Man’s folly has turned his home world into a toxic wasteland. The great spacefaring “Old Empire” is long dead. Thousands of years later, only a rump of humanity sets out in voyaging spaceships, searching for new worlds to inhabit. Only one ship, the Gilgamesh, is known to have survived. Its cargo of a few hundred thousand people are the only confirmed humans still alive. Finally, hope is on the horizon, as the Gilgamesh approaches a world known to the Old Empire. Unfortunately, there is a nasty surprise on this would-be Eden. It is a legacy the Old Empire left behind in their hubris to re-engineer life: huge sentient spiders. Which species will inherit this would-be new Earth? This is the story question behind Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s Children of Time.
Children of Time: Strengths and Weaknesses
Children of Time was not what I expected. I expected a story of a war between these two civilizations. Instead of focusing on the war from the start, though, Adrian Tchaikovsky builds slowly to the confrontation. For over 500 pages, we see the humans on board the Gilgamesh struggle while the spider civilization emerges out of the mists, moving from the stone age to the space age in thousands of years, as opposed to the millions it took humans and their immediate ancestors.
The evolution and structure of the spider society is the most interesting part of Children of Time. If you’re looking for feats of great heroism (on the human side, that is), you’ll probably be disappointed. The same goes if you’re seeking a story with incredibly deep characters and personal obstacles they need to overcome. Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us some tender moments, but his focus is on world-building and creating as much tension for the climax as possible. This build is something that it does excellently.
Adrian Tchaikovsky makes the reader is well-aware of the stakes by the final chapters. Everything seen before then, even though it might seem like “something that just happened” at the time, is revealed as fitting perfectly by the end of the story. Children of Time shows humanity struggling in exile and the spiders rapidly evolving, acquiring the skills and knowledge they would need to become a peer competitor.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is creative in this process. I’ll highlight a short example of it below:
Long ago in Portia’s evolutionary history, her species’ social development was greatly accelerated by a series of mutations in the reigning infection. The virus began to transcribe learned behavior into the genome of sperm and egg, transforming acquired memes into genetically inheritable behavior. The economic, force-evolved brains of Portia’s kind share more structural logic with each other than chance-derived human minds do. Mental pathways can be transcribed, reduced to genetic information, unpacked in the offspring and written as instructive understanding – sometimes concrete skills and muscle memory, but more often whole tranches of knowledge, ragged-edged with loss of context, that the new-born will slowly come to terms with throughout its early life.
The process was piecemeal at first, imperfect, sometimes fatal but more reliable with each generation as the more efficient strains of virus prospered. Portia has learned a great deal in her life, but more things she was either born with or came to her as she developed. Just as all new-hatched spiderlings can hunt and creep and jump and spin, so Portia’s early moultings brought with them an innate understanding of language and access to fragments of her forebears’ lives (pg. 67-8).
This passage is how Adrian Tchaikovsky shows the development of the spiders and what they use to dominate their world. These kinds of chapters continue throughout the book, preparing the spiders for the final confrontation.
Children of Time doesn’t particularly portray the humans in a heroic manner. They’re much more interested in sheer survival. With the spiders, however, it’s a different story. Ironically, even though they don’t talk and the point of view is more distant, they are portrayed in more gripping ways. Adrian Tchaikovsky may have done this deliberately.
The most “heroic” of spider is an engineer named Fabian, who escapes from his nest-city to another one, after demanding that male spiders be accorded the same rights and opportunities as female spiders. It was an immersive speculation of how notions of proper social organization might evolve in another sentient species.
Fabian doesn’t earn the liberation he wants for his sex just by asking for it, though. The nest he escapes to is less rigid, but still unwilling to accommodate his demands unless he defeats the Great Nest – the spider city he escaped from, in a conflict that it forced on the other spider cities. He doesn’t disappoint:
The path that the Great Nest column is likely to take has already been densely strewn with a complex maze of dead-falls, spring-traps, dens and fire-traps. No spider would be fooled by them, but ant senses are easier to deceive, especially as they have little ability to sense anything at a distance. The Great Nest force is screened by a large, dispersed cloud of scouts to find and trigger these traps, and it is on to these that Fabian sets his own troops.
The response is immediate, alarm scents drawing more and more of the invaders. Positioned upwind of the skirmish, Fabian releases scent after scent into the air. Each one contains a fresh scent of instructions, chemically encoded, allowing his small force to react swiftly, to change tactics and outmaneuver the enemy, whilst the Great Nest ants are simply following a basic battle architecture little changed from the insects’ ancient fighting instincts.
Within minutes Fabian’s forces have pulled out with minimal losses, and with prisoners, a handful of scouts cut off, immobilized, and carried away (pg 390-1).
You’ve probably heard about OODA loops and how highly informed, smaller units, can create chaos among numerically superior units if they have timelier access to the information they need to act more quickly than the enemy. It’s part of why cheap drones have proven so devastating in recent conflicts. The drones give you intelligence you can collect easily at low risk, and then you can move from there. This is a concept I anticipated years ago in The Red War. That work is still in progress, but one if its prequels, The Fall of the Fated Queen, is now being released in serial. The first two chapters (found here and here, respectively) are free.
Drones are one of our ways of doing this. In Children of Time, it is Fabian’s rapid-response ant-programming pheromones.
Through the above passage, you can see the picture Adrian Tchaikovsky paints of how another sentient species might use biochemical technology. In this case, it’s for war, but Children of Time shows us many other possible biochemical uses.
Science fiction necessarily requires imagination about how technology shapes the future. However, this can often make the genre a slog for readers. More time is spent on the science and less on the story and people. While people and characters are not the strongest suit here, the story is. Adrian Tchaikovsky ensures that in Children of Time, all of the technological development builds up to the climactic ending, which will surprise you in its intuitiveness. If you didn’t think that the story could end the way it did, you illustrate the problem with our species that the spiders found a way around!
I recommend Children of Time for fans of science fiction, zoology, or if you write stories and want a good example about how to build to a climax. This is what Adrian Tchaikovsky does best. Click here to get the book.
And once again, go here and here, respectively for the two free chapters in The Fall of the Fated Queen. It’s the first entry in my own sprawling science fiction series. I hope you’ll give me feedback for it!