Sci-Fi: Assorted Reviews: Spiders and Skeletons and Strategy

So many books, so little time.


Children of Time, Children of Ruin, Children of Memory

-Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dan over at throneofsalt suggested this series. Dan is very wise, and sums up the salient points, so I won't bother.

Children of Time is good. If it came out in 2000, it might have changed the world. In 2015, it was merely on the upper end of the curve. Children of Ruin is even better, well ahead of the pack in 2019. Children of Memory is masterful and it may take decades for anyone to catch up.

There's an arc sci-fi worldbuilding/idea-development trilogies usually follow. In book 1, we meet A. In book 2, A meets B, create a utopia of the author's choice, and receive hints of a shallow but world-ending threat C. In book 3, C is defeated. The problem is utopia. Having spent several books establishing the best of all possible worlds in considerable detail, according to the author, all plots stagnate.

I was worried Tchaikovsky was going to follow this path. Instead, Children of Memory shattered all expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by the first two books, but the third left me breathless and awed. The craft! 

If Children of Time and Children of Ruin and were piano, Children of Memory is the full symphony orchestra. I thought some of the motifs in Children of Ruin were wearing thin by the end, but Children of Memory says "motifs? Behold my fugal masterpiece of interlocking motifs, counter-motifs, and inversions." Any one of the dozens of concepts in Children of Time could support a mediocre novel. It's astonishing. Heap gold and accolades at the feet of Tchaikovsky, ye heathen masses.

The Locked Tomb Series
Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth, Nona the Ninth

-Tamsyn Muir

I try not to describe works as "X meets Y", as I feel it's reductive, but in this case it's impossible to avoid. The Locked Tomb is, and seems to be fully aware of it, Warhammer 40k meets Revolutionary Girl Utena meets a lot of other cultural references I cannot adequately source. Sabriel? Homestuck? It uses memes fluently. It's probably incomprehensible to someone who doesn't speak fluent tumblr.

To extend the musical metaphor from the review above, the language in The Locked Tomb is the equivalent of dropping a piano on someone. I found myself remembering a line from Kill Six Billion Demons.  "Behold! The awesome fires of god. The limitless power of pure creation itself. Look carefully! Observe how it is used for the same purpose a man might use a particularly sharp rock!" The language shifts registers like a teenager learning how to drive stick. Smoke billows from the clutch.

I'm also not a huge fan of the post-ironic trend of softening every emotional punch with a quip, or winking at the audience whenever anything dares to be serious. It's less egregious here because everyone seems to participate. Protagonists, antagonists, inanimate objects, relics, and descriptive text. Snark into the abyss and the abyss snarks into you.

And yet, it's fun. It's good, and it's fun, and it's more than the sum of its parts. It's black on obsidian morality, a giant grimdark biopunk explosion written by someone with considerably more emotional expertise than the average Black Library author. It's indulgent without being smug. It is ridiculous without, somehow, collapsing fully into self-parody. 

It's delicious junk food and it's labelled accordingly. Let the reader who has not eaten a whole family-sized bag of chocolate covered almonds cast the first stone.

The Saga of Cuckoo
Farthest Star, Wall Around A Star

-Frederik Pohl & Jack Williamson

I read this a long, long time ago, and recently reread it as part of my Bright Conference project. I'd say these two works, dimly remembered, exert a significant influence on the project.

Farthest Star features a truly alien collection of aliens, a sense of tragedy and futility, and some good hard-ish sci-fi problem-solving. It also features a lost more -ism than I remembered. Prefix as you see fit, but there's a lot of it.

The sequel is less interesting, but provides a solution to the mystery raised in Farthest Star. It also has even more -ism, so be warned.

I was surprised to discover that Pohl also wrote Man Plus, a story I'd read much more recently. Have you ever read a story, thought "this author clearly has issues," checked the author's "personal life" section on Wikipedia, and said "well that tracks"? Man Plus is very much that sort of story.

Pohl has a knack for subtle horror. I'm often unsure if an element is deliberately crafted to be horrifying, or if he didn't think it through. If the former, it's masterful. If the latter, it's worrying. The Purchased People in Farthest Star. The blind surgical faith in Man Plus. The banality of unexamined evil.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes 

I'm cheating a bit here. Not the novels, the TV series. Not the whole series, just the first and second seasons of the 1989-1997 run, because there's a lot of it.

It's refreshing to find a series that's not afraid to tackle hard social topics without kid gloves. Grand strategy, the decay of democracy, the role of the military, the flaws in empire-building. What do you do when the majority vote for autocracy? Is there such a thing as a just war? Character offer theories and solutions, but, as in the real world, there is rarely a perfect answer.

The strategy aspects are not terribly deep, and are basically massed infantry tactics in a spaceship disguise but they're still leagues ahead of most media. Knowing what move your enemy is about to make is not enough. When should you give up control of a situation and focus on reacting to your opponent's moves? Should you react at all? Is this a feint, a distraction, or a prelude?

The documentary-style framing narrative is a nice touch, as are the cutaways to people we'll never see again. There's a sense of scale, of historical inertia, of a complex and unseen world full of real people.

LotGH is sometimes criticized as aestheticization of fascism, but in many ways, fascism is pre-aestheticized. Midway through Season 2, we are finally shown the origins of these far-future factions. It turns out that the Galactic Empire is not pompous and archaic by accident or technological regression.

Rudolf the Great deliberately selected his fascist aesthetic. This is pageantry. Behold the heirs of the heirs of Rome, wearing costume jewellery and old drapes. A few images later, his cronies are all dressing like good burghers and teaching their sons to tie cravats and their daughters to embroider. Five hundred years later and they're all still wearing the same clothes, because nostalgia is the death of innovation.


  1. The broadness of the raving re Tchaikovsky's greatness comforts me. I've read one of his novellas which was excellent and yet the title completely escapes me.

    Personally I liked Gideon the Ninth right up until "oh, I've always been deeply in love with this person I hate and have a mutually abusive relationship with." It did not help that the coherence seemed to take a pretty hard dive immediately thereafter.

    1. Eh, I figure it's like taking relationship advice from the Locked Tomb series is like taking parenting advice from the Horus Heresy series. These are not good, sensible, well-balanced people making good life choices.

    2. Tam's main characters are also canonically teenagers (I believe Gideon and Harrow are both 18 at the start of the series), and if everyone else's teen years were anything like mine (or hers, based on some of her interviews), hormonal confusion and bad life choices were both in abundance.

  2. I'll have you know that this article took a good long while to read. THat is, if you count the wiki-journey you sent me on. An hour well spent.
    I must ask though, what exactly is Pohl's issue? Not much on the wiki pertaining to that.

    1. Ah, well, Man Plus (1976) made a lot more sense in the context of "Pohl was married five times. [...] In 1953, he married Carol M. Ulf Stanton, with whom he had three children and collaborated on several books; they separated in 1977 and were divorced in 1983."

  3. LotGH remains the best

  4. just finished children of memory. absolutely bonkers. i do mean crazy in the head. completely cray cray. i love this series to death !!

  5. Children of Time is deeply weird for the reason that it feels like Tchaikovsky plucked it from my soul, or wrote it first and foremost for a friend who happens to be identical to me. If, in possession of a time machine, you gave a copy to fifteen-year-old!Salt, then the book would produce — not a complete replica of myself as I am today, but certainly a version of myself which contained all the things which I consider most important.