Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
I hate spiders. Really, truly hate them. I am severely arachnophobic. When I see one it sends a jolt through my body that momentarily paralyses me. I’ve been this way ever since I was a kid and my mum used to scream the house down and jump on a chair when she saw one. I didn’t know why she was terrified, I just knew that she was, and that visceral, irrational fear infected me and has never receded.
I only mention this because there are spiders in this book. Big ones. Given the above, it’s not hard to imagine how they made my skin crawl. And so the first – and perhaps biggest – compliment I am going to pay to Adrian Tchaikovsky is that, despite this, I kept reading.
Children of Time begins as mankind is taking itself to the brink of extinction. Avrana Kern, the leader of one of many scientific exploration missions sent out into the deep dark of space to try and find a new home for her species, is about to seed an alien world. She is going to send a group of monkeys down to the planet surface and infect them with a nanovirus that will uplift them to sentience over many, many generations whilst one of her team, Sering, lies in cold sleep in a sentry pod in orbit, waiting for the uplifted inhabitants on the world below to make contact. But, unfortunately for Avrana Kern, Sering is a terrorist. Escaping into the sentry pod as Sering sets about blowing up her life’s work, Kern hurriedly launches the monkeys towards the planet only to see them burn up – whilst the nanovirus continues on its way to the surface uninhibited.
From this jumping off point, Tchaikovsky takes the reader on a thrilling journey thousands of years into the future, stopping off at various points as important events or evolutionary leaps take place. Earth has seen a second ice age that nearly wipes out mankind. The survivors begin anew, but the planet is dying. They cannibalise the technology left behind and send ark ships out into the galaxy to search for the new worlds the ‘Old Empire’ tried to establish. It is here that we meet the crew of the Gilgamesh, perhaps the only ark ship to locate such a haven: Kern’s World. But what kind of planet has Kern’s nanovirus left behind?
I am, perhaps, doing Tchaikovsky a disservice with this all too brief and mangled precis of the opening of his marvellous story. What he does so cleverly in these opening pages is to not only create a backdrop, show us our own future history, and welcome his main characters (Holsten, Lain – how I will miss you!), but also begin to show us how an alien species begins to be uplifted. At each point in time we visit we see this species as it evolves, and it is both fascinating and thrilling to read. Naturally, the breadth of time that this covers means that we are introduced to new individuals at each stop, but Tchaikovsky cleverly weaves a web that maintains a whole; a consistency of character and backstory that binds them all together. Notably, use of the cold sleep technology allows him to keep the leading humans as a bedrock to underpin the novel; as they only age during the brief periods of time where they are taken out of hibernation, to deal with the various crises that arise, their lives end up spanning thousands of years.
I freely admit that I have not been Tchaikovsky’s biggest fan in the past. I read the first two books in his ‘Shadows of the Apt’ series and bounced off them, never going farther. However, it is quite apparent to me that his writing style has evolved as much as the Portias and Biancas at the heart of Children of Time’s story. There is a compelling warmth to his writing here that engages both the heart and the mind. I suspect that the constant shifting of timeframe and characters might have provided little more than a sequence of coldly analytical windows in time, admiring the progress and the changing environment but failing to express the development of characters and their wonders and fears, had it not been handled so adeptly. But there are no such pitfalls here.
The jumps in time are jarring by design, throwing the reader back into Holsten’s point of view as he awakens after centuries in cold sleep. These parts are deliberately disorienting, asking the reader to catch up with intervening events at the same speed as Holsten. Chapters alternate between the humans and the denizens of the planet, each part of the novel (given telling titles such as ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Schism’ and ‘Collision’) lasting just long enough for the characters to grab hold without overstaying their welcome. Some will find fault with this necessarily episodic nature of the story, I have no doubt, but it worked perfectly for me.
What may perhaps be more problematic for others are the leaps in the evolution of and, to an extent, the anthropomorphism of the spiders. It’s hard to avoid and a difficult trick to pull off well: how does an author convey that alienness without recourse to accepted forms of dialogue and action? I think Tchaikovsky does a good job of keeping their thoughts and actions just the right side of that line. However, it undoubtedly requires a certain suspension of disbelief, a willingness to go along for the ride, that many may be unable to get past. Especially if they’re arachnophobic.
Look beyond this, though, and you find a novel that is science fiction in the best tradition of the genre: forward-thinking and full of ideas, whilst also holding a mirror up to present times. Children of Time allows Tchaikovsky to address big themes – from man’s meddling with nature to the deterioration of our world to our never-ending ability to wage war with each other, not to mention religion, God-complexes and artificial intelligence.
I have to say it’s the most absorbing novel I have read this year. I found the pacing to be just about perfect, allowing me to linger with characters I liked, yet driving me forward with the desire to know what would happen next, even as it compelled me towards a conclusion that I did not see coming at all.
If this is Tchaikovsky’s first foray into science fiction, I sincerely hope it is far from his last. Speaking as an arachnophobe, Children of Time may even make me look a little differently at the next spider I see. Until I can find my slipper, at least.