Monday, September 23, 2019

Review: Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Walking to Aldebaran
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Pages: 140
ISBN: 9781781087060
Publisher: Solaris
Published: 28 May 2019
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Rebellion Store


My name is Gary Rendell. I’m an astronaut. When they asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “astronaut, please!” I dreamed astronaut, I worked astronaut, I studied astronaut. I got lucky; when a probe exploring the Oort Cloud found a strange alien rock and an international team of scientists was put together to go and look at it, I made the draw.

I got even luckier. When disaster hit and our team was split up, scattered through the endless cold tunnels, I somehow survived.

Now I’m lost, and alone, and scared, and there’s something horrible in here.

Lucky me.

Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Walking to Aldebaran is a dark, twisting novella which manages to take unreliable narration to the next level. The narrative voice of the protagonist, Gary Rendell, is distinctive and compelling as he alternates between recounting the history of his expedition and his current, seemingly unending journey, lost and alone inside the maze of the alien artifact he came to study. He starts out as having a sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humour, but as the story progresses it deteriorates into something much darker.
“It looks as though it got into God’s desk after school and nicked off with every single nasty toy confiscated from the fallen angels. It writhes towards me along the ceiling, various spiked parts of it clicking and clattering against the stone. It’s in no hurry. It’s probably waited a thousand years for some dumbass Earthman to come along and wake it up.”

“And I still have the food bar. I eat the rest of it, enjoying nutrition that my microbiome doesn’t have to dismantle with the care of a bomb disposal technician.”

“I awoke, no less lost or alone, and knew the choice wasn’t move or die at all. It was move or stay still, and either menu option came with a side order of die.”
Walking to Aldebaran takes some very unexpected twists and turns. You never quite know what to expect and it’s only in later contemplation that you manage to glimpse everything that’s really in play - a decline into madness, something truly alien, a deftly executed literary allusion or all of the above? Wonderfully weird, this story will have you puzzling over it long after the last page has been turned.

The Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)

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.