Author: Adrian Tchaikovksy
Genre: Science Fiction
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect going into this book – I’d never heard of Adrian Tchaikovsky and I’m not one to buy something just because it won an award (in this case, the 30th Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel). All I had to go one was a blurb that it turns out I’d misread, and the words “Like a Stephen Baxter novel…” under one of its Amazon reviews.
But I’m glad I misread the blurb – what I thought I was going to be reading sounded interesting, but what it landed up being was even better. Children of Time is a masterclass of science fiction writing that ranks, in my humble opinion, with some of the best classics of the genre and one that I hope will continue to be read by people for many years to come.
Mankind stood on the verge of becoming an almost god-like species with the technology to turn lifeless pieces of rock into fully habitable worlds. One of these, known throughout the story only as ‘the green planet’, is the site of Dr Avrana Kern’s experiment. Dr Kern will populate the now-terraformed planet with primates and release a cultured nanovirus into the planet’s atmosphere. The nanovirus will go to work on the primates and help their evolution along and hopefully accomplish in millennia what would take nature millions of years to get right until such time as the planet is populated by primates with human-equivalent intelligence.
But mankind is a fickle species. A group under the banner of Non Ultra Natura (‘Not Greater Than Nature’) doesn’t believe that we should play god and try to bring up our evolutionary lessers to our level. They sabotage the station Dr Kern is working on (and through a massive EMP wipeout most of human technology throughout the galaxy), thinking that they can stop this unholy experiment from happening. They get it half right at least.
The primates are sadly jettisoned off away from the planet to a very lonely death, but the nanovirus container does manage to enter the green planet’s atmosphere. Specifically designed to not target other vertebrates (the idea being that the monkeys shouldn’t have any competition as they climb the evolutionary ladder) it instead goes to work on what else it can find – insects. The results of this are a mixed bag with the exception of one particular species – portia labiata, a type of jumping spider, who slowly but surely begin to become self-aware and intelligent.
The novel then follows, over a period of several thousand years, the growth and development of spider society from its humble beginnings as nomadic hunters to fully developed cities of scientific innovation, with all the ups and downs that a nascent civilisation and intelligence have to offer. This society will eventually come face to face with its creators in the form of the Gilgamesh, an ark ship that fled a dying and toxic Earth with the last remnants of humanity several thousand years after the Non Ultra Natura-led war in the hopes of finding a new home on the green planet. Understandably, they may not be that wild about the idea of sharing their new home with giant insects.
The Writing Style
Adrian Tchaikovksy set himself no small task when he took to writing this novel and the two enormously different viewpoints that needed to be covered – those of the spiders, and those of the humans.
For the spiders the tricky part is that you’re usually not going to spend more than a chapter with any specific set of characters given the vast amount of time that’s covered in the book’s 600-or-so pages. Instead each spider-centric chapter deals with a specific point in this society’s growth focusing on key individuals who are dealing with the problems of their particular age. Continuity for the reader in these chapters comes in two forms, firstly the main spider characters tend to share names (Portia, Bianca, Viola and Fabian being the most common), and the second comes in what is known as Understandings. An Understanding is knowledge hard-coded to a spider’s genetic structure by the nanovirus, meaning that while you may be dealing with a spider many generations removed from those in the previous chapter, they have the memories of their long-dead ancestors, so one Portia tends to be able to recall everything that previous Portias have done, helping to keep the story nice and tidy.
For the humans it’s a rather different story, because their society isn’t going anywhere. Trapped on the Gilgamesh for thousands of years, most of mankind will spend the duration of their journey in long stages of stasis, being awoken only when their particular skills are needed. This results in a disjointed sense of time where someone can feel that something happened only recently, when it fact it took place centuries ago. In comparison to the spiders rapid evolutionary climb and the vibrancy of their culture, mankind by contrast is stuck in a highly artificial environment in permanent limbo until they can find a home, clinging desperately to the feats that were achieved during the terraforming days but in the full knowledge that they’ll never be able to achieve it.
Aside from these very specific characterisations of the two civilisations, the book is generally well-written and keeps the story moving along at a reasonable pace. As with most novels of this genre the story is rather dense, but this one has forgone the usual surplus of technical language in favour of a more sociological focus on the humans and the spiders, which overall makes for a far easier read than what you would find in your standard hard science fiction novel.
I can’t think of a better way to describe how much I enjoyed this book other than to say that I am one of the most severely arachnophobic people you are likely to meet, and I was rooting for those spiders. Many a time were the words “Come on Portia, I believe in you!” uttered in my home.
It’s also the sort of book that leaves you in a position where you don’t really know how to feel – on the one hand you don’t want the humans to arrive on the green planet, knowing full well our propensity for destruction and feeling that perhaps our time has passed. On the other, as the species that made all of this possible and knowing our innate capability for good when we set our minds on the right path, you also see the necessity of finding the species a new home, particularly when the destruction of the Earth wasn’t the result of this particular generation’s faults.
My Final Rating: 10/10
Buy Children of Time at Amazon.com