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I decided to read and review Adrian Tchaikovsky’s SciFi novel Children of Time when someone on twitter called him one of the top three living science fiction writers in the world. Wow! That’s quite a testimony. I was curious if that statement was anything close to being accurate.
I asked another person on twitter what would be the best Tchaikovsky novel to start out with. He mentioned a book that is hard to get outside of the UK and then the “spider” tome I just finished.
There are three basic “voices.”
The first is Dr. Avrana Kern who is running an ambitious experiment. With Earth at the height of its technological civilization, we are terraforming exo-planets in the galaxy. Kern’s planet is to be populated with primates and then a nanovirus is supposed to be introduced that will rapidly accelerate their evolution. Another scientist is supposed to wait in stasis in an orbiting platform to periodically wake up and observe their progress.
Unfortunately, there are two major factions about to wage war on Earth and in her “empire.” An agent for one faction sabotages the experiment destroying the vessel with the “monkeys” on it. The delivery system for the nanovirus survives and it is sent to the planet.
To save her life, Kern isolates herself in the orbiter, letting everyone else die. She makes a mirror image of her own personality in the onboard AI set to awaken her if rescuers from Earth hear her distress call or something unanticipated happens on the planet. She then goes into deep freeze and never quite comes out again.
The second voice are the spiders, particularly multiple generations of arachnids called “Portia.” They start out as small, simple hunters but over multiple generations, rapidly evolve into self-aware, sapient beings which develop a complex social structure, language, and eventually a religion. The many Portias tell the tale of the spider development on the planet.
The third voice involves “key crew” on board the sleeper ship Gilgamesh. The people in this Earth society rose up from the ashes of the war of the “Old Empire” which was waged seemingly thousands of years previously. The planet never quite recovered, and eventually became unable to support life. The Gil contains thousands of people as frozen “cargo” seeking out a new world. They never achieved the technological heights of the Old Empire, but Humanist Holsten Mason and Chief Engineer Isa Lain among others are attempting to find some of the ancient worlds and settle on one of them.
Kern considers all of humanity that exists after the fall of the Empire “monkeys” and her personality, which runs the highly advanced and lethal orbiter, detects the approach of the Gil. The Gil, initially responding to her distress call, appeal to Kern to let them settle on the planet, but she wants nothing to interfere with her work and her monkeys (through most of the book, she refuses to believe that spiders are the central species being raised up). Rather than risk destruction, the Gil accepts a star map from Kern identifying other terraformed worlds and everyone goes back to sleep.
A long history told by these voices, mainly the spiders and the Gil, relate the narrative of their existences. The spiders not only develop advanced biochemical technology, enslaving the more or less mindless ants to do the dirty work, but eventually come to regard the orbiting Messenger as god.
They discover a way to interpret the radio signals from the orbiter, which is automatically transmitting math problems to await a response and test the “monkeys.” This influences them in a number of ways as they continue to evolve forward, while Kern remains ignorant of their very nature.
The Gil finds an old Earth space station orbiting a far away partially terraformed planet. While they are able to cannibalize its tech, the planet is unlivable. As the Gil grows older and malfunctions begin, they see no option but going back to Kern’s planet. With the technology they discover, they believe they can overcome the satellite and, if necessary, exterminate the spiders and various insect types for the survival of the human race.
The Gil faces mutiny, murder, regime changes, and seeming madness, but Holsten and Lain, long-term “frenemies” and occasional lovers, struggle to keep human history and humanity itself alive, even as generations of people stay out of stasis to be born, maintain the ship, and die in space.
The conclusion of the book as war is waged in orbital space between the Gil and the spiders, is rather unique due to how differently humans and intelligent spiders conceptualize their worlds. Yes, it’s a happy ending, and a setup up for the sequel.
I thought how the spiders finally resolved the conflict was a little stretched, although there was a somewhat plausible explanation to it all. It certainly cast human nature in the worst possible light, but that too was understandable given how desperate they were at the end.
While I have no way of assessing if Tchaikovsky really is one of the three top SciFi writers alive today, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and found it to be a proverbial “page turner.” I would highly recommend it for fans of space operas with a vast and sweeping scope of history and civilization. While technically the spiders weren’t aliens, their inability to communicate with humans and their completely foreign thinking patterns made it seem thus.
There were a few things.
On religion, the spider worship of the “Messenger” morphs into what seems like different forms or denominations but at the end of the book when the spiders realize the Messenger is another life form, religion becomes passé. While this makes perfect sense in the context of the story, this is very much the viewpoint of people who “believe” in science and see science and spirituality as mutually exclusive. No one on the Gil across countless generations expresses any religious or spiritual interest, even though we know spirituality is as human as social structures, eating, and sex (see the related interview with Orson Scott Card).
There was a strong social justice element present in spider society at one point. Females were always dominant and thought of as more intelligent and otherwise superior. They were larger than males and females killing males during mating or just because was perfectly acceptable. Given the story’s backdrop, the social justice focus on “emancipating” males was natural and organic, but at the same time, I don’t doubt the author was sending a message about marginalized groups. I guess I’ve been sensitized to this given how so much of the entertainment industry, TV, films, comic books, even SciFi novels, have sacrificed good storytelling in order to push a narrative. I know, it’s not like science fiction hasn’t been doing that all along, but it used to be securely folded into an entertaining tale. Fortunately, Tchaikovsky maintains his quality work while expressing this point.
Used “clip” instead of “magazine” which is a common error for people not familiar with firearms.
Used “sentient” instead of the more accurate “sapient” because it seems every science fiction writer does. Here’s an example of the difference between the two terms.
Traditionally, ship’s are anthropomorphized as “she” or “her” but the author gives the Gil male pronouns. I suppose this is a type of counterbalance against traditional naming, but every single time the Gil is called “him” or “he,” I was immediately pulled out of the narrative.
“All These Worlds” is as quote from the 1984 film 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
“To Boldly Go” should be obvious.
Again, all relatively minor points. This is a terrific story and again, I highly recommend it. Gets five stars on Amazon.