Modern Classic: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The notion of “uplift”, intelligent species genetically modifying animals to sentience, has been tossed around science fiction for quite some time, but never gained much prominence.  Save for the first work credited with uplift, The Island of Doctor Moerau by H. G. Wells and the Uplift series by David Brin, written science fiction has had fledgling success with the concept.  Children of Time has revived uplift with its great worldbuilding, awe inspiring scope and brilliant writing.

In Tchaikovsky’s opus, humans have reached a very high level of technological advancement.  Small crews are sent all over the universe on very fast ships to terraform planets and seed them with animals that they would then genetically modify to reach human intelligence levels.  However, a strong human faction is against people playing gods, and in an ensuing conflict almost everyone is destroyed.  Those who survive are thrown back into twentieth century technology.  All, save for one: Doctor Avrana Kern, the leader of a project to uplift monkeys on a terraformed planet, managed to merge her consciousness with a computer on a small satellite orbiting the planet.  What she doesn’t realize is that her beloved monkeys never reached the surface of the planet, and the nanovirus that was designed to uplift them has instead attached itself to a host of other animals, most notably spiders.

Meanwhile, in the solar system people recovered enough from the war to scavenge old technology to build a generational ship that would transport the remaining humanity to a new planet.  The ship Gilgamesh has a skeleton crew that is woken up when needed, in addition to the thousands of frozen bodies in its cargo holds.  Among the crew is Holsten, a historian who is one of the few who understand the long dead language of the technologically advanced human civilization and may make sense of some of their technology.  He is the protagonist through whose eyes we view half of the book.

Children of Time alternates between two points of view.  Holsten, presented in past tense, is the ship-bound protagonist.  He is always marginally important to the captain of the ship, and so he is defrosted for all key events of the voyage.  The second part of the book describes the rise of the spider species.  This is written in present tense, through the eyes of multiple spiders, all named Portia.  This arrangement is out of necessity: while Holsten has the opportunity to sleep for decades or hundreds of years, there is no stasis on the planet, and spider generations come and go.  Portia is always the key spider of a given generation, and through her eyes we can experience the evolution of the species.  The choice of language is also important: the past tense evokes the feeling of stability, or even degradation, of the human species, while the present tense is hectic and dynamic, just like the evolution and constant fight for survival of the spider species.

The Gilgamesh eventually reaches the planet, but is chased away by Kern’s satellite with its superior weapons.  Kern gives the crew a list of other planets with terraforming efforts, in order to keep them from trying to take a planet she views as hers.  The Gilgamesh departs for the nearest world, only to find that the terraforming there has gotten horribly wrong.  However, the crew manages to scavenge enough technology from the abandoned station in orbit, which they use to modify their ship to be in a fighting condition against Kern, and decide to return back.

Meanwhile, on Kern’s world, we’re witnessing the rise of the spiders.  They struggle against an enormous ant colony, until they manage to subjugate the ants and other species.  They discover signals from Kern’s satellite, and once they are able to reply, Kern begins instructing them in the development of their civilization.  She knows that the humans would come back, so she is trying to speed up the development of the species to a point where they would be able to defend themselves.  She doesn’t realize that the species she is communicating with is not a type of monkey, but spiders.  This causes an enormous gap in understanding, until it’s almost too late to mount an effective defense.  Ultimately, the humans arrive, and the fight for the future of one species or the other begins.

This synopsis doesn’t give credit to the immense scope and detail of the book.  There are many side stories.  There are power plays and internal conflicts on the Gilgamesh.  The spiders face their own threats, both external and internal.  Their society is very complex: they have a religion which established a dogma that Kern’s communication is the word of god, not to be questioned.  They also have a deeply rooted issue with sexism and slavery.  Tchaikovsky also spends considerable effort in establishing a completely new technological tree, communication method and animal husbandry, among other things.  All this is done in a logical way and makes perfect sense.

I found nearly everything in this book perfect.  The writing is incredibly polished, and the use of different voices for the two distinct settings was one of the best features of this title.  The worldbuilding is superb.  It is very detailed, and utterly believable.  For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the book didn’t even take place on the ship or Kern’s planet.  It was the description of the second planet, where the terraforming process has gone wrong, and the entire world became covered by an ivy-like superplant.  I still have nightmares about that world, even though the description was hardly several paragraphs long.

With such strong worldbuilding and the enormous scope of thousands of years, it is no surprise that characters play a secondary role.  There aren’t any that are truly well developed.  Holsten is merely a spectator.  His shipmates are clichéd, including the power-mad captain, the no-nonsense engineer and the dumb and single-minded security chief.  Kern herself is insane, but in a very predictable way.  The spiders are a little better developed, but only to the extent where their character development can drive societal changes.  I don’t begrudge the author for not focusing on his characters more: they are either the witnesses to change, or the change agents.  The story is about stagnation versus evolution, and not about people adapting to changing conditions.

My only gripe with the book is its ending.  I got heavily emotionally invested into one of the factions in the book, and I was unhappy with the outcome of the final battle.  Even this proves how effective the storytelling was.  Normally, I read a story as an outside observer; getting attached to some of the characters requires very strong and compelling writing.

All in all, Children of Time will remain one of my favorite books from the last few years.  The author took a concept that didn’t see much traction in the past and ran with it with great success.  His worldbuilding is impeccable, and I really enjoyed his tight writing style.  All this, combined with compelling stories that illustrate the progression of the humans and spiders, made this title a real page turner.  I can only hope that Adrian Tchaikovsky continues writing science fiction or his book at least inspires other authors.

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