Adrian Tchaikovsky Explores the Limits of our Comprehension
I’ve lost track how many books, articles and essays have been written up until now on the subject of alien contact. Some of the most calculating and imaginative minds have, over the decades, theorized on the seemingly innumerable ways in which the scenario might play out on the gargantuan spectrum between prosperity and total annihilation. I believe like many regular people with no professional investment in the field, I too like to imagine from time to time how our contact with the aliens might go. Recently, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin opened my eyes to one possibility I often overlooked: what if we will be beyond each other’s comprehension?
This book takes place many years after Children of Time, taking us into an entirely new scenario bound to test humanity in a different way. Essentially, humanity has been probing space for radio signals, along with their newfound spider allies, and lo and behold, they found fragmentary waves between the stars. What’s more, these waves seem to indicate these could be long-lost cousins from the old Earth, dispatched a long time ago as part of the terraforming program.
Unbeknownst to the current remnants of humanity however, the terraforming program awoke something on the planet eons ago… something which could spell doom and destruction for whoever visits the planet. An exploration vessel is now on the way, past the point of no return, and they will be faced with a challenge which will push the limits of their understanding and their creativity in communicating with incommunicable elements. The battle for survival is growing more heated by the second, draining hope as humanity comes to realize it is facing against something exceeding its comprehension of the universe… the end seems closer than ever before.
The Slow Galactic Burner
For those of you who remember the previous book in the series mentioned above, I feel you will only partly have an idea of what you would be getting into here. In the first novel, there was a clear double narrative going on, with observable contrasts and similarities as well as the very concrete goal of humanity’s survival being in play. Compared to this second novel, it seemed to me there was a far greater sense of urgency in it all, with the stakes being all or nothing. This time around, you should prepare yourself for a slower and more measured adventure.
This is first noticeable fairly early on in the book as the pace itself takes its time to build the world and the new characters, unfolding in a rather gentle manner throughout essentially the whole thing. While personally I don’t mind slower-paced books, I could see how it would be a turn-off for some readers for there are many moments during which this slow burn doesn’t exactly advance the story in favour of providing us with more information about the world.
Particularly speaking, there are actually various long pages of the book dedicated to describing in tiny and technical details the intricacies of virtual reality and how it might be used to communicate with alien intelligence. Tchaikovsky goes into great detail about how such computer programs would function, and to me personally it was interesting, but I feel it was largely the case because of my background in computers which stems from childhood. I could definitely see people who aren’t interested in computer science finding these sections a bit more annoying. With this being said, they aren’t too long or prevalent in the grand scheme of things, and do touch on some interesting ideas accessible to anyone.
The Troubles of Communication in Children of Ruin
As with the previous book, it felt to me the plot was largely a vehicle which the author used to study various philosophical and sociological concepts in his hypothetical universe. While the first time around we were presented with a civilization which mirrored humanity, this time we are studying one which diverges from it in various ways. As such, Tchaikovsky puts at the forefront of his thoughts the problem of communication in such a scenario; after all, for it to be possible, some common ground must be found, or built if necessary.
Once again, we are treated to an extremely profound study of this alien society, and I must say it shows how much fun the author had in letting his imagination fly to construct a completely new and unique organism. While the lack of elements mirroring human society do indeed make these aliens less relatable in some regards, I instead found myself drawn to their story as I would be in a fantasy novel. It’s an exercise in imagination which, while not as powerful as the one in the previous book, still hooks you with its own charms.
The author certainly doesn’t pretend to know all the answers, and the solution he posits to the issue is only one of many. As a matter of fact, I had the distinct impression Tchaikovsky’s goal was to push the readers to try and solve this conundrum for themselves. We are unlikely to witness it during our lifetime, but far into the future it might eventually turn out to be a very real concern for our descendants.
The Final Verdict
Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a worthy successor to the previous novel, being different from it in enough ways to stand in its own right as a technically-strong and philosophically-engaging science-fiction story, even if a bit slow at times. I highly recommend it to fans of Tchaikovsky’s writings, as well as anyone who enjoys methodical sci-fi works.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is a British writer of fantasy and science-fiction novels whose novel Children of Time won the 30th Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016. His best-known works include the Shadows of the Apt and After the War series, as well as the standalone novels Guns of the Dawn and Dogs of War. In 2017 he also had the distinction of receiving the British Fantasy Award – Best Fantasy Novel for “The Tiger and the Wolf”.