Spiders and ants and human beings, Oh My! Adrian Tchaikovsky massive work of science fiction won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for Best Novel. An award it deserved. This book is an important work for science fiction fans missing the fanciful, yet probable, speculation Arthur C. Clarke made famous. Children of Time both accepts the hard science of space travel and challenges your understanding of intelligence and awareness.
Reviews of Children of Time put it in the hard SF genre. I am not a fan of hard SF. I find it boring. The endless speculation of characters turns into pages of exposition to support the fanciful ideas of the author. Clouded story arcs vanish beneath the weight.
When a good story breaks through the speculative science, physics and time preoccupy the genre at the expense of biology. Stories span thousands of years, but through magic hibernation chambers or trippy time dilation, characters do not age, or age in a manner somehow unimportant to their psyche or the story arc. Folding space might be impossible, but I used it in The Fundamentals because preserving a body in a hibernation chamber for thousands of years is impossible. Now consider Children of Time.
The backstory is not new. Humanity is killing itself, actually humanity all but exterminates itself at the start of this space and time spanning epic. An egotistic scientist, Avrana Kern is about to seed a terraformed planet with primates and a nano virus when rebels blow up everything. Kern’s experiment goes wrong, her barrel of monkeys never makes it to the terraformed planet. Instead, the planet is populated by insects infected with the magic talisman that will empower the story, the nano virus. Several-thousand years later Holsten Mason, a historian, wakes on the ark ship Gilgamesh; sent from Earth to save humanity from its dying planet.
From here the story alternates between the ever-evolving spiders on the terraformed, nano virus infected planet, and the ever-conflicted human beings aboard their giant ship. I felt like the spider side of the story was dragging out the inevitable; the humans would land and exterminate these critters. Right?
That egotistic scientist Avrana Kern had a few tricks up her sleeve. The biggest being her ego. After the catastrophe of her initial experiment, she puts herself to sleep in a hibernation pod with instructions for her AI to wake her when the monkeys on the planet are intelligent enough to contact her. Somehow, over thousands of years, her ego melds with the AI and when the Gilgamesh approaches, she proves that she can destroy it with a thought before sending it away to another terraformed planet.
Meanwhile on the Gilgamesh, we learn the civilization that created Kern and her godlike experiment has long since blown itself to shreds. The crew and cargo of the Gilgamesh are a new civilization that arose from the ashes of the first and have used that old technology—as best they can—to save humanity from its dying star.
The problem is that putting humans into a hibernation that retards their aging is more fanciful than warp-drives and hyperspace.
Space is big. Very, very, excessively big. Traveling through it takes a long time. A very, very, excessively, long time. Children of Time avoids the fanciful use of warp-drives and hyperspace, forcing its characters into impossibly long journeys in the equally fanciful hibernation chambers. Combine that with the time dilation of near light speed travel, and our spiders and ants get millions of generations to evolve on the terraformed, magically enhanced (sorry) nanovirus infected, planet.
I don’t like these stories where actual time stretches into millennia while story time is a few years. The author is trying to be scientifically accurate while speculating on the human condition of extended, near light speed, space travel. The problem is that putting humans into a hibernation that retards their aging is more fanciful than warp-drives and hyperspace. No one has done it, and the laws of biology are more brutal to the human body than time. Now, consider the spider.
The spider story is where the speculation of this novel rockets into near light territory. Since spiders don’t live long, Adrian Tchaikovsky used a convention of genetic memory to give the story familiar characters. Through the genetic characters of Portia, Bianca, Fabian, and others we experience Kern’s nano virus work on the planet. Spiders are not the only creatures gaining intelligence and creating a civilization. The ants are learning, adapting, and conquering as well. Through the clever use of chemicals, the spiders contain the ant threat, and even communicate with their god, the egotistic AI in the sky.
Back on the Gilgamesh the story unfolds through the eyes of Holden Mason, who sleeps through most of it. He wakes to evermore dire circumstances, including a cyborg hybrid thing that intends to kill Kern’s AI to capture the planet, and generations of humans that have evolved on the Gilgamesh. At about the third awakening I had enough of Holden Mason’s anemic contribution to the story. Bring in the spiders.
Eventually we get to the showdown. Spider vs Man vs AI. The outcome was a surprise for me, and why after months of trudging through it, (I put it down several times because I was tired of Holden getting woke yet again for yet another crisis that was generations in the making), I gave it four stars on Goodreads and can recommend it to both hard SF fans and fans of fiction looking for well-developed eight-legged characters. The human characters, the science of space travel, and eternal life through a hibernation pod—not so much. Read this one for the spiders.