Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: Children of Time

As a famous archologist almost said, "Spiders! Why did it have to be Spiders?!". Yes, I am mildly arachnophobic, and yes, I am mildly embarrased aboout it. After all, spiders are cool - they're diverse and biologically interesting, ecologically useful, mostly harmless to humans at least in the UK, and oh my god look at all those legs and eyes and argh, argh, get it away!!. Yes, I know it's not rational, but thats why it's called a phobia! Adrian Tchaikovsky however loves Spiders, so much so that he called his latest book, his first foray into full-length Science Fiction, Spiders are Better Than People.  Sorry, I mean Children of Time.

Cheap Frozen gag aside, there is some truth to the sentiment, partially out of narrative necessity, and partly, perhaps due to a frustration at humanitys pretty spotty track record at, well, pretty much everything. I'll come onto that in a minute, and of course  I don't want to spoil the plot too much, but what you need to know is pretty much this: In the future, we have just about reached our nearby star systems with a view to colonising them with a range of successor species, seeding barren worlds with new ecosystems and engineered creatures decended from Earth's mamalian population. Meanwhile, back in the Solar System, radical neo-luddites plot to destroy these projects and somehow pull back on all this transhumanist, ultra-tech nonesense. We never really see any of this debate, only it's distant echos, which result in one of these projects being sabotaged, and the target world instead left on the hands of an advanced Nano-virus with little raw material to work on. 

What it finds is insect life, and the first main pillar of the book follows a succession of point-of-view Spiders (named in the books Portia, after their progenitor species) as their species climbs first the evolutionary ladder, and the social/technological one, aided by viral re-engineering and a half-AI, half-human orbiting station. The second pillar follows a small cast of humans in a sub-light colony ship, the Gilgamesh, fleeing a human civilisation that built itself back up from cataclymic war only to discover the damage to Earth was terminal, and they needed to find a new home. The crew of the Gil hop in and out of cold storage as it travels the long centuries between stars, the last hope of a dying race. 

Its a great counterpoint in both tone and story, as one race ascends and the other clings on. Strucuturally, the novel breaks down into discrete sections that allow each pillar to tell contrasting stories, thematically if not directly linked, and the echoing spider characters (not the same individuals, of course) giving an engaging illusion of character continuity. The book works hard to make the spiders likable, understandable, and yet still pretty alien in their thought patterns, wheras it allows the crew of the Gilgamesh to be more....human, I guess. Its does lead to a slight imbalance, which I mentioned early, where with one aberant (and actually human influenced) exception, the Spiders are aspiring, rational, collectivist heroes, deserving of a world that, it seems, our spent and broken decendants would take from them. 

Humanity, of course, has destroyed itself, ruined by it's own hubris, hatred and competition. Humans aren't rational, or collectivist, and don't aspire to do anything other than cling onto existant with their dirt and blood flecked fingernails. Being human myself, I always retained sympathy for even the worst of them; they're playing a game for the highest stakes imaginable, with every decision carrying a weight that is unimaginable. As the book moves towards tradgedy the human story becomes desperately sad,and I wondered if fictional individuals were due to pay a price for the authors frustration with the state of today, another long and noble tradition in SF literature (and there is nothing wrong with that). 

Children of Time is an interesting blend of familar ideas given new life by their setting and story arcs. He's obviously a big fan of David Brin (there's a shout-out in the second line of the book!), for example, but the nano-virus as an agent for Uplift means that it's less predictable and controlled, giving the spiders a sense of agency in their own evolution. He does lean on the nano-virus a little hard in places, and it does skirt the edges of Deus Ex Machina, before staying safely outside. It's also challenging and different to have an sympathetic race that built on creatures that are usually put firmly in the "bad aliens" column. It manages, in the end, to be Uplifting in all senses of the word.