CHILDREN OF TIME: only an ethical uplift can save us

I found CHILDREN OF TIME slow going to begin with. I disliked the first chapter (but this is in fact normal as the point of view character, Dr Avrana Kern, is deliberately quite antipathetic) and put the book down for a while before trying again. Finally, the book was a very rewarding read, so I advise anyone with doubts at the beginning to persist.

The plot takes a while to pick up but I found the later social and technological evolution of the spiders interesting and enjoyable. There was a real attempt to imagine how the very different subjectivity of the intelligent Spiders could evolve and progress in similar but not identical ways towards greater civilization, despite their “uplift” being due to an accident.

The parallel plot of the decadence and devolution of the humans provided a predictable but satisfying counterpoint.

The imagination of a biology-based technology was well done, but it had the defect of biological determinism. Humans are glorified monkeys genetically lacking in empathy, and so biologically doomed as a species to self-extermination, unless some sort of ethical, as opposed to cognitive, uplift can occur.

This speculative premise recalls that of Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS TRILOGY, and the Spiders with their genetic technology recall the Oankali, except that their encounter with the Other is not driven by trade but by their capacity for empathy.

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RAVEN STRATAGEM: sequelitis and its discontents

I really enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT, the first novel in the Machineries of Empire Trilogy and felt inspired to defend it from the Shadow Clarke’s critiques of its uncritical use of genre clichés, personality stereotypes and formulaic plot structure. I argued that these defects were more than compensated for by the novel’s speculative elements and the imaginative world-building. I eagerly awaited the sequel RAVEN STRATEGY, but I found it a disappointing, albeit pleasant, read.

This second novel contains a competent and enjoyable story set inside Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate universe. Unfortunately, there is not as much world-building and speculative beauty as in the first volume.

Instead of cosmology we get a sketchy sociology of the factions, each of which gives its members a faction-specific “super-power” (except for the Shuos) based on “exotic” technology (and so dependent on the reigning calendar). The interactions and power plays between the factions are explored in a little more detail, as are the quirks and foibles of the ruling hexarchs.

In conclusion, the Hexarchate universe is fleshed out with interesting and engaging details, and the number of important characters is increased, allowing a more complex intrigue. However, the supplement of sociological complexity does not compensate for the psychological simplicity of reducing characters to rather stereotypical faction and individual personality traits.