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Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Science Fiction as a genre has been seemingly railroaded as of late in the pop culture periphery into a very specific set of categories. Almost anything “new” that comes out is easily dismissed as unoriginal and derivative, commonly referred to as a rip-off of Star Wars or Star Trek. Outside of true Science Fiction literature fan circles, the average Joe you might meet on the street has no idea what kind of significance the likes of Dune, Ender’s Game, or The Martian might have on the wider genre’s landscape, unless of course there is a movie to go along with the book, of which there is for each of the previously mentioned novels. I myself find it rather difficult to pick up a random science fiction book without first hearing how it stands apart from the rest of the competition. With so much science fiction literature of varying levels of quality, being churned out into the wider market, I like to be sure that I have found something that has at least a possibility of tickling my fancy and captivating my imagination. If you are like me and would like a solid recommendation for your next science fiction obsession, look no further than Adrian Tchaikovsky’s evolutionary mind bender: Children of Time.

Set in a far future where earth society is greatly advancing and yet still stumbling over the same old issues of human error, this book takes a look at what it means to truly examine oneself and one’s species as a whole. The themes of Children of Time include: thoughts on the true nature of one’s origin, and one’s place amongst the stars; what it means to be alive and to seek meaning amongst the cosmos; what it is to be called a “god”, and how one comes into that role for a group of people; the limits of sentience and what can truly be called alive; and finally, what it means to look from one to the other and to recognize the exalted nature within, to identify the other as alike to oneself. I believe these themes are what elevates it to a masterpiece of narrative worldbuilding and evolutionary theory.

But wait, settle down there for just a moment! Before you careen down to your local library to borrow it on just content of theme alone, I feel I must warn you of a very significant catch in the books overall subject matter. While it is true that Tchaikovsky explores what it means to be alive and sentient, he doesn’t exactly stay focused on humanity alone. No, instead he chooses to split the focus between two groups, the first of which is indeed human, but the second may turn you off his work entirely. For where better to examine our species penchant for distaste and disgust with the unknowable other, than with our planet’s own populace of creepy crawlies. Yes, I do indeed mean just that. The primary focal point of this story? Spiders!

Doctor Avrana Kern is a geneticist who believes that mankind has become too foul and repugnant in its evil ways and wishes to start human life anew on a planet she has terraformed for just such a purpose. She and her team have engineered a nanovirus that will jumpstart a species’ evolution so that it will gain sentience in a fraction of the time it took for humanity to achieve that level. Her plan? Seed her new planet with monkeys and then introduce the nanovirus once their population has gained a steady foothold in their new environment. Then, across many long generations, she will sleep in cryostasis in a pod orbiting the planet, awaiting the day with great anticipation when her monkeys will have gained enough understanding to respond to her radio messages being beamed down to the surface. Only, something goes wrong. The vessel containing the monkeys burns up in the planet’s atmosphere, and they all die, unbeknownst to Kern. But the pod with the nanovirus makes it, and the virus is released into the wild, instead infecting another suitable host already down on the planet’s surface: a certain species of jumping spider.

And so begins a masterful narrative detailing the spiders’ rise to glory as a sentient species, beginning as simple lowly savages and going on to explore their evolving society with wars, plagues, and religion, all the way unto their eventual burst into a revolutionary spacefaring age. You might be wondering how Tchaikovsky maintains the attention of the reader with no singular consistent characters over the span of thousands of. He very ingeniously solves this dilemma by having each generation examined be viewed from a single spider’s perspective, keeping it consistent in the minds of the reader by always naming her Portia.

Meanwhile, as the spiders are evolving and growing in their understanding of the world around them, the last remnants of humanity embark upon a one-way trip to find a new home, after earth was ravaged by a cataclysmic war that rendered the planet inhospitable. Along the way, we follow Holsten Mason, a historian and linguist who works as the last anchor to the past his people have left to hold onto. As they journey through space, in and out of sleep, this final human society deals with many issues in stark contrast to the ones experienced by the spiders. Their similarities and differences are put on full display for the reader to digest what it means to be alive, as well as what it takes for mankind to finally come to accept the value in the unknowable other.

This masterwork of storytelling is one that stretched my imagination beyond my limits and opened up dozens of questions in my mind that begged to be answered, but unfortunately never will. And to be honest, that is all I ever asked of the science fiction genre. When I pick up an SF book, I am not looking for some grounded and realistic take on the tangible world. I am searching for something that makes me question reality as it is, even if I don’t actually walk away with some mind-blowing revelation. Although the evolutionary basis for the story’s premise does not fall in line with traditional Young Earth Creation Theory, it does do well to explore what it might be like were it a reality. In essence, that is all a story ever need be: a window into a separate world that makes you ask, “What if…?”

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