Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Book Review)

Going by his Shadows of the Apt novels, Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of my favourite SFF writers by far. Empire In Black and Gold and Dragonfly Falling are very enjoyable novels that focus on something very different for a fantasy series, sentient insect-human cross-breeds as a dominant species and their wars against each other. Having gotten that foothold into Adrian’s work, and getting back on the reading train a few months ago, I was excited to try a different track with his Children of Time novel, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award last year. Much acclaim has been showered on the author and novel alike, and now having read it for myself, I am very much inclined to agree. As with his Shadows of the Apt series, Children of Time tackles a very different sort of space opera that does indeed hearken back to some of Arthur C. Clarke’s best work and presents it as something truly wondrous and intriguing.

The premise of Children of Time is rather extraordinary. At the heights of its technological mastery, Mankind has begun to terraform planets to host new life with the aid of a specially-crafted nanovirus that can elevate animals to true sentience. The goal is simple, to create a species that Mankind can share the empty reaches of the Spiral Arm with. But, it all goes awry at the moment of the great triumph when the process is begun, and human civilization falls into chaos and ignorance, leaving these projects unfinished. And on the first test-planet, the target vector of the nanovirus is something entirely unexpected by its architects. Instead of the intended primates which burned up on atmospheric entry, it is the insect species which are elevated to sentience, the ants, beetles and spiders among others. Then, some two millennia later, Mankind once again reaches past the confines of Earth in massive ark-ships, having recovered from the catastrophe that almost destroyed it, it is only to safeguard the future of the species since Earth is a wasteland and there are no habitable planets nearby. So how will it all go down? Will the new Human species, mucking around in the glories of a lost age, be able to reclaim its place in the Spiral Arm, or will the insect species of this test-planet prove to be the dominants?

As I’ve said, Children of Time is a rather remarkable novel. I remember reading Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the opening chapter with the alien artifact that inspires an ancient Homo species to grow and learn and become a dominant force is one of my all-time favourites ever. It definitely left a lasting impression on me. That sort of magic is exactly what Adrian captures in this novel, and he does a damn good job of it too.

The novel is divided, essentially, into two stories. The first of these deals with the humans aboard the ark ship Gilgamesh that makes contact with Kern’s World some two millennia after the start of the novel when the Uplift project is almost nixed. Featuring classicist Holsten Mason, ship’s captain Vrie Guyen and chief engineer Isa Lain, this part of the story is about the decline of the human race and how the resurgent civilization is scrabbling for scraps among the cosmos, desperate to save itself and find a fabled Eden in the stars. The other story deals with the development of the spider species portia labiata, which is one of the many targets of Dr. Kern’s nanovirus. Adrian follows the development of this species in supreme detail, from their days as a middling insect species on the cusp of enhanced sentience and all the way to something greater. And I absolutely loved every moment of it.

The connecting bridges between these two story arcs are many and they make for one hell of a read in and of themselves. Children of Time is an epic about the nature of sentience and the extremes of a species’ drive for survival against monstrous odds. This holds true for both the crew aboard the Gilgamesh and for the spider civilization on Kern’s World. They are both faced with annihilation and a loss of everything they are and how they respond to that is what truly sets the novel apart from the more typical post-apocalyptic space opera novels. It is very much about exploring the unknown and discovering hidden strengths. And it is also about the worst of humanity, how far we can go to deny others a better life at their expense, just so we can come out with the advantage.

Most of all though, I really loved how deep Adrian went in terms of exploring the culture of the spider civilization on Kern’s World. And not just them but other different species that also call it home and have been touched by Dr. Kern’s nanovirus.That’s what really sold me on the novel. I was hooked from the get-go but as the chapters turned and Kern’s World developed more and more, I couldn’t help but me amazed by what Adrian was doing. This level of patient complexity is certainly not what I was expecting and it was a great surprise as a result. And the results of it in the end are very well-worth it.

And the novel is chock-full of classic space opera elements such as the ark-ship carrying the last members of humanity with all that implies, weird creatures straight from the horrors of space operatic futures, dangerously inhospitable worlds and more besides. That’s not to say that the characters aren’t developed well however, for they are and Adrian does present some wonderfully conflicting personalities across the board. I really liked the chapters from the perspectives of the portia labiata spiders, who have such a unique and intriguing perspective on the world around them, and their species development presents a challenge as well.

The novel’s pacing is also good. Despite two parallel story arcs unfolding, the story never suffers from awkward transitions and there’s definitely a sense of clear progression all the way through. Each character adds to the world around them, and the payoff in the final chapters, not to mention the big climax, is definitely worth all of it. The novel is a bit long, longer than what I’m used to at any rate, but it was also a spellbinding read. I just didn’t want to put it down and because I wanted to read more and more as the pages turned and the chapters progressed.

For anyone wanting to read a different sort of space opera with great technical details on a variety of aspects and a great positive outlook on the future of space exploration and our place within the universe, I definitely recommend Children of Time. It definitely deserves its Clarke Award as well, and I’ve rarely felt that way about an award winner. But on some level, Children of Time spoke to me fundamentally, and I just can’t get over that. Read it, enjoy it, have fun.

Rating: 9.5/10

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