Children of Time starts with a prologue of sorts that sets up two different story lines (humans versus spiders). As Peter F. Hamilton’s cover endorsement nails, “evolutionary world-building” is the key theme Children of Time, with an emphasis on evolution. To achieve this the author indulges in large time gaps regularly for the humans (in hibernation) while the spiders happily evolve up the intelligence ladder.
CHILDREN OF TIME
by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher by: Pan; Main Market Ed. edition (May 19, 2016)
Paperback: 608 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: “There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility – rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind.”
The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life.
But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.
Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?
The choice of insects (spiders, ants, and others) is interesting with many readers probably suffering from a spider aversion or who are downright arachnophobic. The author clearly has done his homework on spider anatomy/biology/ecology and the perspective of the spider characters as they develop is a really positive aspect of the book. The author achieves a uniquely inhuman perspective in the spiders, ants, and other insects. One of the most thrilling and terrifying parts of the book is the interaction of humans with the evolving insects and the visions of baseball sized ants chewing through your abdomen. The author captures the visceral terror quite well, while not overdoing the graphic violence.
The human side of the story covers diaspora from a more familiar science fiction trope. Humans have ruined Earth and the remnants have to leave to find a new home. The also familiar trope of a descendant race of humans is all that is left of a glorious more advanced previous civilization(s) creates the driving motivations of the surviving humans. The main protagonist ‘classicist’ struggles with the need/desire to rediscover the old civilization’s knowledge and specifically technology, while at the same time yearning to pave a new path for humanity. Underlying this is the doubt that all has been discovered and done before and that a new path is futile.
Tchaikovsky does well with building tension and keeping the reader guessing and mostly in the dark in the human story line. It is a slow build in tension between characters with some very good dialogue between the protagonist and the other leads. Unfortunately the characters are very one-dimensional, literally each displaying one trait such as cowardice, over-aggression, psychopathy, sociopathy, and so on.
The spider story line takes on more Asimov-like large scale world building. The author tends to the third person to explain much of spider society and events, while the mute spiders intersperse dialogue in italics. The author roughly wields large themes in building the spider society that mimic large societal struggles such as religious conservatism, progressive technological development, warfare, and individual rights. Not much is subtle and much seems glossed over, or that the author is ‘talking at’ the reader to get points across. Because of the format it felt like watching a National Geographic documentary that has turned into a History channel show starring spiders, leaving me not very invested in the actual characters.
By the last section of the book I was very tired of generations of spiders being referred two by three names instead of individual spider characters. Worse so, the spiders evolution seemed to have stagnated and the characters really didn’t have the depth to be differentiated between multiple generations. What does work is the idea of spider space exploration and their ability to build, extrapolated to the extreme.
The overarching theme throughout the novel is communication and what it means between intelligent beings. Although a building undercurrent throughout the entire novel, especially on the spider story line in the second section, the author basically ‘talks to the reader’ in the final pages about this theme. The author lays out all the questions about forms of communication, the failure to communicate, and how limited our ideas can be when we don’t communicate. The biggest science fiction leap and near-science idea of future communication are understandings (as the author names it). In the end the author waxes about empathy and the ability to see yourself in others that allows for progress and growth. I left the final pages wondering whether understandings are a form of communication or more of a brainwashing.
I felt the characters were weak throughout the novel and so did not feel invested in either story line; I didn’t really feel compelled to root for one side or the other. This fact aside, I never got tired of the ideas throughout the book and that is the major strength of Children of Time. The imaginative world of the spiders is fantastic and the issues faced by both species keeps you thinking throughout.