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.
Niven is at his best in collaboration, and this is no exception. Building Harlequin’s Moon is is a story in many layers. The main plot line is about the first interstellar starship, escaping a Sol System full of renegade AIs and nanotech, escaping to reclaim humanity. But there is a malfunction and the starship is stranded in a barren star system partway to its goal. More antimatter is needed to refuel the ship, and the colonists refuse to use nanotech due to their belief that nanotech leads to evil. The only option is to spend sixty thousand years (yes it’s a long time but they can extend their lifespans indefinitely) building a habitable moon out of smaller ones, and then populating it with flora, fauna, humans, and then finally industrializing and constructing a huge collider to make antimatter. Rachel is a “Moon Born” “Child”, basically a slave to the goal of ultimately fueling the ship. But what no colonist counted on was that the Children are human too, and once the cogs in the plan are live humans, you have to look them in the eye. The titanic endeavor is ambitious in the extreme, but is it worth the cost to their souls?
On another level, the story is about Rachel, from her rather innocent teenage years to her coming of age as a leader of her people. And on yet another level, it’s about what makes us human. Our values, our biology, our goals?
The rather slow style of the book suits the story well, and events are followed in a careful fashion as we move, never too fast, through the action.
Building Harlequin’s Moon is full of wonderful three dimensional characters. Niven & Cooper ensure that even the most seemingly irrational and heartless protagonist is well understood by the reader as they delve deeply into her motivations. This novel shows humans at their best and worst, and it is impossible not to be entranced by the adventures of Rachel, Gabriel and the others. This is quite simply a masterpiece.
Now a permanent Imperial Auditor, Miles is sent to Barrayar’s subject planet of Komarr to investigate an “accident” on a solar mirror. The mirror is part of a centuries long projecto to terraform Komarr. Currently, Komarrans live in domed cities. Through a fellow auditor, he makes the acquaintance of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of a Barrayaran terraforming administrator. Miles is smitten. He must now solve the mystery of the accident, while sorting out his feelings for Ekaterin. Unfortunately, she is used as a pawn the by the sinister conspirators behind the accident when these move to enact their terrorist
I found Komarr absolutely stellar. Confident Miles is stepped back from the action a bit to make room for the conflicted character of Ekaterin. She seems everything he could wish for, but she is married and suspicious of men in general. A challenge worthy of our hero. McMaster Bujold manages to make her vulnerable and angry without making her weak and abrasive. By delving deep into the source of her unhappiness, McMaster Bujold lays out a character one cannot help but like despite her flaws. It is made clear how Ekaterin dug herself this hole. The sense of duty which noble Barrayarans so treasure has trapped her in a loveless marriage to a loser. The resolution, while bringing forth the “true” Ekaterin, does not end with “happily ever after”. The author acknowledges that life is not so simple, but without depriving us of a satisfying triumph.
This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.