Posted on October 6, 2017
40. ‘Children of Time’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky
I got through the first half of this book in a week; I got through the second half in one greedy Sunday. Children of Time is truly deserving of that much-overused adjective: ‘epic’.
OK, the premise for this one is a bit complicated, but once you’ve got it, you’re in. Humanity is advanced and spacefaring, and is spreading its influence across the galaxy. Dr Avrana Kern is about to conduct a revolutionary experiment – the first of its kind – in which she will drop onto a terraformed planet a barrel of monkeys and a virus that will speed up their evolution. But something goes wrong and the monkeys burn up in the atmosphere, while the intelligence-enhancing virus reaches the planet’s surface and gets to work on… something else. Millennia later, Earth has been devastated by conflict and the last dregs of humanity, on board the Gilgamesh, arrive at the world where Kern’s experiment went wrong. After centuries of suspended animation, the humans are delighted to find a planet they can live on, but something else has evolved here, and the humans can’t get in.
The beginning of this book throws you in at the deep end of this vast, galaxy-embracing world, but Tchaikovsky does a fantastic job of getting you up to speed quite quickly, before hurtling off again into the distant future. In fact, this is something Children of Time does quite frequently: each new section is set hundreds of years after the last one, and the book has two main storylines running through it side by side. There’s the story of what’s happening on the Gilgamesh, out in space, and the story of what’s happening on the terraformed planet. So how does Tchaikovsky pull this off without the plot becoming totally bewildering? He gives us the same characters throughout, on whom we can anchor ourselves. The humans on the Gilgamesh are able to freeze themselves for centuries at a time, so we see all the human events unfold through the eyes of Holsten Mason, a classicist whose job it is to translate the language of the ancients, from the time of Dr Avrana Kern. On the planet, the evolving creatures (and, be warned, I’ll spoil what they are in the next paragraph) live and die according to their lifespans, but in each section the main characters are always named the same thing and have the same characteristics as their forebears. Thus, there is always a daring Portia, an intelligent Bianca and a stubborn Fabian. This makes it surprisingly easy to keep up with the story’s intricate structure.
The real masterpiece of this book is (as it says on the cover) it’s ‘evolutionary world-building’. The intelligence-enhancing virus, lacking monkeys, gets to work on all the other creatures on the planet, but it is most successful with the spiders. Yes, our heroes are spiders (and I call them ‘heroes’ because they are every bit as complex and central as the human characters). Tchaikovsky charts the spiders’ evolution from small, hunting insects to an intelligent, technologically advanced species, and because you get to see every step, every problem solved, every technology created, this progression is really believable. The spiders are not rubbish humans, eventually coming to our technology but slower because they lack opposable thumbs. No, the spiders develop in their own way, come up with their own solutions to problems, and all of their progress totally fits with who they are and how they view the world. For example, spiders can’t write, but they can weave simple ideas into their webs (in the form of ‘art’) and pass on more complex knowledge genetically (in the form of ‘Understandings’). Similarly, they don’t really have metal or electricity, hence no computers, but they are able to harness the processing capabilities of vast colonies of ants, and refine them with chemical signals, so that the colonies effectively become their computers. It’s such clever world-building, and at no point does it come across as dull or showy-offy – it’s just bloody good.
This book also deals with gender issues in unexpected depth, and not through the human characters. No, the spiders act as a lens through which to examine our own society. On Spider Planet, female spiders are larger and stronger than males, thus they hold the power throughout spider history, and the males can only survive by pleasing females, and thrive by serving them. (Note: the female spiders often kill and eat their mates after sex.) For a long time this is seen as acceptable and ‘just the way things are’, but as the book progresses the males gain slightly more influence, and towards the end one male advocates for the most basic form of equality on Spider Planet: the murder of a male being treated with the same horror as the murder of a female. I never thought I’d write the sentence ‘the author wonderfully portrays the struggles of early feminism through the plight of hyper-advanced alien spiders’, but he does and I have.
Of course, for all that the journey is incredible, Children of Time leads to one inevitable point: the confrontation between humans and spiders. Both want the planet, but who will get it? And, perhaps more importantly, who deserves it more? Do the humans deserve it because they’re the last of their species and can’t be allowed to die out? Or do the spiders deserve it because it is, and always has been, their home? (And, since I’m asking questions, let’s stick in this one too: what do you do when you discover that your creator didn’t mean to create you?) As a human reader, you might think there’s an obvious side to take, but because you spend equal amounts of time with spiders and humans, you will probably find yourself in a real bind by the end. I was genuinely rooting for both sides, and I think a writer who can make you do that is a master.
Children of Time is blow-your-head-off brilliant and I can’t recommend it enough. It will fill up your brain, twist your beliefs about humanity, and absolutely fuck with your emotions. I think you should pick it up, because I couldn’t put it down.
“Why should we be made thus, to improve and improve, unless it is to aspire?”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.