The world is a very scary place at the moment, sitting by while everything just seems to be crumbling around us. The institutions and functions of society that have been broken for quite some time have been exposed pretty clearly, and chaos just seem to be spreading at an ever rapid pace. So, it stands to reason that we need to seek out a little comfort from the world of fiction. And what better way to leave behind the horrors of reality than taking a trip into the stars, picking up a science-fiction novel that tells the tale of humanity as it leaves the confines of Earth to seek out a new destiny in the stars. Which led me to pick up Adrian Tchaikovsky’s award-winning sci-fi novel Children of Time. And let me tell you, if you’re looking for a story that can help you escape from the crushing reality that human beings are a doomed species who will destroy themselves at every turn, this maybe isn’t the book for you to check out. But, if you’re looking for some wonderfully written science fiction that features some of the most effortlessly brilliant world-building I’ve ever read, do I have the book for you.
Children of Time begins by introducing us to a scientist named Dr. Kern. She and her colleagues have been terraforming a planet in the far-reaches of space, and are preparing to drop a group of monkeys onto the planet, along with a genetically designed virus which they believe will speed up the process of evolution, as a science experiment. However, right before the experiment is to begin a massive attack from an Earth-born group of Luddite terrorists occurs, utterly devastating this human empire, and specifically destroying this project. The monkeys are killed, and only a group of spiders are able to make it to the planet, along with the virus. The story then jumps ahead several thousand years, and from there alternates between two sets of characters, taking frequent massive jumps in time. On the one hand we have the second wave of humanity. They survived the complete crash of the “Old Empire,” along with an Ice Age on Earth, and have built themselves up to the point where they’re able to also reach out into the stars. But, in their case it’s necessity, because the Earth has been too thoroughly poisoned at this point to sustain life, so humanity have boarded a series of generation space ships in order to seek out life. And, when uncovering the secrets of the Old Empire, they have learned about terraformed planets out in the galaxy, waiting for them. We follow a group of these humans as they make their way around space, struggling to find a viable place to set own roots. They do come across the planet that Kern created, but find it protected by a satellite complete with an artificial version of Kern, which manages to scare them away.
Kern’s artificial intelligence still believes that her experiment is going off without a hitch, but things have gone down a much different path. The spiders that were introduced to the virus have largely become the rulers of this world, evolving far past what spiders of our world are capable of, creating a society that manages to spread around the planet, setting up their own social structures and bio-technology utilizing subjugated ants. We follow several generations of spiders as they grow and advance, and all the while they have their Messenger, Kern’s satellite which is constantly streaming down a series of math equations, hoping to get her creations to talk to her. And, eventually, they’re able to. The spiders reach the point in their society that they can speak to their God, who realizes what has happened and decides that even though these spiders aren’t exactly what she was expecting, they’re still her children. So, she warns them of the inevitable return of the humans, who will attempt to steal their planet. Which, does come to pass, but the spiders end up coming up with an inventive way around this war. The humans are ready for conquest, but the spiders end up being able to introduce a modified version of their virus into the human population, making them less violent and more interested in collaboration. And it’s all accomplished by getting the human beings to think about the greater good for once.
Children of Time is a sprawling book, absolutely flooded with great ideas, and told in a very unique way. We get to see plenty of the human society, trapped aboard their ancient space ship as they seek out a respite from their terrible existence, while hoping not to fall into the same traps that their ancestors did. And, we get to see several glimpses over the evolution of these spiders, seeing them go from hunter-gatherers to space-faring race. And, at times you can get the idea that the spiders are doing things right, while the humans are just messing everything up, as usual. The humans get embroiled in inter-personal squabbles, dabble around with destructive megalomania, and forget their way several times, but the spiders also deal with crippling plague, their own sexist struggles for societal equality, and a deep-set obsession with their own religion that threatens to stall their evolution. Both societies are incredibly flawed, but in different and complementary ways. It’s a story that kind of assumes that there’s just something about the sentient spirit which will always lead to some sort of strife and struggle, but that we can get past that if we can just let go of our self-obsession and actually think of ourselves as equals. But, it’s also a story that suggests that the only way that humanity is going to be able to accomplish that is with the help of benevolent spiders literally altering their genetics so they can actually and truly give a shit about each other, so there might not be a light at the end of that particular tunnel.
Children of Time was written by Adrian Tchaikovsky, 2015.
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