Children of Memory by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This final book in the Children of Time trilogy is the most complex of the three, with complicated worldbuilding and a non-linear timeline that jumps back and forth as the plot's mysteries are slowly revealed. This story definitely demands your time and attention. It's also full of meaty concepts and ideas, including discussions of what qualifies someone to be sentient and self-aware and how we should treat other beings, whether they are self-aware or not; as well as the concept of the universe being a giant simulation, which turns out to be a pivotal plot point. It brings back the Portiids, the basketball-sized intelligent spiders from Children of Time, and the octopus civilization and sentient slime mold from the second book in the trilogy, Children of Ruin.
This is not a book to rush through. The twisty plot, which doubles back on itself more than once, may prove overwhelming for some, which is why you need to take your time with this book. About halfway through, I asked the question: "Who is this character? Is she the Liff of the present, or the Liff of the past, or both?" This is about halfway through the story, when the carefully constructed setting begins to unravel. All questions will eventually be answered, and in a satisfactory manner which ties back in with the book's main themes, but you do have to have patience.
Personally, I think I'd give a slight edge in quality to the author's other space opera series, "The Final Architecture," the last book of which comes out later this year. This book and series is a bit more old-fashioned in the sense of having meatier ideas, I think. All three books are stuffed with out-there SF ideas and concepts that the author rigorously works his way through. For example, see the discussion the intelligent (or are they?) corvids Gothi and Gethli have with the AI of the Portiids' ship, Avrana Kern:
"The essential fallacy," Gothi picks up, "is that humans and other biologically evolved, calculating engines feel themselves to be sentient, when sufficient investigation suggests this is not so. And that sentience, as imagined by the self-proclaimed sentient, is an illusion manufactured by a sufficiently complex series of neural interactions. A simulation, if you will."
"On this basis, either everything of sufficient complexity is sentient, whether it feels itself to be or not, or nothing is," Gethli tells her. "We tend towards the latter. We know we don't think, so why should anything else?"
"And in the grander scheme of things, it's not important," Gothi concludes imperiously.
By then it's time for the meeting. The Kern wihout opens the wall to the other two birds, the originals, with a clear barrier in place at first in case of violence. The two pairs of Corvids inspect each other, strut back and forth, and take short flights. They mirror each other for a bit, then tire of that. They chatter and murmur and rasp. And Kern already knows everything's going to be fine. Because the natural birds might have been all about territory and pecking order, but these uplifted versions have reasoned themselves onto a plateau of enlightened non-sentience, where they're perfectly capable of accepting a simulation as real, whilst knowing it's a simulation. In the same way, the fact that there are now two Gothis and two Gethlis gives them no existential dread, since they are determined not to have any real inner existence.
And of course Kern's verdict is the the Corvids of Rourke must be treated with all the appropriate dignity of sentient creatures. In spite of, or because of, their complex and fervent reasoning to prove that they are not.
If you don't like your science fiction dense and chewy and full of weighty ideas, you won't enjoy this book or series. But if you can give it the time it deserves, and think over what the author is trying to say, you will be rewarded.
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