Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates
Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
The more time goes on, the more I think Children of Time is one of my all-time favourite science fiction novels. Despite my enthusiasm for what I thought was a stand-alone novel, the prospect of a sequel did make me a bit wary. The novel had reached a satisfying conclusion; I couldn't imagine where a sequel would go. I shouldn't have been so nervous. Children of Ruin is bigger, yet scaled more intimately, and, instead of retcons or time travel or space battles, is a thoughtful exploration of sentience and communication.
A exploratory vessel, crewed by a human-spider alliance, is on the hunt for more planets, more life, more anything. Their mission might have practical parameters but is truly pure science, the kind popularized by the ethos of Star Trek, the original series. The ship finds substantial evidence of another lifeform, whether completely machine or alien or yet another evolutionary project gone wild, they know not. As they attempt to make contact, the alien lash out defensively, putting the humans and spiders in mortal danger. Meanwhile, in the distant past, another terraforming ship finds a planet they call Nod and an ocean moon orbiting it. The human crew find themselves in (yet again) mortal danger and one member hopes his modified octopuses will evolve fast enough to save them. If these weren't enough balls for Tchaikovsky to juggle, the secret of the planet Nod reveals itself to be utterly terrifying. The author gets to indulge himself in some of the most frightening and harrowing scenes of space-horror I've read in a long time.
Spoilers after this line
In the present timeline, the octopuses have become spacefaring but only thanks to the presence of the human technology. They're too fractious by nature and territorial and indecisive as a species and thus they have polluted their own waters and have accidentally unleashed the plague from Nod, which I still won't spoil the specifics. But suffice it to say, what makes Children of Ruin better than I had hoped is that Tchaikovsky's end is predicated not on "might makes right" or who has the best arsenal of weapons but the ability to cross the almost insurmountable gap of communication between species. The climax of the novel isn't about violence at all, though a ticking clock does feature in the suspense. Instead, like many great Star Trek episodes, crisis is averted by finding common ground and mutual learning. The plague on Nod, the octopuses, the humans, and the spiders discover a compromise through communication. This pushes the novel from the realm of good to great even if during a long stretch in the novel, my patience was thinning thanks to the passivity of the plot. Most of the plot is comprised of the protagonist reacting to something rather than being active participants. This isn't necessarily a negative point but after 300 pages, their passivity gets a bit tiring. Otherwise, this was superb.
I finally bought a hardcopy of Scale-Bright after years of hemming and hawing. I'm not sure how much of the ebook I read way back when (I used an ereader for a bit) so I'll mark this as a first read. I devoured this in two sittings, stopping at the halfway point just to savour it a smidge. I'm so glad I bought the hardcover because I'm going to read this over and over, just to enjoy the prose. While the writing isn't quite as refined as in Winterglass (which, by the way, is a masterpiece), it's still miles ahead of most shit I've read. Most negative reviews have complained of the ornateness of her sentences, the way she piles on descriptors and adjectives, but these work for me as the spice of variety. There's a carefulness and thoughtfulness put into her words and her characters, pushing what could be a standard urban fantasy into the realm of beautiful and poignant. Obvious villains turn out to be more complex and are portrayed with sensitivity; likewise the protagonist learns from her experience without her starting point being useless or ignorant. Her struggles with the fantasy aspects mirrors her personal struggles, but the fantasy never feels like a simple one-to-one extension of her interiority. I wish more authors would write 5 star 100 page novellas instead of 3.5 star 500 page novels. Make the novella standard!! I demand it!! Plus, one has to admire a novel which doesn't pass the gender-reversed Bechdel Test: I'm pretty sure no man speaks to another man in Scale-Bright. For that alone, this is five stars! Thankfully, there is an abundance of pleasures to be had, including a vivid description of one lesbian god wearing a bespoke tailored suit like a boss.