Although I dearly love science fiction, I haven’t been as enthusiastic to pick it up lately. I’ve been craving happier books as this pandemic stretches on, and most of the science fiction on my to-read list tends to be of the more depressing kind. Children of Time is no exception, although at the risk of a minor spoiler let me say it does have an uplifting ending, so that’s something. This is my first real novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky despite wanting to read his science fiction for years! I admire his storytelling talent even if maybe I am coming to him a bit too late for my tastes. More on that later.
Children of Time comprises two parallel narratives spanning thousands of years. On a terraformed planet that some would call Kern’s World, a species of spiders finds its evolution bootstrapped by a human-designed nanovirus. In orbit of the planet is a small station, a sentry, in which the terraforming project’s megalomaniacal director, Dr. Avrana Kern, sleeps and slowly melds with the sentry’s rudimentary artificial intelligence system. Meanwhile, the sleeper ship Gilgamesh enters the system—and after a rude, hostile reception from Kern and her AI counterpart, departs again—on a mission to find a home for what might be the last humans. The Gilgamesh’s eventual return, thousands of years later (thanks to relativistic travel), becomes a threat for the exalted spiders of Kern’s World. Humanity is coming to meet its children.
This is an intriguing premise, to be sure. Other authors have explored uplift in various ways. Tchaikovsky’s leveraging of stasis technology, relativistic travel, and a nanovirus to accelerate evolution creates a wonderful intersection of narrative possibilities. Despite the epic timeframe over which this story takes place, the human protagonists remain the same. The spider protagonists descend through generations, always named Portia and Bianca and Fabian for the reader’s convenience. Tchaikovsky allows us to witness the evolution of a new sentient species over a mere 600 pages.
The strongest aspect of this book is indubitably Tchaikovsky’s facility for imagining how spider society, technology, and culture would develop. Everything is biological, even the ant colonies that eventually become computers. It’s a wonderful reminder against technological determinism: not every sentient species need develop electronic computers from silicon and other minerals like we have. There are many tech trees, and one of my favourite aspects of science fiction is how authors with sufficient imagination can describe them for me!
Similarly, Holsten’s intermittent periods of wakefulness when he isn’t in stasis aboard the Gilgamesh provide us with snapshots, vignettes of humanity’s own evolution. As with the spiders, this story makes use of its own tropes, from delusions of apotheosis to the ways in which a generation ship would experience cultural drift and mythologizing of its original crew. Very little in this story is really new, yet Tchaikovsky weaves it together in a compelling way.
That being said, I didn’t like this story as much as the spiders’, mostly for its dismal tone. For almost all of the novel, humanity is on the brink of extinction and it is bleak. I don’t want to be too harsh on Tchaikovsky for this, because it’s entirely within his prerogative—it’s just not a tone I’m interested in at this moment in history as the vise grip of the pandemic and climate emergencies tighten around our contemporary society. A story about how humanity fucked up Earth so bad that only a small band of squabbling survivors using technology they barely understand is left is … not what I want to think about right now. So consider this a preference warning rather than a criticism.
Finally, Children of Time is a wonderful novel for its scope, though I don’t really care much for its character development. We don’t see the development of individuals among the spiders, given that theirs is a story told over generations. The societal development is good though. On the part of the humans, our narrator is Holsten Mason, and the nature of his presence (kept asleep, woken intermittently) means he has comparatively little time to learn and change and grow as a person. I wish we had seen Holsten with more agency and more chances to affect the narrative and learn from his mistakes.
This is the type of science fiction I would have adored ten years ago. My tastes have since moved on—I still want big ideas and epic scope, mind you, but I also want novels that explore characters themselves at a deeper level. Tchaikovsky comes close to this with Avrana Kern, but she begins as such a one-dimensional character and ends that way too—just not quite the same one dimension. So in this respect, I see Children of Time as a novel that misses several opportunities to be even better than it is. I will likely read the sequel for completeness’ sake, but I’m not rushing out to do so.