There exist universes parallel to ours, in which the evolution of life on Earth took a different branch, a different path. And sometimes, rifts and passageways open between these universes. Mal and Lee are unlikely lovers, investigating he paranormal and cryptozoological. They find a portal to another world, and Mal disappears, only to reappear years later in the company of stocky, Neanderthal-appearing companions. Julian Sabreur is a counterintelligence officer working with analyst Alison Matchell, initially protecting the scientist Kay Amal Khan, before their mission spirals out into the unknown. Khan’s work is classified and very much on the edge of science, and she is being drafted into a project far exceeding life on Earth. Lucas is a thug working for a magnate named Rove who seeks to dominate the multiverse, or that part which he can preserve. But Rove plays his cards close, and Lucas is unsure whether those plans involve him if he is no longer useful.
The story is complex and initially rather ponderous as great events are set up for later payoffs. Delightful interludes detail the development of life in various branches of the multiverse, on different Earths. The characters are finely drawn, coming effortlessly alive through Mr. Tchaikovsky’s flowing and irreverent prose. Descriptions are chiselled out of biting British understatement, both amusing and perfectly targeted.
The sheer ambition of the concept is breathtaking, and while Mr. Tchaikovsky does not achieve perfection, the fact that he manages to pull off the narrative at all is impressive in itself.
Astronaut Gary Rendell is lost in the “crypts”, a dark labyrinth full of horrors. He has been wandering them for an indeterminate amount of time, and is evidently slowly going mad. Through flashbacks, Gary tells the reader about the mysterious artefact which houses the crypts, and how he came to be there.
Mr. Tchaikovsky uses first person narrative to tell the story as if Gary is speaking directly to the reader. In fact, on multiple occasions Gary specifically “speaks” to the reader. This makes the denouement of the narrative quite visceral, as the reader slowly realises why Gary is so despondent. An aura of doom suffuses the story, and the final twist is, if not entirely unexpected by that point, still heartbreaking.
A generation after the conclusion ofChildren of Time, an exploration ship leaves Kern’s World, arriving some time later, by means of sublight travel and crew hibernation, at a star system that appears to harbour life. Unbeknownst to the mixed Portiid and Human crew, millenia previously a terraforming mission arrived from Earth’s fallen Old Empire. Catastrophe befell that mission, leaving behind a spacefaring race of intelligent, uplifted octopi, as well as an ancient alien virus.
The premise involving uplifted octopi is ambitious, even more so than the premise of uplifted spiders in the first novel. The distributed intelligence of an octopus is very alien to the reader, and Mr. Tchaikovsky makes a concerted effort to convey this. Unfortunately for the story, this makes decision making by the characters frequently confusing, contradictory, and transitory, as this is the nature of the sentience of the depicted octopi. While clever, it takes the reader somewhat out of the story. As in Children of Time, the spectre of deep time weighs heavily on the story, bringing themes of legacy, of connection between intelligences, and of the meaning of existence.
A planet orbiting a distant star is seeded with life in a grand experiment. Soon after, back in our solar system, the “Old Empire” collapses in civil war, and human civilisation falls, almost to extinction. Thousands of years later, the ark ship Gilgamesh, carrying hibernating refugees from the poisoned and dying Earth, arrives at the seeded planet. Lacking supervision from those who started the experiment, a race of spiders has risen to sentience, and built its own grand civilisation on the one speck of lush green that humans could use as a new beginning.
Mr. Tchaikovsky’s opus divides its time between the desperate humans on the Gilgamesh, trying to find a place to settle before their ship gives up the ghost, and the evolving spider society on the planet. A story about sentient spiders might seem silly, but the author skillfully makes the arachnids come to life. Their society and technology is nothing like that of humans, but the primal struggle for survival is still very much in evidence. In fact, after only a brief while I started enjoying the spider chapters more than the human chapters, though this may be due to the humans acting in general as selfish and somewhat irrational refugees in a desperate situation.
Themes of loss and revival are strong, as well as the not so subtle lesson of history repeating itself by those who do not study history. The historian protagonist lives the tragedy strongest, given that in these dying days of humanity the very reasons for the race’s near-extinction are ignored, with decision makers blithely trundling towards their own doom, almost seeming afraid to take a step back and look at the big picture. A marvellous novel.