Children of Ruin (Children of Time II) – Adrian Tchaikovsky

A generation after the conclusion of Children 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.

Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds – Alastair Reynolds

This massive collection contains most of Mr. Reynolds’s short stories and novelettes, which have formerly appearaed in other publications. Some are set in the Revelation Space universe, but most are standalone. Thousandth Night is a prequel of sorts to House of Suns. It is by far the weakest of the entries, overlong and tedious like most of the book it connects with. The average standard is very high, as one would expect from Mr. Reynolds. Most deal in some way with the nature and meaning of existence, as well as the spectre of deep time. In Mr. Reynolds’s worlds, faster than light travel is impossible, so it may take thousands of years to travel between stars, making any sort of coherent and stable interstellar society almost impossible. Vainglory, and the charming Zima Blue, are their hearts commentaries on the nature of art and legacy.

As ever with this author, the prose is polished, the characters are deep and interesting, and the concepts are often awe-inspiring. A nice read in parts and as a whole.

House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

Six millions years previously, Abigail Gentian, scion of an influential and rich family, made one thousand clones of herself and infused each one with her personality and memories. Since then “Gentian Line” has travelled the Milky Way at sublight speeds, exploring, experiencing and helping civilisations. Every two hundred thousand years, the “shatterlings” of Gentian Line come together in a grand reunion, to share experiences and memories, and to remember their lost.

Purslane and Campion are two shatterlings who, despite strong taboos against it, have fallen in love and travel together. They are thousands of years late for the coming reunion. Once they arrive, they find that the Line has been attacked for unknown reasons, and decimated.

The premise is interesting, tackling the tricky concept of deep time and societal survival. Is it possible for a planet-bound civilisation, or even an interstellar empire, to sustain its own existence beyond a few tens of thousands of years? And what of consciousness, machine or biological. How can these handle intervals of millions of years, even if many are spent in suspended animation?

Unfortunately, too much of the story depends on reactions to events that happened previously, which are revealed piecemeal in massive and awkward infodumps. The plot will grind to a halt as a character expounds for pages and pages on events of five millions years ago and how they explain the events of last year in perceived time (which perhaps actually happened fifty thousand years ago in actual time). The love story of Purslane and Campion is sweet and tragic and compelling, and that would have made a lovely book. However, the whole edifice is heavily weighed down by having to explain and analyse the effects of deep time and ancient history, making it an ungainly slog only rescued by Mr. Reynolds’s superb prose and flair for illustrating the immense. Ironically, the final chapters are absolutely beautiful and would have been an amazing coda to a less ponderous narrative.

Children of Time (Children of Time I) – Adrian Tchaikovsky

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.

Tau Zero – Poul Anderson

The sublight colony starship Leonora Christine, powered by a Bussard Ramjet, is damaged while passing through a small nebula.  The decelerator mechanism is disabled and cannot be repaired unless a region of empty space is reached. The crew elects to continue accelerating in order to find a refuge. Due to the effects time dilation as the ship claws ever closer to the speed of light, ship time and outside time become increasingly disconnected. As the months and years pass on board, eons pass outside.

Tau Zero is an acknowledged science fiction classic. Some parts have not aged too well, in particular the 1960s social mores and optimistic view of the human races’ collective rationality. Some of the content also feels a bit like padding, most likely because it started out as a short story. However it remains a well executed hard science fiction story which manages to bring home the insignificance of individuals, and even of humanity itself, when confronted with the almost unimaginable vastness of time and space.

Starbound (Marsbound II) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound2StarboundIn the sequel to Marsbound, Carmen and Paul, along with a few other human and Martian crew members, are tasked with an interstellar exploratory mission to the presumed home planet of the Others. Despite the “free energy” discovered in the previous book, the trip will take years, skimming the speed of light. But do the Others appreciate the intrusion? And what do they really want?

Most of the book is about the trip itself, and the psychological challenges of living for years in a confined space while hurtling towards what the crew thinks is probably doom. The last part sees humanity confronted once again with the judgment of the mysterious Others. These aliens seem to see humanity as somewhere between clumsy child and dangerous but manageable pest. The fact that humanity is hopelessly outclassed, and can only use its action to prove intent, gives an interesting perspective, as does the fact that the human emissaries feel that those who sent them out really don’t understand the problem. The ending is a massive cliffhanger, leading directly to the third and final book.

Haldeman does not disappoint, with his trademark unexpected but internally consistent logical plot twists. His characters, this time described from three different first person viewpoints, are flawed and realistic, down to little marital niggles that most would rather keep hidden even from themselves.

4Rosbochs

Spider Star – Mike Brotherton

SpiderStarThe inhabitants of an extrasolar colony accidentally triggers a weapon system built into the star they orbit. With the help of archaeological records evidence, they can trace its creation back to an ancient race that inhabited the system. An expedition is sent to the mythical “Spider Star” in order to find a solution. The journey itself takes years, and when they arrive, everything is so very alien.

The premise is intriguing and fascinating. The plot itself is not half bad. Unfortunately the characters are uninspired cardboard cutouts and the read itself is fantastically dull. I really wanted to like this book but after about reading about two thirds of it I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

2Rosbochs