Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Cover for Children of Ruin
Title: Children of Ruin
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Series: Children of Time #2
Pages: 565
ISBN: 9781509865871
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Published: 14 May 2019
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher


Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Thousands of years ago, Earth’s terraforming program took to the stars. On the world they called Nod, scientists discovered alien life – but it was their mission to overwrite it with the memory of Earth. Then humanity’s great empire fell, and the program’s decisions were lost to time. Aeons later, humanity and its new spider allies detected fragmentary radio signals between the stars. They dispatched an exploration vessel, hoping to find cousins from old Earth.

But those ancient terraformers woke something on Nod better left undisturbed. And it’s been waiting for them.

Do you want to go on an adventure? Of course you do! I absolutely adored Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, it was a magnificent look into inhuman intelligence and changed the way I looked at spiders forever. Children of Ruin has some big shoes to fill and it doesn’t disappoint. What Children of Time did for spiders Children of Ruin does for octopuses, and then some!

The narrative is split into two story lines alternating between the past and present. The first, set in the past, follows a terraforming crew from Earth as they discover that the planet they were sent to terraform already plays host to alien lifeforms. In order to preserve and study these lifeforms they decide to terraform the neighbouring planet, Damascus instead. To aid in the terraforming process one of the crew decides to use the uplift virus on his pet octopuses in order to transform them into useful tools. Disaster strikes back home and things don’t go quite as planned...

In the present an exploration vessel, Voyager, crewed by Portiids and their Human allies arrive to investigate faint radio signals detected from the worlds where humanity once tread. They discover not only their distant cephalopod cousins, but also something truly alien and possibly lethal.

“We are going on an adventure”. Somehow Tchaikovsky manages to take such a simple phrase and turn it into something truly terrifying and sinister. At times the story verges into horror territory with a much darker tone than Children of Time, but by the end it shifts to a far more hopeful resolution.

Tchaikovsky once again excels in portraying inhuman intelligence and thought processes. While the uplifting of the cephalopods might seem similar to the events of Children of Time it is different enough to provide a captivating read. Children of Ruin manages to tick all the boxes. It has alien lifeforms, AI, space exploration, and a fascinating exploration of linguistics and communication in its many forms.
"The two species are still building that bridge between them, strand by strand, even two generations on." ( p 300)

"There had been a time when he had listened out for signals, abruptly convinced he was not alone, that other humans were out there and they wanted to talk to him. He had spent hours trying to sift gold dust from the clay of universal static." (p 358)
Ultimately Children of Ruin is a brilliant exploration of the burning need ingrained in intelligent life to know and to be known. The epilogue simply blew me away with its hopeful sense of wonder and exploration leaving that wonderful afterglow of an amazing story. Highly recommended!

The Verdict:
Children of Ruin is a worthy sequel to the groundbreaking Children of Time. Tchaikovsky once again excels at portraying and exploring inhuman intelligence in its varied forms. This is one adventure you definitely don’t want to miss out on!

The Rating: 8/10 (Great)

Thanks to Pan Macmillan SA for the review copy.

Addendum: If you are looking for some more spacefaring cephalopods I can also recommend Stephen Baxter's short story Sheena 5. Initially I thought Paul 5 might've been a nod to this short story, but it turns out it was just strange synchronicity at work.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Opening Lines: Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner

Some novels have the ability to draw you in from the start. A single line or paragraph can grab your attention in such a way that the novel just demands to be read. Opening Lines is a feature where I'll share some of the best opening lines that hooked me.

The air is heavy with sweat and moist with shipboard rot, mixed so thick that I’m starting to think I’d rather choke than keep on breathing. Hell, there are times I think I might try it just for the change of pace.


STEEL FRAME by Andrew Skinner

FLY HARD

Rook is a jockey, a soldier trained and modified to fly ‘shells,’ huge robots that fight for the outer regions of settled space. When her shell is destroyed and her squad killed, Rook is imprisoned, left stranded, scarred and broken. Hollow and helpless without her steel frame, she’s ready to call it quits.

When her cohort of prisoners are sold into indenture to NorCol, a vast frontier corporation, Rook’s given another shell – a near-decrepit Juno, as broken as she is and decades older – and sent to a rusting bucket of a ship on the end of known space to patrol something called “the Eye,” a strange, unnerving permanent storm in space.

But they’re not alone.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Interview: Andrew Skinner

When I first came across the news that South African author, Andrew Skinner, had signed on with Solaris to publish his debut novel, Steel Frame, I immediately jotted down the details in my reading journal, circled it twice and wrote "ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR" in big red letters. That was a bit more than a year ago and Steel Frame is finally being released this month. I jumped at the opportunity to ask Andrew some questions about his work, inspiration and experience writing science fiction as a South African.

Hi Andrew, thanks for agreeing to this interrogation. Err... interview. I meant interview. Let's start with the obligatory life story. Could you tell us a little about yourself. Who are you really? What keeps you up in the dark of the night?

AS: Sure! Thanks for having me.

I am a nerd from smalltown South Africa; coalfire country, with huge mining headgear, chimney-tops and walking dragline machines always on the horizon. I’ve ended up in Johannesburg, somewhere a little madder and a lot bigger, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost my awe of industry.

I’m busy doing my PhD in archaeology, researching ancestral memory in places written histories don’t reach. Like any good grad student, that spiel about humans basically being cucumbers with anxiety resonates a little too closely for comfort.

You work as an archaeologist and anthropologist. How does that influence your writing?

AS: It’s tricky to say what seeps through and what doesn’t, but there were a few choices I made in Steel Frame that probably say a little about where I come from. You could call archaeology ‘object-orientated’ - we infer human behaviour from the material traces people leave behind, and I wanted to work that kind of logic in where I could, especially considering my chosen sub-genre.

Mecha is a great format to explore objects as characters, and you’ll see that in the machine called Juno, in some ways the titular ‘steel frame’. It’s old, and that means that it has a very different shape to the machines and environments around it – it comes from a different time and place, after all, intended to do things the characters in the present can only guess at. As the humans in the story begin to find themselves out of their depth, Juno shows itself to be the right kind of monster for the moment.

The threat in the story is similar; it’s slowly revealed by the shapes it takes, and by the objects the characters encounter in its wake.

Your debut novel, Steel Frame, is out this month. Can you tell us about it?

AS: It follows a small group of jockeys – each the heart and soul of a shell, the huge machines that wage corporate wars across battlefield skies on a hundred different worlds. Each of them disgraced, war criminals and deserters, now offered a shot at freedom.

But there’s a catch – they need to ply their trade in an endless sea of storms, somewhere on the fringes of settled space. A place NorCol, their new employer, barely understands. They’re here to wrestle the company’s competitors for whatever might be hidden in all the cloud and chaos.

They soon come to realise that the storms were made. That there’s a reason you can’t see past the wash and interference.

At the start, you meet Rook, one of the first to understand what the companies have gotten themselves into. Her shell is an ancient Juno, part of an abandoned experiment to see if machines could be made to think for themselves. It’s another prisoner, in a way, and something with scars just as deep as hers. Together, it’s all they can do to keep from being dragged into the dark.

The Steel Frame features giant war-machines duking it out. Where did you draw your inspiration from? Is it the influence of childhood cartoons or more modern blockbusters?

AS: The influences are all over the place. Obviously, Steel Frame has anime in its heritage; the weirder elements owe a lot to Evangelion, and the aesthetic was heavily shaped by Knights of Sidonia and Last Exile, among others.

At the same time, I wanted to capture some of the feel of Ridley Scott’s extended Alien/Blade Runner universe. I love that portrayal of frontier space, and humanity tripping over things in the dark; that bleak and relentless treatment of emergent AI.

Obviously, there’s no getting away from Pacific Rim..

If you had to sum up Steel Frame in just 5 words what would those be?

AS: The steel frame remembers (everything).

I'm always excited to see speculative fiction from South African authors. South Africa has such great genre talent, but it seems that it's extremely difficult to find a market locally. What was your experience with getting your work noticed?

AS: It was pretty obvious, early on, that I had no prospects with mainstream local imprints. I watched for open submission periods, checked websites and social media, but they always made it clear that they weren’t interested in genre. Whether or not that’s a ‘market’ thing, I really couldn’t say. If barely anyone’s publishing local genre, how do you speak to the state of the market?

On the indie side – my first submission was to a small press, but the company went under after ~18 months in operation, not even long enough to get back to me. A friend of mine had a similar experience with another press, not long after publishing their work.

(Shout out to Sera Blue, a small press here in Joburg, who are doing some spectacular work, hauling out new titles on a literally weekly basis. They’re carving themselves a niche, whatever the ‘market’ may say, and it’s pretty amazing.)

In my case, I decided to go the most traditional route possible. It was the process that I could research in most detail (there are plenty of articles on how to find an agent overseas, but next-to-nothing on navigating the local scene), and it worked out for me. In Jamie Cowen, my agent, I found someone who was willing to deal with the distance, the grainy Skype calls, and fleshing out details over email. He’s also been massively understanding about my general anxiety at the whole process happening in another hemisphere, completely out of reach and sight.

What's next for you after Steel Frame? Anything else in the works?

AS: There’s more from the Steel Frame universe in the works (hopefully more news on this soon!). Rook’s story is fairly self-contained, but there’s a lot that you don’t see, plenty of secrets still to be revealed.

In the long run, I’d like to emulate Iain M. Banks’ habit of writing (mostly) disconnected stories against a common background. Mythology is a powerful tool, and I’d like the opportunity to develop one of my own.

Are there any authors that influenced your work or acted as inspiration?

AS: I owe debts to more writers than I’ll remember right now, but writing Steel Frame involved learning a couple of lessons that are really clear to me in retrospect.

I set out aiming for the hardest SF I could manage, but the more I kept the scientific details in focus, the less satisfying the story became. There’s an art to it, I’m sure, but that’s a skill that’s still very much in development for me.

What I realised, though, was that I also didn’t really want something meticulously scientific. In fact, my favourite stories were by people like China Mieville, Yoon Ha Lee, Cassandra Khaw, and Jeff Vandermeer. Not to say that their writing is implausible – rather the opposite. They maintain a kind of essential logic and plausibility behind everything, while going places that are fundamentally, delightfully strange.

Dan Abnett taught me that conflict should always come with loss, and I really tried to reflect that in Steel Frame. It’d be easy to have my jockeys hurling themselves into the fray, over and over, and come out with little more than scratched paint and empty magazines. Too easy, in fact. But I didn’t set out to write an unmitigated power fantasy – I wanted these people to be like the rest of us; often scared, nearly always uncertain. More importantly, they always lose something in contact.

What's your favourite science fiction read? That one book you'd take with you on a trip around the Moon and back.

AS: Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit tickles a really particular place in my brain.

Pick your poison: Robotech, Voltron or Transformers?

AS: Macross.

(And it’s not as much of a copout as it sounds.)

Thank you so much for taking the time. Steel Frame sounds kwaai (amazing) and I'm sure it's going to kick some serious metallic butt!

Order your copy of Steel Frame now!

More about the author:
Andrew Skinner grew up in South Africa’s coal-mining heartland, amidst orange dust and giant machinery. He now works as an archaeologist and anthropologist, interested in folklore, rain-making arts, and resistance; but the machines aren’t done with him yet. Steel Frame is his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter @apocrobot.

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