The Hive Reads… Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Welcome to the ninth instalment of our ‘Hive Reads’ feature! (You can read the others here.) After settling on Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky as our next read, a bunch of us here at the Hive diligently noted down our thoughts whilst reading throughout the month. You can read the end result below! Though do beware: spoilers abound.
This month’s read is brought to you by the fabulous team of T.O. Munro, Beth Hindmarch, James Latimer and Laura M. Hughes.
Laura M. Hughes: Welcome, everyone, to the latest Hive Read! This time we’re getting stuck into Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. As always, let’s begin with first impressions. What are everyone’s thoughts on the cover?
Beth Hindmarch: The cover is sneaky. It’s innocuous. I’m terrible for judging a book by its cover, so I thought I was in for your proper spaceships in space with all the space and unpronounceable space names kind of sci-fi. There’s an awful lot it doesn’t reveal or give away. As images of spaceships in space go, I find it quite striking – the sun dawning on the verdant lushness of the planet, a promise of a new future to the awaiting craft caught in the lens flare. I think it’s one of the better sci-fi covers out there.
James Latimer: Disappointingly generic, for me, but that’s the genre right now (in the UK at least). I’m not sure what more we could expect, but we could at least have Chris Foss instead of Photoshop of the same stock starship on half the covers out there…
Laura: Yeah, I feel like there could have been at least one spider on the cover, even if it were just a little one…
Beth: I’d have 100% not picked it up had there been a spider on the cover. I wouldn’t have been able to look at it every time I went to pick it up, but also I don’t think I’d have taken it as seriously.
Laura: Hmm. Maybe it’s for the best, then!
Let’s talk about the characters. Were there any in particular that stood out to you? That you sympathised with? WHAT DID EVERYONE THINK OF THE SPIDERS?
Beth: It’s been some time since I read Children of Time – May 2017! But Portia still sticks in my mind. I struggled with the spiders to begin with; I’m arachnophobic and the descriptions made my skin crawl. However by the end of the book, I found myself sympathising with the spiders more than the humans, even rooting for them above my own species. I’m not sure at which point I became comfortable with them as characters, or why (whether their evolution made them less like spiders and therefore less like something to fear).
James: Characters were tricky to gauge, because the spiders are obviously quite alien, and they aren’t even the same spiders throughout the book – though I think it was a clever touch to re-use the names for similar archetypes so you could get that sense of continuity. They did end up working as characters for me, but when they are set up in opposition to the humans, I wasn’t sure I sympathised with them more than “us”. As far as the humans go, it was easier to follow characters, but the style of the narrative meant we never went that deep with any of them, and Holden never seems to step outside of being an observer into being a true protagonist. The people around him were stronger, though I wouldn’t say it was the crew I’d want entrusted with the future of the entire species!
T.O. Munro: I enjoyed the various incarnations of Portia and Bianca and Fabian, and I definitely agree with JL. Re-using the names made it feel like a single episodic life in a way I couldn’t imagine if they had all had different names. Maybe it’s sort of like the different incarnations of Dr Who. But it was also the different stages in evolution – which meant that the spider’s voices needed to convincingly convey different levels of intelligence/consciousness – which I thought Tchaikovsky did well.
Laura: The author definitely does a great job of juxtaposing the varying perspectives, and of conveying a distinctly alien POV in a way that we humans can understand.
Speaking of shifting perspectives, what are everyone’s thoughts on the structure and pacing of the book? Did the POV shifts keep you turning the pages, or throw you out of the story?
James: Well, the structure is certainly a big talking point. Switching between the two POVs, one of which is human and quite personal, the other of which is…not, was intriguing for a while but sometimes I found myself unready to go back to the other and impatient to just continue a single story line.
Style-wise, there’s a lot of narration, and I found that aspect very old-fashioned in a Clark/Asimov sort of way. It’s a classic Big Concept bit of sci-fi and I struggled to connect to it in anything but an intellectual way. In the middle, I started to feel I could get as much out of a plot summary, and just wanted to skip to the end to see how it turned out…which I suppose means I wasn’t as hooked into the unfolding events. And then when it all started to go wrong, I was even more disappointed – but the end just about redeems it all.
Beth: Like James I was more invested in one storyline than the other, but it was the spiders I was eager to keep coming back to! I looked forward to discovering what had changed, how far along they would be now. I increasingly felt unable to keep up with what was happening in the human POV, I felt like events were just getting further and further away from me. Each time we returned to whichever POV, it would feel like things were different, and yet the human POV felt more and more alien whereas the spider POV felt more and more human.
T.O.: Yes, Beth, a good point, the spiders definitely began to feel more and more human. For me, the balance between the human ark-ship PoV and the spider terraforming PoV worked well. I was neither sorry nor desperate when each switch came – happy to be swept along by the different story strands.
Also, there are really three PoVs to be reconciled in this. Let’s not forget the psyche of the mad doctor/messenger trapped in monitoring orbit alongside the planetside spiders and the Gilgamesh crew & cargo.
Laura: Yes, I really enjoyed the interludes with Dr Avrana Kern. As frustrating as she was, I thought it was interesting to see things from the point of view of a pure scientist who’d developed a not-quite-god complex.
Let’s move on to talk about the worldbuilding. It’s pretty masterful, right?
Beth: The world building absolutely blew me away. It was the gradual construction and evolution of a society that impressed me every time we came back to it. I thought Tchaikovsky’s planning and detail staggering.
James: Yes, this is obviously the strong point here. The human side of it is fairly standard, though it does cover some interesting ideas about generation ships and uploaded consciousness. But the planetary side is spectacular.
Beth: Honestly the generation-ships and uploaded-consciousness side of things was a little lost on me; I’m not great with hard sci-fi. I accept it and roll with it in the same way I do magic systems in fantasy. It’s there, and this is what it does. Cool ok, I’ll buy that.
T.O.: I’ve not really read much generation ship sci-fi but it is pretty much a trope. The kind that’s as instantly recognisable as pointy-eared elves or dwarves with scottish accents (something I should hold my own hands up to). Which I suppose is why I find myself fairly forgiving of this trope. It’s a context, a canvas on which Tchaikovsky paints his human story and that did interest me. The classicist and the engineer and the way they inverted positions through their trips to stasis.
There’s also the layered civilisations within this universe (and to be fair it is universe building not just empire building). There is the notion that the arkship is actually a throwback, a primitive technology by comparison with the ancient terraforming human civilisation that almost destroyed the Earth and left so insidious a poison that it doomed the successor civilisation that crawled out of their ruins. In some ways, the people on Gilgamesh are an analogue for the dark age romano-britons of King Arthur’s time, perched on the corpse of the Roman empire.
There were so many touches that appealed to me. The harnessed computing power of ant colonies! The notion of learning being passed and embedded genetically within the spiders rather than through some form of writing. Everyday communication that made no use of sound waves. (And there’s the thing, human and mammalian ears that we take for granted are tuned to detect the tiniest variations in air pressure that are sound waves. Tchaikovsky’s spider evolutionary path shows – in absentia – what a remarkable feat of evolution our hearing is). At Bristolcon I attended a panel about writing non-humans and avoiding the trope of near-humanism. Tchaikovsky’s depiction of the spiders is a fascinating deviation from the usual alien motif of bipedal creatures with knobbly heads (be it orcs or space-orcs/klingons).
Laura: Some really interesting points, all! Last but not least, what did everyone think of the plot?
James: Well, the plot didn’t quite go as expected – which is good. You think that first contact is going to last longer and the rest of the book will be some sort of slow consolidation, but he takes it all in a much more pessimistic direction, to the point where you really wonder how this is going to all work out all right. Maybe I’m used to much more optimistic sci-fi (I don’t read much of it these days tbh), that big change of direction seems to put things on a downward spiral until (spoiler) the very very end.
Beth: I did not see that ending coming at all. I felt manipulated, which ultimately left me feeling really impressed. I really felt that Tchaikovsky was aware of the genre and what his reader’s expectations would be.
T.O.: Yes, the ending surprised me too – though I found myself rooting for the spiders pretty early on. It was cleverly done with the interleaved plotlines and with interesting flipped resonances with the contemporary world – I’m thinking of the matriarchal spider society within which males strive for emancipation from their slave status.
Laura: Agreed! So many aspects of the plot work on so many different levels, it’s easy to see why the book won a Hugo Award.
Moving on! Are there any particular quotations from the book that amused or resonated with anyone?
James: “That was no fucking monkey.”
T.O.: This line where Portia and Fabian are discussing the low status of male spiders and the eternal argument of those with power and privilege against those without it.
They plan and hope and fear. Merely see them and that connection would strum between you They are my brothers. No less so they are yours.
Portia disagrees vehemently. If they were of any quality or calibre, then they would ascend by their own virtues.
Laura: I’ll add a couple myself, beginning with Kern’s cynical observations of her own species:
‘Only-child humanity craved the sole attention of the universe.’
And of course the tell-tale signs of her own ambitions:
‘Let others become gods of mere single worlds. She herself would stride the stars and head up the pantheon.’
Perhaps one of my favourite lines is the matriarch spiders’ general response to Fabian’s concerns that females are preying on (i.e. EATING) lone males:
‘Girls will be girls, after all.’
Finally, I’ll end with this goosebumps-inducing quote about the ‘messenger’ in the sky:
‘They do not conceive of it as some celestial spider-god that will reach down into their green world and save them from the ant tide. However, the message is. The Messenger is. These are facts, and those facts are the doorway to an invisible, intangible world of the unknown. The true meaning of the message is that there is more than spider eyes can see or spider feet can feel. That is where hope lies, for there may yet be salvation hidden within that more. It inspires them to keep looking.’
That’s it for this group’s insights into Children of Time! Thanks again to our wonderful reading team of Beth Hindmarch, James Latimer, and T.O. Munro (plus me, Laura M. Hughes).
I’m sad to announce that this has been the final instalment of Hive Reads, at least for a good long while. Thanks to everyone who’s enjoyed and supported the feature, and HUGE thanks to all who’ve participated during the past twelve months! You can check out previous Hive Reads here.