in the sense of writing for fans and writing that makes fandom work.

On the other hand, I think of Charles Payseur mainly as a reviewer but there are also more personal essays in his packet such as Feminist Futures: WisCon and Me and the opening essay Shout. His Quick Sip reviews are there as well with a round-up of Fiyah Magazine #7. The short review form is a challenging thing to write — attempting to give a sense of a story without just recounting the plot. Personally, I really struggle to write about shorter fiction and I often have to re-read a story and go-away and think about it to write anything. Payseur does an excellent job of pulling out the essence of multiple stories.

Foz Meadows offers five essays from her own blog and from The Book Smugglers that are more critical pieces. I think the most interesting piece is her review/essay of Final Fantasy XV. This is not a game I have played or have any intention of playing and have no particular interest in but Meadows’s essay really pulls you into what the game is like and why.

I feel like I’ve been missing out by not reading more of Alasdair Stuart’s writing. His packet contribution is a set of five essays as separate PDFs. They all really good but I think I enjoyed “Mr Burt” the most and was most moved by Joy and Applause.

And having read through the packet entries, I am no closer to voting beyond “I read this person regularly” versus “I don’t read this person much”. All worthy entries but I worry that the packet process gives a distorted view of fan writing as mainly reviews with some critical essays. I don’t want that to be read as disparaging reviews as part of fan writing, they are always going to be a key part of it.

Months later I watch The Meg so you don’t have to

The premise is Jason Statham fights a giant prehistoric shark, so your expectations have already been carefully managed. This is not going to be a good film in the sense of a critically acclaimed work. The question is whether it can be a genuinely good bad film. Sadly the answer is no.

There are two routes open to a film like The Meg. The first I’ll call the The Lake Placid approach: know that this can’t be good and lean into the humour of it all. If you get the balance of humour just rights and get that the audience knows that you know that Jason Statham fighting a giant shark is inherently absurd, then you can make a fun movie in which everybody gets the underlying joke. Alternatively you can commit with your heart and soul and make a film that can live up to the premise of JASON STATHAM FIGHTS A GIANT PREHISTORIC SHARK and chew that scenery like you are a megalodon awoken from its prehistoric slumber. AIM to be a MST3K entry and go out in a blaze of camp giant shark glory.

Those are the only options. Sure, Steven Spielberg made a cinematic classic about a shark eating people but that was Steven Spielberg and he knew he could only get away with ‘giant killer shark’ the once. Even with Jason Statham on board, the only choice is funny or unwittingly camp.

Instead, The Meg really tries to be something semi-serious like a decent sci-fi thriller and yet fails to be anything.

The premise is this. Jason Statham was the world’s best rescuer of people from submarines until a mission went horribly wrong when the submarine he was rescuing people from was attacked by a mysterious sea monster. Forced to abandon two team mates and regarded as psychologically unstable and a coward by his colleagues, Statham has retired to live above a bar in Thailand and drink beer.

In the present, an American billionaire has paid a huge amount of money to a Chinese scientist to build a state of the art marine research facility. Using cool (possibly magical) submarines, the facility is exploring the Marianas Trench. Their hypothesis is that it is deeper than it looks and the supposed bottom is a layer of hydrogen sulphide gas which hides a hidden current of warm water. Piloting the submarine to check this out is, gosh, Jason Statham’s ex-wife. The submarine gets attacked by a mysterious sea monster and the crew are trapped at the bottom of the sea. The pilot manages one last transmission “Jason Statham was right about the mysterious giant sea monsters all along!” (I may be misquoting the dialogue). So, Jason Statham is brough back to do one last rescue mission.

I have zero issue with the magical submarines that travel to any depth. This is meant to be all nonsense. This first section of the film (the sub rescue) is an OK-but-silly sci-fi/hi-tech thriller with submarines and sea monsters. It is what you sign up for when you click the icon for the film on your streaming service of choice. It’s only once the sub’s crew have largely been rescued that the strange nature of the film is revealed.

Films, like plays, have acts. Phases of plot that have their own arcs and partial resolutions but which together form an overarching plot. This film has something else. The best description would be “episodes”, like a TV series. There is an overarching plot (Jason Statham versus a big shark) but not really conventional acts. Instead, established tensions between characters tend to be resolved at the end of each of the film’s episodes.

It’s hard to explain. Imagine if you didn’t know how long your film had to be and that it might be 40 minutes, 80 minutes or 120 minutes long. So you write the plot so that you can (with the addition of a bit of extra dialogue) finish the movie at various points. In particular tensions between characters are set-up and then quickly resolved. A simple example is Jason Statham and his ex-wife. She’s a hotshot submarine pilot and he’s been ostracised by the hotshot submarine pilot community because of his fanciful tales of giant sea monsters. Oooh tension!

Except…it’s quickly established he was right all along but ANYWAY the pair had separated amicably and there’s no lingering emotions between the two of them anyway. After she is rescued she only gets one more scene much later on. The character is only Jason Statham’s ex-wife to give him more motivation to take up submarine-rescuing again. Which…well it avoids the cliche of them getting back together again now that he’s proved he wasn’t imagining sea monsters or her explaining tearfully that it was never about the sea monsters she left him because he was married to the sea or something. Yet in avoiding cliches, the story doesn’t offer anything else instead.

So the submarine rescue story is all resolved. You check the running time on film and there’s still 80 minutes to go, so you know the giant shark is coming back. Which it does, which sets off a different episode. Which has it’s own conclusion (and a fake-out ending, which again could have been edited to make it the actual ending). The film then starts up again.

Each pause-restart drains the tension from the story. Likewise, there are repeated cases of what I’d call watered-down cliches. The ex-wife is the strongest example, in that the cliched plot contrivance of the ex-wife isn’t avoided but then set-up has the drama removed. The obnoxious and foolish American billionaire plays out in a similar way: he’s still the obnoxious character who makes bad decisions that endanger everybody because he’s an entitled arse but they tone it down a lot for no good reason. Why bother with a stock character and then try to make them a bit more realistic?

There’s nothing to hate here and nothing to get enthused by. It’s neither naively camp nor self-aware comedy. The best bit is Jason Statham watching a small dog swim past him right at the end, whose role in events he has been completely unaware of. It’s the nearest thing to a decent joke in the movie (and I should note to dog lovers that no dogs get eaten by sharks in the film but one dog is presumed eaten-by-shark but turns up OK).

I haven’t read the book the film is based on. From the plot synopsis there are many elements in common, some of which explain some of the odd elements of the film as if the script had to retain points of commonality while changing the tone and the emotional stakes for everybody. Very odd.


With apologies to Reginald Dwight

[Timothy the Talking Cat] You see? You see? I totally tricked you.
[Camestros Felapton] Hmmm
[Tim] You thought we were going to go and see Godzilla but we actually went to see Rocketman.
[CF] That’s OK. I enjoyed the film.
[Tim] But admit that I totally tricked you.
[CF] OK, you totally tricked me despite the local cinema not currently showing Godzilla and despite the posters all around town advertising the Bortsworth RSPCA Movie Gala and Dress Your Companion Animal Like Elton John Competition and despite the movie tickets that you made me print out saying ‘Rocketman’.
[Tim] Yes, but I wrote ‘Godzilla’ over the top of them.
[CF] Technically you wrote ‘Globzila’ and it was in purple crayon.
[Tim] Prank of the decade.
[CF] You don’t think I might have guessed when you insisted that I make you a sequinned jumpsuit with ‘Elton’ written on the back and that we set out to the film with you wearing giant spectacles and that you sang ‘Crocodile Rock’ all the way there?
[Tim] Nope, you were totally fooled and I made you watch a rock star biopic which is a genre you utterly hate,
[CF] Not at all. I enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody.
[Tim] If you enjoyed it so much, why didn’t you take me along.
[CF] I feel like that question answers itself.
[Tim] I love Queen.
[CF] You love THE Queen of England…and also the only bit of any of their songs you ever sing is ‘Bismillah No!’
[Tim] It’s the best bit.
[CF] Which you like to sing to the tune of ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’
[Tim] I just feel that once they had found the best possible lyric that they should have stuck with it.
[CF] Luckily for popular culture they ignored your advice.
[Tim] I’ll concede that music lyrics is one aspect of the written arts to which I have not yet stooped to conquer.
[CF] To the relief of music audiences everywhere.
[Tim] Which only goes to show that you are the Bernie Taupin in this relationship and that I am the Elton John.
[CF] As in I have to write everything you say?
[Tim] As in you are just an imaginary aspect of my personality. An manifestation of my inner introvert, who appears to me in hallucinations because I’m just so amazing that parts of my subconscious manifest themselves as guiding spirits.
[CF] I…you know Bernie Taupin is a real person right?
[Tim] Oh you silly man. That was just a movie. I’ve explained the difference to you before.
[CF] No, I explained the difference about fact & fiction to you. Taupin is a real person, he really did write the lyrics to most of Elton John’s most famous songs and they have had a lifelong collaboration.
[Tim] Look that is not what the film showed. Taupin was just a magical plot device to reveal Elton’s inner dialogue with himself. It’s like that film where a gladiator hires Tony Stark’s butler.
[CF] What? Oh…OK…you mean A Beautiful Mind?
[Tim] Exactly! Taupin isn’t meant to be REAL. That would just be ridiculous. What? He magically writes lyrics that somehow match the exact emotions of Elton John’s character throughout his whole life even for bits before they met and when he wasn’t there?
[CF] That’s not…OK, yes that is sort of how the film works but that’s just a device to mix the music into the plot.
[Tim] You said it was all real!
[CF] No, I just said Bernie Taupin is a real person! The film itself was fictionalised.
[Tim] I think it was a documentary. They couldn’t just say that Elton John has anti-gravity powers AND can shoot rockets out of his feet. That would be slander!
[CF] That’s not how slander works. I really liked the blend of fantasy and reality.
[Tim] You mean like the spooky Bernie Taupin character?
[CF] No, once again, he’s real. I mean the dance sequences, that surreal rendition of Rocketman at the bottom of a swimming pool, the way songs are matched to the scene rather than the time period they were written — those things are fictionalised. And that’s good. I like the fantastical element to the film. It was appropriate for the genre and for Elton John as a character
[CF] Well that and the other pop-music biopic cliches. The troubled childhood, moments loaded with a sense of destiny, the stress of sudden success, the emotionally manipulative manager; that’s all mandatory as is the rise, fall and recover plot structure.
[Tim] Aha! As I said. You actually hate these kinds of movies and I can quote you. “They tend to cliches, a life-is-fate perspective and mawkish sentimentality while trivialising mental health issues with a vouyeuristic puritanism that wallows in both depicting and condemning excess”.
[CF] I don’t remember saying that.
[Tim] I found it in your subconscious. I was looking for dark secrets to blackmail you with.
[CF] Well, I mean that’s all partly true of the film but it would be absurd to look at Elton John’s life in that period without it being about a rise and fall, as well as looking at his sexuality and his lifestyle. However, the film centres on a friendship between two men who just work really well together and bring out the best each other even when Elton John’s life is going off the rails in multiple ways.
[Tim] You mean the way it focuses on his imaginary friend Bernie Taupin?
[CF] Who is not remotely imaginary and who is an actual real living person.
[Tim] So not like you then?
[CF] I am NOT a figment of your imagination.
[Tim] I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words, how fictional you are when you’re in my world…

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.]