I shared a Table of Contents with Adrian Tchaikovsky in the NewCon Press anthology ‘Looking Landward’ a couple of years ago. His story was about ants and mine was about worms. I subsequently met him briefly at EasterCon this year and stood next to his wife while ordering a sandwich. I’d not read any of his ‘Shadows Of The Apt’ fantasy series though because I only read Science Fiction. ‘Children Of Time’ is definitely Science Fiction and also includes ants.
Millennia in the future a ruined Earth is left behind by the vestiges of mankind in several ark ships. The ‘Gilgamesh’ arrives at a ready-terraformed world guarded by an ancient satellite from the Imperial Era. What none of them realise is that the tailored nanovirus designed to uplift a race of monkeys to sentience has in fact had the same effect on several different species, most notably some rather large spiders. You can immediately see where this is heading – running and screaming and spider webs – but, in fact, Adrian Tchaikovsky doesn’t take us that way. The plot is both less predictable and more interesting.
Chapters alternate between the crew of the Gilgamesh and the developing arachnid society on Kern’s World. Up on the ark ship, a small crew looks after half a million sleeping colonists and, initially, this part of the story is well-written but fairly standard SF fare. What lifts it from the ordinary though is the main character Holsten Mason, a classicist who is regarded by the rest of the crew with a mixture of tolerance for his expertise in ancient languages and culture and disdain, due to his association with that same ancient culture that brought about the destruction of Earth. He has an on-going internal battle between objective scientist able to abdicate responsibility for everything going on around him and caring human displaying flashes of bravery and ingenuity in the face of crises. The plot takes several twists and turns as power struggles and politics take the Gilgamesh to several different locations in their quest for a home, all the while allowing the spider society to develop. Lots of action on the ship takes place while Holsten is in suspension and, each time he awakens, the situation has developed in new and unexpected directions. Watching the progress of humanity’s last hope through his eyes is to see things through a fractured but curiously grounded lens.
Many generations pass on the planet, but the main spider protagonists in each generation are always called Portia, Bianca and Fabian, allowing a familiarity to develop with these potentially-inscrutable characters. These sections demonstrate Adrian Tchaikovsky’s brilliance at portraying a totally ‘alien’ society as it develops a civilisation based on silk, vibrations and post-coital cannibalism. Other arthropods, some uplifted more than others, are woven into this complex society, demonstrating numerous clever extrapolations. One of the highlights is the ant-colony-based difference engines, which I’m sure will eventually lead to the development of the new sub-genre of antpunk. With each chapter I was astounded at the new developments of the arachnid society and each time I thought there was surely a limit to what they could accomplish there would be yet other amazing but logical developments.
‘Children Of Time’ does a fabulous job of humanising one of our greatest nightmares while also demonstrating several of humanity’s least desirable qualities. The Key Crew who accompany Holsten through centuries of sleeping and wakefulness are initially mere ciphers of characterisation – engineer, scientist, security – each displaying the qualities we have come to expect from such characters. As time passes, at different rates for each of them, and as they come to terms with the enormity of their ever-longer mission, each of them develops and changes both of themselves and in their interactions. Even the least likeable of them eventually prompts sympathy at their predicament. Each episode also adds meaning to the book’s title as Adrian Tchaikovsky does not hold back from extrapolating how such a long term sleeper-ship would end up functioning under the dire circumstances the crew find themselves in. This is a book thoroughly engrossing, inventive and entertaining.
Gareth D. Jones
(pub: TOR-UK/PanMacmillan. 593 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4472-7328-8)