Thursday, August 24, 2023

Microreview: Children of Memory and the Children of Time series by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Ending the long saga started with Children of Time, Children of Memory changes the framing of the series, and its thrust, in a somewhat unexpected direction.

It’s been a long time, in book years (a decade) and in the chronology of the book since Avrana Kern’s terraforming project resulted in uplifted spiders who would the center of a web of allies exploring the stars. With intelligent octopi, Humans and a very strange fungus among them, through two volumes of the Children of Time series, this group of unlikely allies is now forming a multi-system, interstellar civilization. This civilization has, as one of its goals, to find any remnants of the terraforming wave that Avrana Kern, when she was a human and not an AI, was part of.

The planet Imir, a marginal planet even with what terraforming has been done, is their next target. But the visit by the Skipper to the planet Rourke first provides possible new additions to the interstellar polity, ones whose entry sets the theme for the book, and possibly the entire series.

This is the story of Children of Memory, the third of the Children of Time books by Adrian Tchaiskovsky.

Despite a somewhat elliptical approach at the different time frames of the book and when things occur, the plot of Children of Memory seems straightforward, almost too straightforward, at first. A marginal colony on a not great world, the once mighty terraformers have been reduced,by the loss of technology and the ravages of having to live on a planet, to a much more hardscrabble existence. The parallels and allusions in science fiction are many, the people who dared the stars on long and dangerous interstellar journeys now more concerned about the health of a nearby forest and breeding better pigs. Their ability to reach orbit to the remains of the ramshackle spacecraft that brought them to Imir is gone. Into this community, young Liff Holt, granddaughter of Hoerst Holt, captain of the Enkidu, is trying to make her way in a world slowly crumbling. Things appear bleak, until she meets some strangers in town. They say they came from one of the outfarms that have failed. Where they have come from, and why they have such skills, is actually much stranger...

So what Tchaikovsky sets up, or appears to set up, is something out of a classic Star Trek episode, with fallen descendants of spacefaring humanity being visited by the Federation, but in secret, without their knowledge. That is a solid and well worn story structure and if that is what the author was going for and nothing more, Children of Memory would be a solid book by the author, and in line with much of his work and its themes. This simplicity is not in keeping with the author’s penchant for extremely complicated worldbuilding and worlds, nor his penchant for strong themes.

Children of Memory’s real plot and real setup is something I am manifestly not going to tell you. Here. It is something for reader to seek and discover for themselves. There are clues and dropped breadcrumbs, early, that things may not be as simple as you think, but it is not for me to point at those guideposts and to instead let you the reader figure out what he is really up to, in terms of plot. What I do want to discuss, and look at detail, is an emergent theme of the book, and apparently, looking back to Children of Time and Children of Ruin, of the entire series, and that is the nature of mind and consciousness itself.

Not exactly a small theme, no?

The theme has been there since Children of Time, ever since Avrana Kern became much more than just a human terraformer, she became an artificial intelligence running on some very unusual hardware (an ant colony), and eventually becoming a backbone of the entire interstellar civilization. Who is Avrana Kern and is there really a “who” there. She remembers being the terraformer who came to the world eventually named for her but how much of that is her, now. And is she really a person? These are questions that slid into the second book, Children of Ruin, through the fungal creature on Nod, which can take on the memories and aspects of those it has absorbed. And now to the third book, Children of Memory, we come to the culmination of that theme in the Corvids.

The Corvids, from Rourke, are another of the Terraforming projects of old humanity. Another marginal world, and a colony that couldn’t quite hack it on that world. The small number of humans eventually died out, but not before accidentally uplifting the crows, one of the species they brought to the world that actually was flourishing. But it is the nature of these crows and the nature of this uplift that brings the theme of this book, and thus the emergent theme of this book, to full flower and light.

For, you see, the Corvids do not believe themselves sentient at all. Intelligent, yes. Clever, yes. Capable, yes. But the Corvids really are only effective and whole in specific pairs, with each of the members of the pair vastly and differently portions of a complete intelligence. And even together as a single intelligence, are they are a consciousness? Gothli and Gethli, two Corvids who wind up accompanying the Skipper on the Imir mission, themselves have conversations between themselves, and especially with Avrana Kern about the nature of sentience and intelligence and consciousness. They contend that they are not a sentience at all, that only together, their powers split between the two, the two of them add up to a functional intelligence. But it is a Chat GPT type of intelligence that uses prior knowledge and connections, but really does not have an inner life.

Where the novel goes a little further, and takes us into Peter Watts’ Blindsight, is that the birds then put to Avrana that she herself, being an artificial intelligence that is far removed from the original version of herself, may not be conscious, either. And, even, the question of if anything in the universe currently found can be considered to be conscious and sentient, or just really good at fooling themselves that they are. Gothli and Gethli present an argument that nobody and nothing really is.

And then there is Miranda. Miranda is a human intelligence being emulated by the Nodan fungus. The Nodan fungus (from Children of Ruin) can emulate a number of intelligences that it has incorporated and dealt with over the years. Is the Nodan fungus intelligent? Sentient? Aware? Miranda herself, upon contact with Gothli and Gethli, questions sentience, intelligence and being, but within herself, not in direct dialogue with the Corvids. For Miranda, the questions of sentience, consciousness and being are an internal struggle, and no mistake, it is a struggle. She is aware that her fellow crewmembers, especially Paul the Octopus, are a little wary of her given how amok the fungus used to be before it started to understand there was sentient life beyond itself that had rights and thoughts. She is not quite trusted as much as respected. But who is the parasite anyway? The people and beings it’s absorbed? All of them? None of them? Is there a there there.

And does it all matter? Can one tell if a being is sentient as well as intelligent? And what makes a being, anyhow? And in the end, what does it mean? Tchaikovsky doesn’t try to give us definitive answers, but the conversations the characters have are fascinating. Even more interesting is “in the doing”, how the characters behave, act, and deal with who and what they are.

It is somewhat of a spoiler to admit hat the resolution and what is behind the veil of what is really the story of Imir does tie into this basic question, hooking the theme of the book (and thus, I think the series) into the main plotline of the book. And having it ground eventually in the story does prevent this from being college-level speculations on consciousness and being without any heft to them. We are made by the author to care about the characters and this situation

I don’t think, looking back, now at the series as a whole, since this is a good place to do it, that Children of Memory, or Children of Ruin are as quite incandescently perfect and shining as Children of Time was. Neither quite hits the absolute and utter perfection of that book, one of the great Science fiction novels of our time. What I do appreciate is that the subsequent novels, and especially Children of Memory here, do different things, try different things and expand the playground of Tchaikovsky’s imagination, and the imagination of the reader as well. Instead of incandescent, the Children of Time series is “just” an exceptionally good Space Opera series. Tchaikovsky is firmly and strongly one of my autobuy authors.

One final note: The Children of Time series is up for a Hugo this year for Best Series, and I think it is a very worthy finalist, and currently as of my reading (August 2024), is my #1 choice. Also, I have been told that Tchaikovsky may be writing more books in this verse, which indeed is good news.


Nerd coefficient: 8/10


• Lots of interesting philosophy about sentience and consciousness

• A diverse and wide cast of characters across species, genders and more

• Clever and strong plotting and rich worldbuilding.

Reference: Tchaikovsky, Adrian, Children of Memory [2022, UK, 2023, US, Orbit]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.