In Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky Shows Us How You Top Super-Intelligent Spiders in Space

Though Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, reads like a brilliant standalone hard sci-fi masterpiece, given the reception it received—the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and strong enough sales in the U.S. that a new publisher picked up the domestic rights—a follow-up seemed all but assured. That first millennia-spanning story of cryoships, human evolution, and weighing the pros and cons of a society ruled by cat-sized, hyper-intelligent spiders took a pulpy premise and, in the best tradition of sci-fi, turned it into something thoughtful and humane.

The sequel, Children of Ruin, has a lot to live up to, and it does just that: this novel is more than a match for its impressive predecessor.

At the outset, we’re confronted with another group of pioneers who’d set out from a most-likely doomed Earth in search of planets to be terraformed. These advance scouts seek out potentially livable worlds and begin the slow process of adapting them for human habitation. They are playing a very long game—the terraforming scientists will place themselves in cryo-sleep not only to endure long periods of interstellar travel, but also after they reach their destination planet and have triggered the terraforming process, which takes thousands of years, only awakening in intervals to monitor and adjust. If all goes according to plan, refugees from Earth will arrive to find a perfectly livable environment. Only the terraformers haven’t had any contact with Earth for quite some time, and when they arrive at their destination they find not one, but two worlds of interest: one they name Damascus, and which meets many of their criteria for habitability, save for the fact that it’s almost entirely ocean; and Nod, a terrestrial, Earth-like world already home to a thriving ecosystem, including a wide array of animal life.

This is the first signs of alien life encountered in this series (the bugs from the last book having been borne from our dying Earth), and while team leader Yusuf Baltiel recognizes that his mission is to prepare the way for future colonists, he’s also understandably averse to potentially wiping out the pre-existing life. He directs the team to study Nod while they focus on terraforming the water world, aided in his decision by one of the scientists on his team, Disra Senkovi, who has experience working with octopuses (yes, that’s the appropriate plural) as both pets and as potential assistants in underwater repairs. Senkovi has access to the same nanovirus that, in Children of Time, provided an accidental evolutionary boost to a colony of jumping spiders. Here, he’s using it in a tailored fashion to aid in developing a legion of cephalopod workers.

Meanwhile (though actually many centuries later; the mind-expanding scale of this novel matches its predecessor as well)) we check back in on the human/spider civilization as we left them at the end of the previous book: a cooperative blended crew has set out on a ship called Voyager. Though humans remain a tiny minority among the Portiid spiders, relations are relatively harmonious between two species. The ship’s intelligence consists of the remains of the uploaded mind of Avrana Kern, the brilliant but prickly scientist whose nanovirus inadvertently kickstarted the advanced spider society. Millions of trained ants provide various support functions, making for a truly multicultural crew.

When the ship encounters inexplicable and indecipherable signals from what is clearly an advanced civilization, the two plot two threads dovetail, and the crew of the Voyager discovers what became of that early terraforming team and their clever invertebrates. If you’re paying attention, you not that means we have as many as three, and possibly more, intelligent species in the mix, and as they do just that, Tchaikovsky takes full advantage of the opportunity to craft dramatic action set pieces—and has a great deal of fun with the potential complications of  a human/spider/octopus conflict while doing so.

Cephalopods are curious and intellectually nimble, even in their garden-variety present-day form. Though determinations of intelligence across species lines are fraught, and our own limitations bias us in analyzing the reasoning capacity of other life forms, octopuses consistently demonstrate that they’re among the smartest creatures on our planet—at least by our own standards. Certain types have demonstrated cooperation, tool use, and even playfulness. But for all that, they’re also incredibly alien. Intelligent behavior in apes isn’t tough for us to comprehend—they’re only a small step away on the evolutionary ladder. But seagoing invertebrates with eight semi-autonomous appendages who communicate through color, texture, and gesture? Thats a wildly different proposition.

As in the previous book’s exploration of spider culture, Tchaikovsky has set himself a unique challenge here: science fiction aliens are generally subject entirely to the imagination of an author—they may or may not be subject to the rules of science as they exist on Earth, and their developments are largely limited only by the laws of story. Not so with cephalopods, creatures that exist in the here-and-now. Though they are subjected to the uplift virus that quickened the evolution of the portiid jumping spiders, neither Disra Senkovi nor Tchaikovsky spend much time on its influence—their development is augmented only in small and specific ways, largely because they are already smart enough that they don’t need much help. Just a little push. Once they’re given access to tools tailored for their bodies, they’re able to interface with human technology relatively quickly.

Tchaikovsky approaches the development of this new underwater superpower with an eye toward believability: there are plenty of perfectly entertaining stories to be told about intelligent spacefaring cephalopods, but the author displays a preference for thoughtful consideration—what would an advanced octopus society look like?—that quickly moves the novel from the realm of pulp sci-fi into something approaching inevitability. Of course these creatures will one day go to space, and they’ll be more than a match for us when they do. With a wonderfully nerdy precision, he’s considered the ways in which octopuses might communicate across great distances, how their use of water as a tool might apply to mining, and even the particular dangers inherent in water-filled ships cruising through the cold of space. As in Children of Time, Tchaikovsky’s ability to seriously envision the seemingly outlandish scenario is marvelous.

Children of Ruin improves and expands upon all of the things that its predecessor did so well, and more: now juggling multiple disparate forms of intelligence, he must not only consider how humans and cephalopods might interest, but how cephalopods might interact with super-intelligent spiders. In the background, he creates a rather charmingly cohesive human/spider/ant crew overseen by the intelligence of an egomaniacal dead scientist. And atop all of that, the plot hinges on an encounter another entirely new form of life, suggesting new complications, on the world of Nod. Amidst the human folly and civilizational conflicts of this series, it’s a discovery that prompts a rather wonderful vision of unlikely friendship.

More to the point: such weird, disparate, and very big ideas have no business working together—certainly humans, spiders, and ants don’t make for natural allies. But, somehow, a story about brainy space octopuses in conflict with giant spiders is not only smart and thoughtful, but comes to feel oddly plausible. And, for all its conflict, it offers a reminder that unlikely cooperation might be our only hope. In that sense, it isn’t just an engaging space opera, but a work of genius one better.

Children of Ruin is available May 14.

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