As is often the case, my memory plays tricks on me: I thought I had read Children of Time last year—no, I read it in 2021! I’m actually impressed I recalled as much of it as I did when I started Children of Ruin, though Adrian Tchaikovsky does his best to provide pertinent backstory. I wanted to say he does this without infodumping, because it’s kind of true, except that this whole story is kind of infodumping. It’s … odd.
Spoilers, if you can call them that, for the first book but not for this one—and this is one of those cases where I think you can read this book without reading the last.
Children of Ruin follows the adventure of one of the Human–Portiid vessels that sets out from Kern’s World at the end of Children of Time. It arrives in a system that was the destination of another terraforming project. Through flashbacks, Tchaikovsky tells us the story of this system while the Humans and Portiids—assisted by a copy of the Avrana Kern intelligence—make perilous contact with the inhabitants of this system, who are a form of uplifted and evolved octopus. For, much like on Kern’s World, terraforming this system didn’t go to plan (when does it ever in this universe), yet life tenaciously found a way. The octopus civilization is difficult to converse with, however—the gap between them seems even wider than the one between Humans and Portiids. Meanwhile, an ancient threat—the first alien life to be discovered in this galaxy—awaits them all on the surface of Nod, and perhaps elsewhere.
We like to meditate on the difference between “hard” and “soft” SF. However, maybe the labels should be hard and easy. The latter simply means that the author has decided to dial down the difficulty level of so much related to space travel and life in space for the purposes of a more fanciful story. The former, on the other hand, is less about adherence to science versus a much more granular approach to that science. Children of Ruin is hard in that sense: everyone in this book is playing on hard mode.
Consequently, the majority of this book is people of various species struggling and failing to be understood by one another. It’s frustrating—or it would be, if it weren’t so damn fascinating. Tchaikovksy’s talent, as I noted in my review of the first book, is his imagination. He has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what it would be like if spiders evolved a society, if octopuses evolved on a water world, etc. What would truly alien life be like? What do you do when you run across it and it wants to go on an adventure with you, but this adventure means potentially losing what makes you you?
Frankenstein is often cited as the first science-fiction novel, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is also a horror story. These two genres are entwined. Though Children of Ruin is not expressly horror in a classical sense, Tchaikovsky plays with many of the horror tropes, right down to an entity reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Thing. This book is a reminder that non-human life, whether it evolves from terrestrial or extraterrestrial stock, is going to feel very alien to us indeed. And even if it isn’t malicious, its simple fact of existing might be anathema to our own existence.
Tchaikovsky asks us to think very differently about what the future might be like. I love books like this, and the thought experiment here is, in my opinion, a very satisfying one to run on the story emulator that is my meat brain.
However, I would be hard pressed to defend this book in terms of the storytelling itself. This is one of those books that is light on dialogue—conversations are sparse throughout the text—and heavy on exposition. I was OK with that because I was into the thought experiment, but I know many others would put the book down upon discovering this—and that’s totally valid. Tchaikovsky’s style here is so information-dense that it almost entirely distracts you from the actual narrative unfolding.
That being said, don’t mistake all this exposition for a lack of characterization. If you do, you’ll miss out. Tchaikovsky carefully develops so many different personalities in this cast: intuitive and determined Helena, adventurous Portia, frustrated and inquisitive Fabian, and especially Kern herself. Each of these characters, and others, brings something to the mix, and I enjoyed spending time with all of them.
So as a result of all this, I really vacillated about my rating. Two stars, because what story is here is stretched tissue thin across the novel? Or do I award Children of Ruin five stars, as I did with Ninefox Gambit, because its overall execution is science fiction in a nutshell? I guess a solid three stars is appropriate, and I hope this review has done its job of adequately evaluating what this book does: push the boundaries of what we might imagine the future to be like in a way that is entertaining, if not consistently so.