Children of Memory
(2022) Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor, £20, hrdbk, 480pp, ISBN 978-1-529-08717-8
Suppose you arrive at your terraformed destination, in an ‘arkship’ laden with potential colonists, only to discover that the planet is barely able to support life. And although you manage to establish a foothold with a handful of people, once they start having children of their own, there aren’t enough resources to justify bringing down the rest of the ‘cargo’, who are left in suspended animation. How would you feel, working the land, running the colony, trying to build a future, knowing that tens of thousands of people remain up in orbit, sacrificed for your hard-scrabble life? This is one of the fundamental questions that Adrian Tchaikovsky poses in the follow-up to his award-winning Children of Time and the BSFA Award-winning Children of Ruin.
The book opens with a helpful ‘What Has Gone Before’ summary that introduces new readers to Avrana Kern’s system-spanning terraforming mission, as well as the variety of alien life-forms encountered previously, such as the Nodans, a composite microbial life-form able to absorb and take on the appearance of other life-forms, and who devastated the Octopus civilisation, forcing them to live in space, and the Portiids, who are basically sentient spiders. Together with enhanced humans, and with the help of some good ol’ faster-than-light tech, these different species have begun to put together a collaborative interstellar society.
The story itself kicks off with Captain Heorest Holt wrestling his old and barely still-in-one-piece arkship into orbit around the planet Imir, from which a complex pattern of signals of some kind have been detected. With his crew and a select number of colonists with the right skills, Holt decides, against his better judgment, to establish the aptly named ‘Landfall’ close to the source of the signals, in hopes that they indicate the presence of some ancient device that will prove to be the tentative colony’s salvation.
Then the tale skips forward and shifts to the perspective of Liff, a young woman whose life is bounded by her parents’ farm and the nearby town but whose head is full of stories inherited from Earth. She is convinced that she saw Grandfather Holt heading up through the woods to a hidden cave where a witch is rumoured to live. With echoes of Red Riding Hood reverberating throughout, Tchaikovsky conveys a burgeoning sense of something having gone terribly wrong with the colony, as suspicion and paranoia take hold. Acting as a rational counter-weight to the pervasive fear of secessionists and ‘watchers’ is Liff’s teacher, Miranda, who lives in an old house at the edge of town, with an odd set of companions. Miranda, however, is not who she seems, in multiple senses. Not only is she not a refugee from some outlying farm, she’s not even human. Instead, she’s just the epiphenomenal froth on a Noldan substrate who, together with her Portiid and Octopi crewmates, also wearing human form, have apparently inserted themselves into the colony in order to study it and, perhaps, help it.
That sense of something gone awry then deepens and extends, as Liff finally meets the witch and her two raven familiars who press her to tell them where the strangers are, the ones who don’t ‘fit’. Out of loyalty and fear Liff keeps shtum but the townsfolk have no such qualms as they brutally turn on those who don’t belong. However, Liff doesn’t seem to fit either - she can’t be the grand-child of someone who died generations before and her family life is likewise difficult to pin down.
By this point the story is no longer simply about a colony struggling to survive against the odds, with the hidden possibility of outside help. Instead, it’s become something darker and more disturbing, with a fractured and deliberately off-kilter narrative. That is nicely conveyed by Gothi and Gethli, two evolved birds who joined Miranda’s crew while en route to Imir, as ambassadors of their corvid civilisation. Their to-and-fro conversations with each other punctuate the text and the story-line, highlighting the shifts and cracks in what passes for ‘reality’ on the planet. One’s a problem-solver, the other recognises patterns, and although individually they seem capable of only parroting phrases, together they convey the appearance of sentience. And that issue – what it is to appear, or be, sentient – is what Tchaikovsky is really digging into here as Liff’s and Miranda’s and the witch’s true natures, as well as that of the mysterious signals, are all revealed in a twist on a well-worn science-fiction trope, summarised in that old advertising slogan ‘Is it real or is it Memorex?’.
Still, we can forgive Tchaikovsky for taking us somewhere that has been much visited because he does so with such heart and emotional resonance. We feel for Liff, trapped in a life of hard work and limited expectations, seeking a way out through old fairy-tales. We can identify with Miranda, trying to show Liff that there is indeed a bigger reality out there, beyond the farm and the colony. And then we share their growing sense that there is indeed something very wrong with Liff’s world, without any clear picture of what it is or how to correct it. That Tchaikovsky is able to do all this whilst also exploring these fundamental themes of what it is to be alive and to think, is evidence of a writer who is truly at the top of their game.
See also Mark Bilsborough's take on Children of Memory.
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