This is a fun piece of core Science Fiction. I enjoyed it. And while it’s not really the sort of SF that particularly interests me, I appreciate it as a high-quality example of the kind of thing that it is.
Children of Time comprises two narrative threads told in alternating chapters. The first is set on a terraformed planet that was meant to be the home to a population of monkeys exposed to an evolution-accelerating nano virus. Unfortunately, human society collapses just as the “experiment” is about to begin; the monkeys are killed by eco-terrorists, and the nano virus falls to the planet where it infects a species of spider (Portia Labiata), instead. The novel then charts the evolution of the spiders over thousands of years, from regular insects, to a hyper-intelligent, spacefaring global super society.
I was initially wary of this premise, as, let’s face it, a novel about super-smart space spiders has the potential to be more-than-a-little-bit naff, even twee. I also have a mixed history with anthropomorphic animals in Science Fiction: I can never resist the urge to visualise them as cutesy cartoon creatures, like with waistcoats and little hats and stuff (this is (partly) the reason why I can’t read Niven’s Known Space novels, what with their talking cats in space suits and all). Thankfully, Adrian Tchaikovsky treats his hyper-evolved spiders with a sense of extreme, joyous realism (…well, you know what I mean, maybe “authenticity” or “seriousness” would be better terms); they never become bipedal or wear clothing, they never “talk” (instead they communicate via a kind of sign language), and their societal structures are distinctly non-human. It’s really, really well done, actually.
Tchaikovsky’s imagined history of spider evolution is notable for the sheer thoroughness of its detail. He pays attention to all the sorts of things you might expect: how spider language evolves, how their webbing-based technology expands in scope and application etc. and etc. But there’s also an explicit focus on the workings of spider society, too. Children of Time plots the development of this society from hunter-gatherer, to feudalistic and, eventually, a space-faring multiculturalism (the mid-novel war between the giant spiders and giant ants is awesome bug-fight madness!).
I was particularly impressed with the way that Tchaikovsky depicts the intellectual evolution of the spiders. They begin the novel as somewhat superstitious, which swiftly develops into a full-blown religion, which is itself superseded (via a nice moment of existential enlightenment) by a scientistic materialism. Some of the inventions and ideas that the Spiders stumble upon can be a little too serendipitous (especially the confusing sequence in which they discover the nano virus that lives inside them), but this is a minor niggle drawn against what’s otherwise a very, very impressive work of evolutionary world-building.
Unfortunately, the other of the book’s two plotlines is less successful. Thousands of years after the aforementioned collapse, human society has just-about clawed its way back to a starfaring level of technology. However, Earth is now climate-changed beyond all hope of repair, so the surviving human populace must find another home. Cue every alternate chapter being set on a generation ship containing the last remnants of humanity.
These chapters are told from the POV of Holsten, a “Classicist” expert in pre-collapse human society and culture. He’s a somewhat well-realised character, struggling to find a place among a crew of mechanical/military minded people who harbour little respect for his more academic and esoteric skills. The crux of his story is his relationship with an engineer, Lain, but this relationship is a baffling thing, moving from hot to cold, confrontational to affectionate in a way that serves the mechanisations of the plot, but that isn’t really conducive to the presentation of a realistic or complex set of human interactions. How Lain will react to Holsten at any given moment is wildly unpredictable, but in a bad-characterisation way, rather than quirky or fun kinda way. This means that the final resolution of their story doesn’t quite carry the emotional gravitas that the novel seems to think it does. A shame.
In fact, given how lively, well-rounded and unique the spider protagonists are, it’s disappointing that so much of the human characterisation falls short, relying as it does upon basic stereotyping. There’s Karst, the hot-headed army guy, Guyen, the solipsistic leader guy, Vitas, who has no discernible personality whatsoever, and a whole bunch of disposable (/forgettable) grunt guys.
The run-of-the-mill nature of the characterisation is reflected in the overall plotting of the human sections, which reads like a checklist of Hard Science Fiction genre clichés. There’s a mad A.I., an attempted coup, and encounters with ancient artefacts and derelict spaceships. There’s a long sequence in which the commander tries to use dangerous tech to make himself immortal, and – because this is a generation ship and apparently ALL generation ship novels need to do this – there are generations of humans who become violent and tribe-like, never having known any existence beyond the confines of the ship.
There are some aspects of the human story I enjoyed. I especially liked the way that it tugs, thematically, in the opposite direction to the spider narrative. As time goes on, the spiders become less religious and more worldly/scientific, whereas, on board the generation ship, the humans become more and more superstitious and spiritual (some of the characters begin referring to their imagined new home as the “promised planet”). The fact that both narratives move thematically apart while being, physically, on an obvious collision course generates a really great sense of tension and momentum.
But let’s be honest; everything that happens to the humans is just filler; it’s the novel treading water until the spider-evolution story has advanced to a level sufficient enough to make a meeting between the two species narratively interesting. This means that, at 600 pages, the novel is about twice as long as it needs to be.
And this is where I think that Adrian Tchaikovsky has really missed a trick. In my opinion, he shouldn’t have included the human storyline at all. There are numerous reasons why I think this. Partly, it’s because the human story is boring. Partly, it’s because certain events that take place in the human storyline have the tendency to over-explain things that’re happening to the spiders (especially their worship of The Messenger, which we know in advance is a human satellite in orbit around their planet). But mostly, the human story detracts from the sense of alien otherness that the spiders experience as they slowly encounter/discover humanity.
How great would the spider story have been if we didn’t know what was up with the humans? If we discovered the truth about the nano virus and The Messenger and the generation ship in tandem with the spiders, rather than hundreds of pages ahead of them? There would have been some real “holy shit” moments. Not only would this generate a greater sense of reader empathy with the circumstances of the spiders, it would have massively reinforced the “otherness” with which the spiders regard the humans, and given Children of Time an aura of profound science fictional weirdness. It would also have made a mid-novel moment in which a single human shuttle lands on the planet vastly more interesting for its unexpectedness. In short: the book explains itself too much.
But maybe I’m just trying to make Children of Time into more of the sort of alienating Science Fiction that I want it to be. The predictable end-of-novel meeting between humans and spiders *is* very effective, (especially the description of what’s happened to the spider planet in recent years) and much of the language successfully imbues the feeling of sheer horror and confusion that the spiders feel when faced with humanity:
She would not have the first idea what to make of anything she sees. Every detail is bizarre and disturbing, an aesthetic arising from the dreams of another phylum, a technology of hard metal and elemental forces. (p.549)
It’s one of the most effective “the aliens are us” moments I’ve ever encountered, but it could have been so much better if we’d known next to nothing about what the humans are/have been doing.
This problem can’t really be fixed by just not-reading the human chapters. It would, I fear, require more of a total re-write. Despite all of this, however, Children of Time does what it does very well. It’s pacy, fun, peculiar Science Fiction, and the spider stuff is really well done indeed. Like, really well done. I just can’t help but feel that the book could have been so much more, if only it was so much less.