Can you feel it? The slow, inexorable increase in anxiety among homo sapiens? We live in tense times, and I believe I speak objectively, though this observation is certainly a subjective perception, too. Worldwide fear of terrorism, climate change, economic collapse, technological breakthroughs without brakes. Maybe the only thing we are not afraid of is an external predator, an unfriendly visit from a superior species, but why should we fear that when we are far more likely to create one right here at home?
When I began reading Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel published in 2015) I was immediately impressed at how well the novel resonated with the gloomy thoughts noted above. But, even if you don’t share in my personal sense of the zeitgeist, you should give this book a read and enjoy the literary risks the novel takes and survives.
The story begins with the actions of scientist Avrana Kern, who has little regard for human beings and the damage they have wreaked upon the earth and each other. Kern is faced with the rebellion of a key scientist on her team who does not agree that Kern or anyone should be altering the evolution of species with the sophisticated technology at their disposal. To ensure that her plan to seed intelligent life on a habitable (“terraformed”) planet goes forward, Kern blithely destroys a space port, resulting in the deaths of many people and forcing her to enter cryogenic sleep in a pod that will orbit the planet until a computer rouses her to witness the outcomes of her experiment. What Kern doesn’t know is that her precious monkeys, the subjects she had selected to reboot civilization, don’t make it to the planet. The virus she’s engineered to enhance and speed up the monkey’s evolution does.
A reader might conclude that if Kern died during that unimaginably long and lonely sleep, it would have been good riddance to bad rubbish. With his cynical and arrogant god-scientist, who nevertheless risks all for her precious monkeys, Tchaikovsky clearly makes a point about the dangerous and awesome capacity of human beings loose in the universe. Still, there was something so cartoonish about this deluded scientist that I nearly missed the point and was worrying in the back of my reader’s head that the novel was sliding toward farce. Luckily the author managed to correct course before I threw the book down, and later, when I was more comfortable with where the story was going, I better appreciated his persistent black humor directed at the human characters and their mishaps.
Spoiler alert: I won’t reveal the ending but I can’t help describing significant parts of the plot, so stop here if you don’t want to know what happens.
Shortly after the reader meets new human characters that are journeying through space near Kern’s terraformed planet some 200 years later, we are introduced to an almost anthropological description of a race of intelligent spiders (spiders? Yes, spiders!) who are making the terraformed planet their own, though that certainly wasn’t the plan. A handful of spider “personalities” exhibit qualities that provide them with evolutionary advantages by chance and design. The reader follows these individuals throughout the novel, though each spider chapter leaps several generations. Thus, “Portia” in the first spider chapter is not the same “Portia” in the subsequent chapters, but all the Portias share a certain set of traits that become familiar. At first, this approach to discussing the evolution of intelligent spiders bugged me (whoops, sorry!). I wasn’t able to identify with the spiders, but I finally came to terms with my discomfort. The spiders’ story couldn’t and didn’t need to be told via a lead character in the same fashion as we often tell stories about ourselves. So, once again, Tchaikovsky throws down a challenge that I was able to accept and move on because the story was just that doggone compelling.
When next we visit the humans, we meet a handful of the crew of the Gilgamesh, a space ship that is one of the last crafts to leave the dying earth with hundreds of sleeping humans in cargo. They seek a new world for the last members of the human race and are on course for the last known terraformed planets to see if any of them can support human life. What exactly happened to earth in between Kern’s time and the Gilgamesh crew’s time is described with the dismissive macro descriptions we generally employ when discussing ancient history.
Inheritors of remarkable technologies that allow for long-term, long-distance space travel on their ark, the crew and cargo humans are fairly desperate from the beginning. They can do little more than copy and maintain the technology that sustains them. Even Holsten Mason, a classicist who studies the ancient civilizations of earth and is the central character chronicling the ship’s adventures, comes to the depressing conclusion that the ancients were hopelessly homicidal. Unfortunate but predictable decisions and accidents during the journey result in the humans proving their nature has not changed.
While Kern sleeps, Tchaikovsky pits the Gilgamesh chapters against the spider chapters. We have a pleasing juxtaposition of one civilization seemingly intent on destroying itself and one embarking on discovery and growth. Readers will also appreciate the examples of the danger of the god concept, AI and tech ethics, selfless sacrifices for the greater good, and the power of love. Even though I was cheering for the brave and fairly good spiders, I sympathized with the hapless Holsten, the highly suspicious chief engineer Isa Lain, and even the flawed captain of the Gilgamesh, Guyen.
The author’s depiction of the descendants of the crew, which Holsten encounters when he is awakened at the end of Guyen’s command as well as again when the ship is under Lain’s command, probably did more to keep me from switching teams than anything else in the novel. The depiction of mindless cultists in loose-fitting robes–so prepared to sacrifice themselves to ensure their god-man’s rule–was a horrifying example of the heartless enslavement of human potential. It was a relief to see that Lain corrected that by actually training the subsequent and surviving descendants as full crew members responsible for keeping the ship together and not worshipping her or anyone else.
When the Gilgamesh’s senior crew, who is aging despite long periods of time-stopping sleep, determines that the only world they can survive on is dominated by intelligent spiders and guarded by Kern, they must do whatever is necessary to take it. Simultaneously, the spiders employ all means at their disposal to defend their home. The final twist in the story results in a surprise ending that I found very satisfying.
There are a couple of small shortcomings with the novel: Guns. They’re everywhere, and though I certainly expected future humans to use weapons, the way these are described made me think the crew was running around with Glocks or shotguns.
Second complaint–the title. Some reviewers on Goodreads have commented on the title’s blehness, and I agree. Yes, time is an important concept in the story. Time is painfully short at some points in the novel and excruciatingly long at others. It transforms or erases characters, but the concept of time doesn’t seem to herald any particular meaning when it’s combined with the concept of “children,” for we’re all children of time. I struggle with titles all the time, so I haven’t got any good answer to this, but it seems to me that evolution would have been a better concept to work into the title.
Complaints aside, this is a wonderful novel that takes on big picture issues of space, humanity and evolution. I wish Tchaikovsky all the best on the Clarke Award and will be checking out more of his work.