One of those books where the meaning of the title becomes apparent by the end of the book, Children of Memory is the third (and final?) volume of the Children of Time space opera from Adrian Tchaikovsky. What began as a story about the possible evolution of life from Earth on different worlds in one novel has sprawled into an epic meditation on what it means to be alive. Thanks to NetGalley and publisher Orbit for the eARC!
Spoilers for the first and second books in this review but not for this one.
The seeds of this story are planted at the end of Children of Ruin: some time after contact between the Humans/Portiids of Kern’s World and the octopuses and alien creature from the twin system of Damascus/Nod, the tenuous resulting peace has created a multispecies, interstellar, starfaring civilization. Those who want to explore set out in various types of spacecraft, usually with a mixed crew, looking for new things and new experiences—they are, as the Nod creature would put it, “having an adventure.” One such ship has arrived in orbit of another planet that was supposed to be terraformed by humans from Earth and then settled by a subsequent ark ship. They find a strange settlement that probably shouldn’t have survived this long. But as their investigation deepens, the cracks appear wider than they ever thought.
At first, the story seems to be a straightforward plot about a regressive colony being visited by a more “advanced” group of people who then have to decide what to do. Liff, an adolescent girl from the colony, serves as our interlocutor for much of the story. We watch over her shoulder as she puzzles out these newcomers. Liff is perceptive enough to recognize that these visitors are not your run-of-the-mill outsiders and young enough not to be swept up so easily in the xenophobic herd mentality promulgated by her populist uncle. Meanwhile, one of the visitors, Miranda, develops a soft spot for Liff and becomes a proponent of interfering more readily in the colony’s politics, even as her fellow explorers protest that such intervention would be useless at best and harmful at worst.
My thoughts immediately went, of course, to the Prime Directive from Star Trek. The multispecies coalition reminds me a bit of the Federation, even if it is a much less cohesive arrangement. They lack any codified Prime Directive—and indeed, as we see later in the book, interference is practically built into their mission—but many of their early actions are reminiscent of how Star Trek’s characters diligently avoid interfering in the affairs of cultures that haven’t developed faster-than-light spaceflight. Both stances are founded upon the philosophy that sufficiently advanced science does not always mean superior culture or morality, and to impose our own ideologies on other cultures that we encounter could easily lead to a recapitulation of the colonialism and imperialism that both Tchaikovsky and Roddenberry imagined as being firmly in the past of their futures.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear both to Miranda and us (and to a lesser extent, Liff) that something is terribly wrong. The story itself seems to start to break down, with continuity threatened and characterization inconsistent. The ultimate cause of this issue is not, in and of itself, all that original as far as science-fiction tropes go. Nevertheless, I like how Tchaikovsky uses it here. It’s another interesting idea to explore in this universe he has created over the past two novels. It further expands the universe—the mechanism causing this issue is alien in origin, proof of intelligent life out there beyond the creature discovered on Nod, even if that intelligence might not be living any longer. The questions raised by this discovery are profound, and Tchaikovsky’s characters treat them with the gravity they require.
Similarly, Children of Memory asks us to think critically about how we know if we are sentient and self-aware. Two central characters are a bonded pair of corvids who evolved on another failed human terraforming world (well, failed from the point of view of humans—the corvids seem quite satisfied). The corvids exhibit behaviours that seem consistent with sentience, yet they themselves admit that they don’t think they are self-aware! They’re just pretending, the same way that an AI like the currently notorious ChatGPT might pretend to self-awareness. They go so far as to assert that even humans are not, ourselves, actually self-aware either—we’re just algorithms running different software.
(The corvids’ bonded pair nature reminded me a lot of the theory of the bicameral mind, although theirs is split into cataloging and executive function. Very fascinating!)
And it’s true—can we ultimately ever prove that we are sentient beings as opposed to beings who believe we’re sentient and are good enough at faking it? This is the kind of philosophical quandary I’ve come to expect from Tchaikovsky’s writing, and he hasn’t let me down.
I saw a few other early reviews criticize the portrayal of Miranda and how Tchaikovsky reduces the Nod creature, after spending so much time humanizing it in the previous book, to a self-hating caricature of itself. I don’t agree. I think Miranda’s internalized revulsion makes a lot of sense given that she is basically a copy of a Human woman who has all the atavistic reservations about an assimilating creature like the Nod one. The whole point of the Nod creature is that it becomes what it assimilates, so if it assimilates things that feel revulsion or hatred towards it—even subconsciously—of course it will feel those things too. That’s what makes the conflict, Miranda’s characterization, so interesting. She believes she might be responsible somehow for everything that is happening—and in a way she’s right, but in another way she is also so, so wrong.
As far as pacing goes, I will admit that the first half of the book felt like it was slow to me. It was only towards the end, after we know more about what’s happening on this planet, that I started to feel really invested in the story. I think Tchaikovsky’s ideas are always incredible, and his skills as a writer are generally quite strong, but sometimes his storytelling—the way he structures and reveals the exposition of his worlds and characters in particular—leaves me wanting.
Children of Memory was better for me overall than Children of Ruin. I hesitate with how to rank it against Children of Time because they are both great, just for different reasons. I really love the thought experiment at the heart of this novel, whereas the first book in this series is a tour-de-force exploration of interspecies communication, conflict, and cooperation. In any case, this is yet another excellent science-fiction novel that I’m quite happy to have read.