Review: Children of Ruin

by Tom Grundy (686 words)

Review: Children of Ruin
March 20, 2020 Tom Grundy

In humanity’s distant future, we share a terraformed planet with pig-sized sentient spiders. Earth is a ruin and our civilisation has reset after a devastating war. We detect a signal from a faraway world — one of the other planets our ancestors terraformed. Off we go to investigate. 

Adrian Tchaikovsky (whom we interviewed in Issue 2) is one of Britain’s most-popular contemporary science fiction and fantasy authors. Children of Ruin and its predecessor, 2015’s excellent Children of Time, are this writer’s ‘hard’ sci-fi; he deals with ideas like species uplift, terraforming, and space travel according to the current thinking in those fields. No warp drives or using the Force here.

This book’s events take place in a different place and time and with different characters, so it can be approached on its own — but the story may baffle without the context that reading Children of Time gives.

Several times throughout, you might find yourself smiling at how plausible the preposterous events seem. This is a novel in which octopuses and spiders fly around in spaceships — but so much thought has gone into questions like “what would an octopus society be like?” and “how would spiders communicate?” that at no point does anything seem silly. Some of the most pleasing passages are those dealing with what an octopus’s or a spider’s mind would be like. Tchaikovsky credits the excellent Other Minds (2016) by Peter Godfrey-Smith for informing his depiction of the octopuses; they are more alien than most aliens in fiction, with a distributed brain and a language based on colourful images. The spiders receive similar treatment. This is a more thoughtful exploration of what alien life would be like than most, despite not featuring many actual aliens.

But there are some, and here too Tchaikovsky delights with smart and original ideas — like a slime mould that encodes its experiences at the atomic layer. Unlike Children of Time, this story also features some truly memorable horror sequences. They’re not jarring, but they are horrific. The author appreciates the little details that make for true terror; like the awful knowledge a character has that a parasite is killing him, for example. Tchaikovsky would write great horror novels. 

The writing is lovely, as ever. The vocabulary is thesaurus-bustingly wide. I recommend reading on an ebook, as it’ll save you from reaching for the dictionary every three or four minutes. 

Character sometimes suffers in science fiction; the bigger the ideas, the fewer dimensions the characters often seem to have. But these are proper people, weird and flawed. The introverted, iconoclastic Senkovi and the pompous, well-meaning Baltiel stand out. I actually found these characters more compelling than those in Children of Time; their quirks drive the plot. 

It’s not perfect, though. One reader on our team found it more serious and factual than the first, though he didn’t find this to the book’s detriment. More seriously, the denouement feels more muddled than Children of Time. The climax rests upon a convoluted set of groups and motivations, including: a ship AI trying to reason with a slime mould inside a chip in a man’s head; two spaceships flying towards them flashing coloured patterns at each other; a spider and a human held captive by octopuses; and a clutch of marooned space travellers trying to get off an alien world. It takes some following, in a way that the ‘us versus them’ climax of Children of Time didn’t. Also, for this reader at least, the moral takeaway seems trite. At risk of spoiling, think: Forster’s ‘only connect’. This is perhaps a light and saccharine dessert after the meatiness of the main course.

However, these are minor quibbles. Children of Ruin is brilliant. It rises above a lot of genre fiction with delightful writing and deft handling of character and perspective, and world-building that is uncommonly thorough. This is a novel of big ideas and small touches, mastery of the micro and the macro. 

Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is published by Pan Macmillan.