Children of Time
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher: Tor (2015), Pan Books (Pan MacMillan, 2016)
Release Date: June 4th, 2015
The first book I reviewed for the blog was a standalone fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky titled Spiderlight. It was a sword-and-sorcery book with a heavy emphasis on D&D-style adventuring, where a monstrous giant spider is turned into a bizarre human-hybrid by a wizard in order to help them hunt down the big bad guy. Spiderlight was a solid fantasy book that played on many of the genre's tropes to great effect, as well as offering a lot of surprises and humor. The book drew my attention to the author's other works, especially Children of Time, a science-fiction title that won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is a prestigious British award given to the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom (previous winners include Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale).
I finally grabbed a copy thanks to a very generous Redditor through a Redditgifts Book exchange (along with a copy of the Fahrenheit 451 graphic novel, signed by the artist). The thought that kept running through my mind during my reading of Children of Time was that Tchaikovsky must have a thing for spiders, which I totally get. They're fascinating creatures, compelling yet somehow horrifying. To this day I remember my revulsion as a kid seeing high-quality close-up photos of spider faces in an elementary school book. How could something so inhuman exist? How common is the distaste and fear of spiders? This abhorrence lies at the heart of both Spiderlight and Children of Time, as both play with the "alien" nature of the species.
In Children of Time, mankind has finally destroyed the planet to such a degree that the technologically-advanced empires of Earth collapse upon themselves, leaving the following generations to scrounge under their predecessor's wreckage until they are finally forced to leave the planet altogether. A remnant of that former age is Dr Avrana Kern, a genius and somewhat megalomaniacal individual who has not only created an entirely new planet from scratch, but hopes to populate it with monkeys infected by a virus designed to continuously evolve the monkeys to the intellectual level of humanity. Unfortunately, things don't go the way they're planned, and the monkeys don't make it, but the virus does, and it infects a lot of other species on the man-made planet, including a particular breed of jumping spider called Portia labiata. Over the course of centuries, the spiders evolve to an extraordinary degree.
While this is happening on the man-made planet, the spaceship Gilgamesh travels the cosmos in search of a new home. It contains thousands of humans frozen in stasis, since the trip could take millennia. At regular periods, members of the main crew are awoken to gauge the ship's status, salvage old Empire tech floating in space, or check out possible locations for habitation. These chapters are narrated from the point of view of classicist Holston Mason, as he's periodically awoken during the trip to deal with arising problems. While Mason and the crew's struggles don't exactly parallel the spider's ascent, we are shown the height of humanity's achievements while exploring the depth of its depravity.
The most fascinating parts of this book concern the spiders and their advancements. We are privy to their thoughts, feelings, and communications, all of which are strangely alien and yet somehow familiar. While there are no alien species extant in Tchaikovsky's novel, the spiders themselves are so alien to us that it may as well be a "first contact" story. The book is clearly gearing up for the humans and spiders to meet and interact, and when this climax finally occurs, it's almost shocking to see a) how far the spiders have come, and b) just how difficult it is for the two species to understand each other.
There are a lot of high-concept sci-fi ideas floating inside this book, and it's almost an homage to classic hard science fiction. And so I need to join the chorus of readers and reviewers that have made this acknowledgment: this book is incredible. It's a truly remarkable lesson in empathy and quality storytelling that reflects on humanity's greatest and worst achievements, all through the varied eyes of sentient arachnids. Don't let arachnophobia scare you away from what Children of Time has to offer.