The novel “Children of Time” by Adrian Tchaikovsky was published for the first time in 2015. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
The starship Gilgamesh carries a group of human beings fleeing the dying Earth, perhaps the last survivors of humanity. In their long journey among the stars looking for a new home, they head for a planet that, according to their information, was terraformed but when they get near it they are warned that they’re not welcome not to stop if they don’t want to face the consequences.
A scientific experiment was aimed at modifying the DNA of a group of monkeys to increase their intelligence but the plans are upset and the nanovirus released on the planet ends up modifying the DNA of various species of arthropods. Over the course of centuries, a species of spider emerges as the most intelligent and starts developing a civilization while influencing its surrounding environment.
To write “Children of Time”, Adrian Tchaikovsky took a number of themes already explored by other writers, so much that the name of the spaceship Brin 2 seems an explicit homage to David Brin, who wrote an entire series about the uplift of pre-sentient species. Initially, especially the subplot set on the ark that carries the survivors of humanity gave me a been-there-done-that feeling but the author is good at developing the various themes in an intriguing way that in the novel shows original elements.
The post-apocalyptic setting is used by Adrian Tchaikovsky to tell in parallel the story of a group of survivors of humanity and the consequences of a scientific experiment that has a development very different from what was planned when Dr. Avrana Kern, the scientist who was supposed to supervise it, can no longer have any active role. The author included several references to a terrible world war that brought humanity to the brink of extinction but they’re fragmentary, useful to give an idea of those events and to clarify that it was the result of human stupidity but nothing more because he was interested in telling what happened after that catastrophe.
The most intriguing choice is to have as protagonists spiders descendants of the species Portia labiata whose evolution was accelerated by a nanovirus that increased their intelligence to the point of making them sentient. The story told in “Children of Time” spans many generations in which these spiders develop an increasingly complex society in a path that’s completely different from that of human beings.
In what is for me the most interesting part of the novel, Adrian Tchaikovsky starts from the
original differences, both physical and environmental, between spiders and human beings and adds the ones developed during the growth of their civilization such as the domestication of ants. All this leads these spiders to create a civilization with unique characteristics through a series of steps with changes both social and technological.
There’s a sense of the millennia that pass with new generations of characters. In the case of human beings, some members of the original crew use cryogenic stasis with periodic awakenings in case of need: they’re the only ones present throughout the novel and at every awakening there’s their confusion in seeing unknown faces and discovering situations sometimes unexpected. For this reason, only very few of them have a real development and Adrian Tchaikovsky focuses on the crucial personality traits of the important ones and on the motivations that guide their actions.
The parallel stories of the human beings on Gilgamesh and the spiders on the planet allow Adrian Tchaikovsky to develop several themes, not all of them at best. In particular, the theme of the mind uploading is seen in a negative way but my impression is that the failures were described in a superficial way to have emotional reactions. It’s the element of the novel that left me with the greatest doubts, followed by a negative view of humanity.
Despite these doubts, overall “Children of Time” seemed to me a very good quality novel that offers many interesting ideas for reflection even when you don’t agree with the ideas set out by Adrian Tchaikovsky. If you’re not really arachnophobe I recommend reading it.