Suppose you were part of an interstellar mission and finally discovered complex life on another world. Would you go down to examine it or stay safely in orbit? In Children of Ruin, a lead scientist decides that he must know about this exotic living matter. That decision is the start of a millennia-long saga of fear and tragedy. Namely, just because something is exotic and isn’t supposed to be able to interact with you, chemically, doesn’t mean that it won’t find a way. Such is the nature of the exotic parasite lurking around on this new world, called “Nod.”
This is the concept of Children of Ruin, the successor to Children of Time which I reviewed here. It is good, as far as concepts go. The problem is that the execution of the concept lacked in comparison to its predecessor. In Children of Time, we saw the evolution of a spider civilization as the descendants of their unwitting human creators meandered through space, and knew that there would eventually be a collision between them. It made the last 30 pages of the book full of tension.
Children of Ruin, on the other hand, sees its plot meander more than its people. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s series does not feature strong characterization. The strongest characters in Children of Time are Holsten, Lain, and Guyen. Although their motivations don’t rise much further than the generic, there is some meat on the bones. In contrast, Children of Ruin does not have characters with any dimension. All of them are pitted in a struggle for survival against a superior civilization comprised of octopuses, true, but we do not really get to know or feel for any of them. The most interesting is a man named Meshner, but we do not experience the world through him beyond his quest for a new interspecies communication system (if you can call it that) gone awry.
This would not be fatal. Some stories are plot-driven and some are character-driven, and the concept we begin with is interesting. The problem is that the plot in Children of Ruin often meanders. Though we know that there is something scary enough on the planet “Nod” that an extremely powerful and whimsical civilization fears even getting close to that world, we are often taken on pages of diversions into techno-babble.
I understand this impulse, since I also write science fiction and I often go at length to explain how things work, but I try to make sure that there is a purpose for that explanation, even if it doesn’t come immediately. I can’t say the same for Children of Ruin. We get some interesting discussions about how its octopus civilization (which greatly exceeds the human-spider alliance in power) could have possibly built spaceships, and some cool scenes of ship-to-ship combat between those vessels and the manufactures of the human-spider alliance that came out of the first book, but that is it. The technology was interesting, but it often felt like there was no payoff to those explanations.
Take note. Everything that you put into a story has to have a reason for being there. Don’t be too enthusiastic about building your world that you let it take you down a path that distracts from your plot and heroes’ journeys. If the world-building features add to that, go ahead and put them there. If not, cut it.
The dilemma facing the characters in Children of Ruin – human, spider, and octopus alike, is the alien “Nod” parasite, which can not only take control of the minds of those it infects, but also has access to all of their prior memories and experiences. There’s no true way to fight it once it controls something. It is extremely adaptable. The only method to counter it is containment. This villain is the best part of Children of Ruin. You feel the threat. You can sense that the octopuses fear this organism for a very good reason.
There is a plot hole as you will inevitably wonder why the octopuses didn’t just turn Nod’s surface into irradiated molten rubble, which they could have easily done. The octopuses, we are told, have a whimsical nature that sees them forming bonds in one moment and fighting the next, but there is still something off with this explanation, since they all agreed that the parasite was a danger, and saw it ruin their world.
The whimsical nature of the octopuses is part of the tension that leads to the climax of the story. Meshner’s experiences in trying to build an interspecies communication system, and the toll it took on his mind, was not random. His research unwittingly permitted a copy of his consciousness to survive being parasitized, and through this, and an incredibly advanced AI that was once a human, the truly alien life form makes an accord with the descendants of Earth.
It is a sensible ending, but because we don’t have much feeling for any of the personalities involved, much less the octopus civilization, it is hard for it to feel satisfying. At least if there were a cool fight that everyone involved had to work hard in to win, the reader would feel more invested.
Children of Time won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Children of Ruin has not. Would I say the book is bad? Not necessarily, but it’s hard to get attached to it because it lacks the feelings of urgency that its predecessor created after what was at times a dragging build, but one that you saw would go somewhere.
Who knows? Second readings often make you change your opinion on things, or at least appreciate them more, but I won’t find myself trying that for a long while.
The reason I decided to bring the book to your attention was because it serves as a good example of how genre fiction can get weak, even when written by award-winning authors, and how to avoid such weakness in your own writing. Children of Ruin had all the ingredients it should have needed to succeed, but it did not put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Wired for Story can help you avoid such weaknesses.